By David Ly Khim
At 22 years old, Benjamin (Ben) Yunho Lee is a recent graduate of the University of California, Irvine with a major in Anthropology and a minor in International Studies. Born in Korea and raised in Diamond Bar, California, he has become a well-known hip hop dancer throughout the California dance scene, participating in and judging many competitions known as “jams.” Ben recently gave a talk at TEDxUCI about battle mentality in street dance and applying that mentality to life. While honing his skills as a dancer, he recently completed the Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) program to obtain his Teaching English Abroad certificate, and has been applying for graduate school.
Over the next 5-10 years, Ben plans to have completed graduate school with a Ph.D in Cultural Anthropology and become a professor at a 4-year institution. With regards to his dance, he hopes to win a few major international jams such as Juste Debout, Keep On Dancing, and IBE.
“In the long run, if I just end up being a better person and a better dancer, I think I’ll be happy–as long as I’m not broke.”
Video: Ben speaking at TEDxUCI.
Ben started dancing during his sophomore year in high school with his friends JC and Nick. They started a crew, later to be known as Local Legends. “I didn’t know it, but I’ve always wanted to dance.” He recalls a 7th grade dance during which, while everyone around him was dancing, he stood around, disappointed that he didn’t know how to dance.
“When me and my homies started dancing, I knew that I wanted to do it. I knew that I just needed something to grasp onto and work really hard at.” Following his jump start in dance, Ben enrolled in jazz dance lessons and attempted to learn other styles of dance. “I wanted to be [good at] all styles, but most of all, I wanted to be free.”
Through dance, Ben learned about culture and society and developed an interest in anthropology. Anthropology and dance tie-in together for him because “through [street] dance, you see that they [the innovators of the dance] managed to preserve their own histories and their own cultural legacies.”
After speaking to a variety of dancers from around the world, Ben found a common belief: “Learn your history, learn your roots. [Essentially], all dance is anthropology.” He hopes to codify the history of hip hop dance so that “when the people who are the epitome of that culture die, at least we’ll have their knowledge that everybody can learn from.”
However, contrary to the persona that is often presented, Ben was not always a confident, scholastic dancer. He laughs as he recalls himself five years ago as a high school senior at Diamond Bar High School.
“I was kind of an asshole. Five years ago I hated everything about myself. I wanted to be a different person in a different place. I was an angry kid who thought I knew everything.”
Looking back, he has two pieces of advice for himself:
“The most difficult things in life are the things that you want the most.”
“It’s more important to love yourself than have everybody [else] love you.”
There will always be people who try to discourage you, but it’s up to you to decide whether or not their discouragement will stop you from doing amazing things. If you love and respect yourself, then you will realize that you can do anything, as long as you put your mind to it.
He credits his own personal development to his partner, Alyssa. “It wasn’t until I came to college when I found somebody who made me like myself.”
Alyssa is “driven and hardworking for the sake of bettering herself” which motivated Ben to do the same. “Without that push, I don’t think I would have been able to do the [TED] talks I did this year. Those talks would not have been the same. I think [the reason] that people got something from my talk was because I was speaking from myself.”
“I needed somebody who could really see me for what I was and tell me that it wasn’t so bad to be yourself,” Ben explains. “That maybe, eventually, it would be great to be yourself.”
Video: Ben battles Branlee at Schools for Fools at Loyola Marymount University.
As Ben’s character developed throughout college, he became involved with 2 dance teams and a part-time job in addition to his academics. At this point in his life, the stress he experienced on a daily basis was unprecedented and he was forced to develop methods to deal with it.
Speaking to people and learning about their problems helped Ben put his own situations in context and made him realize that his problems “weren’t all that bad.” Some of his friends had to work almost full-time jobs while attending school as full-time students in order to pay the bills. Some students even paid for their own college tuition. “I didn’t have to do that. That’s one more thing [for me] to be grateful about.”
“It’s really difficult to be stressed when you’re grateful for what you have.” When you stress, you look past all the things in your life that you could be grateful for. Instead, everything, even those blessings, can become “a source of anger and sadness and disappointment and guilt.” However, it’s also difficult to be grateful for the small things when you’re cranky from a lack of sleep.
Sleep, as Ben found out, is an important factor for managing stress. The amount of shut-eye he was getting would barely allow him to function the next day and resulted in him falling asleep in class or trying to sneak in a nap throughout the day. He wasn’t able to put his 100% into any of his involvements.
