New York City Ballet apprentice KJ Takahashi moves with elegance and precision. The ease, poise and speed with which he eats up space would make George Balanchine himself proud, though Mr. B might be surprised by the exact steps you can often find Takahashi performing.
Before Takahashi ever danced roles like Candy Cane and Tea in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker or a featured part in the world premiere of Lauren Lovette's The Shaded Line, he was an 8-year-old in Dallas obsessed with watching hip-hop dance crews on YouTube. He was especially drawn to animation, a subgenre that imitates the look of computer-generated movement by juxtaposing smooth intricacy with sharp, staccato motions. "I used to imitate Michael Jackson," Takahashi remembers. "Around age 10, my dad noticed I had a gift for it and helped me stream and post videos."
Soon, Takahashi was training seriously in hip hop at Ballet Academy of Texas, while garnering more attention online for re-creating the moves of famous animators like Marquese Scott. He committed to posting a freestyle video once a week—which he still does, at 18—and started getting featured in local news outlets. A couple of years after Takahashi started hip hop, a Ballet Academy of Texas instructor suggested adding ballet technique. But Takahashi never saw ballet as more than a hobby.
That all changed in the summer of 2015, when his family moved to New York City. Takahashi took classes at Ballet Tech before landing at the School of American Ballet. Early in his time at SAB, he was cast in the Mandolin Dance in NYCB's production of Romeo + Juliet. "That was my very first time dancing on the David H. Koch stage, and it was so much fun," he recalls. "I watched the company members afterwards and thought, I really want to be out there with them."
KJ Takahashi dancing Candy Cane in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker with NYCB
Erin Baiano, Courtesy NYCB
Takahashi decided to focus wholeheartedly on pursuing a ballet career, and last year his dreams came true: He graduated from SAB, and joined NYCB as an apprentice. But his hip-hop side hustle has never slowed down. In 2016, he was invited by the prestigious hip-hop organization World of Dance to be a special guest at its Hawaii competition. There, Takahashi's dancing was so well received that he was asked to perform at World of Dance Dallas the very next year. He's signed to Xcel Talent Agency, and his YouTube channel boasts over 380,000 subscribers.
How has Takahashi been able to maintain his interest in hip hop as he strives to earn a place in NYCB's corps de ballet? His working theory is that the two styles actually complement, rather than contradict, each other. "Hip hop has really helped my career because it's not only ballet in our rep now," he says. "There's a lot of contemporary rep, which is similar to the wavy movements and the smooth, more controlled movements that I do." Ballet is essential cross-training for hip hop, he adds: "It really helped maintain my core for the toe spins I do, and generally improves leg strength and movement quality."
KJ Takahashi in one of his hip-hop videos
While the ballet world has been nothing but supportive of his "secret dance identity," Takahashi wishes his path to NYCB were less surprising. "I want every ballet dancer to absorb as many styles of dance as possible while they're young," he says. "The more dance vocabulary you have, the more you'll benefit career-wise in the end."