Imagine the best sporting contest you can think of: Virat Kohli vs James Anderson? Lionel Messi vs Cristiano Ronaldo? Roger Federer vs Rafael Nadal? What binds these contests together are skill, competition, improvisation, battle of the mind, and emotional expression — among key ingredients which make the sport a visually enthralling viewing experience. Now imagine if these athletes turned up in baggy pants and spun on their heads. Breaking, the dance sport which is now part of the mainstream, has the above-mentioned elements, and it’s simply just cool.
It’s hard to envisage that breaking which was once seen only as an underground dance movement, is now part of the popular sport and will be making its Summer Olympics debut in Paris 2024. B-Boy Mounir, a pioneer in breaking, stresses to the up-and-coming breakers, at the Red Bull BC One Camp workshop in Mumbai, that they are now ‘athletes’.
Breakdancing as a dance form originated in the New York Bronx in the early 1970s and is widely believed to have been started by the Latin American and Black American youths. It started gaining popularity in the ’80s through pop culture when the late Michael Jackson adopted breaking and hit the moonwalk in 1983. Breaking is largely popular among the younger generation and has gained recognition worldwide over the years.
“It’s an art form. It’s a culture,” explains Mounir. “It comes from the hunger of the youth, who felt totally alone and desperate and found this tool to express themselves. Breaking is the dance form of the hip-hop culture.”
A breaking battle typically involves breakers dancing to music set by the DJ and they go back and forth in what is called a ‘throw down’ for two-to-three rounds. “Since battles started to grow 20-25 years ago, it [breaking] started to be seen as a competitive art-form. I think the sports side and the cultural side are not something you can separate. The competition has always been a part of breaking,” says Mounir.
Breaking’s main moves are top rock [dance part], go down [moving down to the floor], footwork [moves on the floor using their legs], freezes [holding shape] and power moves [dynamic athletic moves]. “There is no choreography, we adapt all the time,” says Mounir. “The dancer doesn’t know the music the DJ will play. We have to adapt to the music, the size, and the quality of the floor, and play to the energy of the crowd. We are mixing all those elements and master the movements and the body.”
“You can add anything to breaking and make it look like breaking. It’s free,” says B-Boy Flying Machine, the country’s top male breaker. He considers breaking ‘the most difficult dance form.’
In India, breaking began to take roots in the second half of the 2000s. What started with just a handful of breakers in different metro cities is now seeing a revolution within the community among both men and women. Mounir adds, “Breaking is growing fast in India. There is huge potential. I have seen Indian breakers in dance competitions before, and a couple of the athletes are already among the top dancers in the world.”
The Red Bull BC Cypher in Mumbai was the setting for an intense and highly-anticipated breaking duel among the best breakers in the country. Breakers from all over turned up in numbers to take their shot. On the final day, 16 B-boys and eight B-girls battled for the title in fast-paced knockout match-ups.
The judging process in a breaking competition or battle is subjective. “We [judges] have a lot of knowledge on breaking but it’s subjective. But we have some standard criteria: personality, performance, creativity, and musicality. But a battle is a dialogue between two people. So depending on how they create that dialogue and how they respond to each other, we will be able to judge which athlete was better. We look at who was better in terms of performance, creativity, originality, and the war vocabulary of breaking. It’s a tough and long competition and the dancers will have to show a lot of vocabulary and skills to win the competition,” says Mounir.
In the boy’s knockouts, B-boy Antique (Ankit Kushwah), as part of his dialogue, gestures to his opponents to ‘go home’ and waltzes his way to the final until he came up against three-time champion B-boy Flying Machine (Arif Chaudhary). Arif snaps back by pointing to the dancefloor, to denote: ‘this is my home’. The retort sparks cheers from the audience in the arena. Arif took home the crown for the fourth time in five appearances and punched his ticket to the last chance Cypher – a qualifier for the finals — in New York later this year. B-Girl Bar-B (Siddhi Tambe) took home the girl’s title.
On the first day of the Red Bull Camp, Mounir was urging the dancers to use breaking as a ‘tool’ to hone their passion for something beyond the dance floor. Arif, who has had several avenues open up through the sport, feels the wheels provided for a life-altering experience drive many to take breaking more seriously.
Arif’s talents have taken him across continents. “People weren’t aware back then. It wasn’t commercialised as it is now, it [the scene] was too underground. Now brands are looking at supporting the movement. It was difficult to imagine back then the scale at which it has grown now,” he says.
Mounir is proud to help take breaking to the Olympics and hopes it will open the sport to a newer audience. “I am proud of working with Paris 2024 to bring breaking to the Olympics. This is when breaking will reach its full potential and the youth will relate to it. It’s something which won’t cost anything, and it’s affordable. Olympics 2024 is a huge step forward but only shows that breaking culture is growing and it’s only the beginning,” he says.
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