Ben’s sophomore year of college was the year that forced him to develop his stress management skills. In addition to his academics and working part-time at Jamba Juice, Ben was offered to be a coordinator for a new dance team, later to become Urban Motus. That same year, he auditioned for and made it onto the renowned dance team, Kaba Modern. Dance practices tend to start at 9pm and end at 9am. “I had a terrible year. Not terrible in that it was bad, it was just exhausting. I had all of these things just owning my time and I was so tired.”
He dropped out of Kaba Modern after 6 months because of a back injury. He struggled to finish off the school year with Urban Motus. “School was a mess. Work was a mess. I was missing shifts and was coming in late. When [dance] practice ends at 9am, you can’t come to work at 12:30pm and say that you can be fully functional.”
It was then that Ben realized he had to rest. The draining days of class, work, and dance practice (for two teams) lasting from 9pm to the wee hours of the night took a toll on his body and his mind. After dropping Kaba Modern and finishing the season with Urban Motus, Ben began to take things a bit more slowly.
He won a jam that spring.
Video: Ben in the finals with Francis at The Claim to Fame 3.
Stress and a lack of sleep not only exhaust you, they make you cranky. When you’re cranky, “you will shut yourself off to opportunities in life.” You may find that you’re too tired or too stressed to talk to people, to be open to suggestions, to be open to help. In some cases, you may end up shutting down an opportunity of a lifetime because you were too cranky to talk to someone. You must find a method of stress management that works for you so that you can minimize stress and maintain a positive state of mind.
Ben believes a positive state of mind is a balance of body and spirit. “Your mind can’t be at rest unless your body’s at rest. It’s like when you go to sleep and you have that little itch. You’re not gonna go to sleep until you scratch the itch. Your mind isn’t gonna be happy until your body’s happy.”
Ben confidently states,
“I think the thing that a lot of people lack nowadays is that they don’t have anything that sustains their soul.”
Many people aren’t doing something that “gives them more reason to be alive and more reason to be themselves and more reason to be better.” It may not be by choice–some people may not realize what else they are capable of doing.
“Everybody has special skills and, unless you use those [skills], well you’re literally wasting a gift.” However, many people mistake what a “gift” or “skill” is. Many think of these things as something someone is well-versed in, highly trained in, and knowledgeable about. Although your gift or skill may not be at the level that you think it should be at, “it’s not what the gift is, it’s what you do with the gift. It’s how much you use the gift. It’s how much you [decide to] master the gift that makes a difference in the long run.”
Ben maintains a positive state of mind by dancing “because it’s cathartic for me.” When Ben finds himself deep in an emotion, he plays a song that he thinks he would feel and he “dances it out.” Afterward, he finds that he doesn’t hold onto the emotion anymore. It may still be present, but he doesn’t let the emotion consume his life anymore.
Meditation also became an outlet for Ben during his tough college years. “The idea [of meditation] is not to fake yourself into a trance, it’s to achieve mindfulness of the thoughts you have in your mind [and of the world]. It is to realize that you are a fundamental part of what this stage of the universe is. It humbles me. It makes me grateful that I am here, where I am, and able to do what I love with people that I love.”
In Ben’s TEDxUCI talk, he spoke about his philosophy of battle mentality in dance and related it to his approach to life. He stated that you should “be yourself, prove yourself, and improve yourself.”
You must begin by giving yourself the ability to start as yourself and nobody else, then prove to others that what you are is truthful and genuine and honest. From that point, improve yourself and others will understand that your reason for bettering yourself is genuine. It is the idea of being the best that you can be and sharing what you are with the rest of the world.
“Without you being the best that you can be, the world isn’t the [best] place that it can be. Without you doing what you love and sharing what you love with the rest of the world, the world is a lesser place.”
“The people who love you will want you to share what you have with the rest of the world because, in the long run, it’s not about taking, it’s about sharing. When you share and create experiences, those experiences will live in the collective memory and people will appreciate you for it.”
“If you see a chance for you to do work that you would love to do, do it–not for the sake of anybody but yourself.”
Only you will love to do the work that much and put that much passion into it–for other people it’s just work.
LoCal Legendz Crew
DBHS All Male Dance Crew OG and Captain ’08-09
Mavyn Marvels OG
KASA Danceoff 2009
Project Groovement OG
Urban Motus Co-Founder
Dance Over Styles
Photo sources: Narith Ta