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TAIPEI (Reuters Life!) - George Wu, 15, a typically shy, soft-spoken Taipei high school student, goes underground in more ways than one to follow his passion.
But Wu and his friends from school have found over the past couple of years that their shadowy habit of street dancing, basically mass break dancing sometimes with local music, has been taken from subterranean malls upstairs into the limelight.
The Taipei Metro, where dancers such as Wu collect in the margins of stations with battery-operated boom boxes, is holding a four-phase contest this month and next. It has drawn 300 teams of two to eight people, about twice last year's attendance.
"It was underground to start, but it's normal now," said Wu, who has practiced for a year in a cavernous subway station mall. "It's getting to be something for all of us."
Street dancing stayed underground from its start in 2002 until 2006, when the local film "Chocolate Rap" sought to strip away public scorn.
This July, National Geographic debuted the one-hour, government-backed documentary "Hip Hop Nation" covering the same dance style. The government plans in October to release its own street dance documentary for foreign audiences.
"Is it mainstream? No, but it's pop culture that used to be underground," said Miguel Huang, secretary for the Government Information Office's audio-visual materials section. "Taiwan's market gives the underground a lot of chances."
School clubs and Taiwan websites are also pushing the dance.
Taiwan takes basic cues from American-style break dancing, local entertainment experts say, but sometimes replaces hip-hop with local music sung in narrative style and a local dialect.
"Street dancing is pop culture and a symbol of Taiwan's local culture, because street dances use not only Western music but also Taiwan music, with lyrics in Taiwanese," said Mindy Lee, National Geographic marketing director in Taipei.
Taiwan dancers are usually shy high school students who practice together to fight fears of mistakes.
Wu practiced this week with about 20 other teenagers in black T-shirts, rolled-up sweat pants and sun hats despite the dim venue. They danced in unison with dramatic arm and leg thrusts.
"I'm just interested in it," said quiet, nervous 16-year-old dancer Hu Min-hsiang, who learned about dancing from a friend and practices every day on school vacations. "The more I do it, the more interested I am."
Editing by Sugita Katyal