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Breaking into the Olympics


* A large part of the Indian audience is still puzzled: breakdancing — isn’t that what Prabhu Deva did? How is it a sport?

* It’s very sport-like… it’s so athletic; it takes a high level of fitness and discipline — quite similar to the training of an athlete

* The 2024 Olympics will use the Trivium judging system, which will consider technique, variety, performativity, musicality, creativity, and personality on a continuous scale. Unlike gymnastics and figure skating, participants do not receive points for specific moves; a technically sound breaker may lose out in areas of creativity or personality

***

The internet is buzzing with the news that breaking, or breakdancing as some know it, is now an Olympic sport. On December 7, as a part of its commitment to gender equality and youth-focused events that are inclusive, engaging and can be practised outside conventional arenas, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced the addition of four urban sports to the 2024 Olympics in Paris: skateboarding, sport climbing, surfing, and breaking. Hip-hop enthusiasts are beside themselves with excitement, but a large part of the Indian audience is still puzzled: breakdancing — isn’t that what Prabhu Deva did? How is it a sport?

Breaking, also known as b-boying or b-girling, is one of the four elements of hip-hop, which also includes graffiti, MCing (or rapping) and DJing. Hip-hop, however, is not limited to these forms — today it encapsulates a range of music and dance styles such as waacking and urban dance. What unites these expressions of artistry is a culture of struggle. Breaking involves footwork (“top rock”) and floorwork (which includes “freezes”, in which a dancer stops at precarious moments, perhaps balancing on just an arm or an elbow, and “power moves”, which display dynamic and often acrobatic feats), but also a range of quirky, individualistic looks and gestures.

Although the sheer spectacle and style of hip-hop make it easily amenable to commercial use (think big-budget films and ads), the “OG” (original gangster) hip-hopper was a societal other, a black or Hispanic youth in New York, spray-painting street corners and waging battle not with kicks and punches, but with head spins and freezes. If graffiti is about establishing fame through colour and imagery, breaking, according to American dance scholar Sally Banes, is a way of “claiming the streets with physical presence.” Indeed, breakers are an explosion of life in public space. The earliest battles, which erupted in the South Bronx, New York City, in the late 1970s and early ’80s, remain largely undocumented, and, Banes writes in her essay titled Breaking in That’s the Joint! The Hip-Hop Studies Reader, published by Routeledge in 2004, “[live] on only in memories and [have] taken on mythological form.”

Subsequent media attention brought breaking to the fore. Soon, breakers (along with other kinds of hip-hoppers) were featuring in commercials, news shows, documentaries and Hollywood movies. Breaking had already arrived in Canada, Europe and Japan, and by the mid-’80s, Indian cinema had its own version of the hip-hop dance video, with a boogie-ing, flaring, back-spinning Govinda starring in the 1986 film Ilzaam with the hit number I am a street dancer. If hip-hop had appeared on the big screen, it was because it already thrived in the gullies and street corners of urban India.

Bengaluru — a long-time cultural hub — was among the first Indian cities to be receptive to the art form. Although hip-hop dancers were around even in the early 2000s, a culture of breaking only began to emerge after 2008. Bengaluru’s breakers have a relationship with the dance that stretches beyond freezes, power moves, and championship titles. It ties in to the very idea of community. Audiences don’t sit back — they participate; competitors don’t begin with a handshake — they make gestures at each other, playing, teasing, challenging. Hip-hop creates a space for humour, style, irreverence, and the opportunity to trouble status quo through the use of living, breathing artistic choices, as it has done for decades in the fight against white supremacy in the West. In India, while hip-hop artists such as Sumeet Samos and MC Kash rap about caste and state violence, many breakers allow home grown cultural motifs to inform their style, particularly when taunting an opponent in a battle — for instance, some throw in flashes of Bollywood, yoga, or Bharatanatyam.

And, yet, how on Earth can this be called a sport?

Spiralling beyond boundaries

“It’s hard for people to understand how this is an art, or how it’s a sport — but it can be many things,” says Johanna Rodrigues, aka B-girl Jo, who speaks to BLink on Zoom between the online classes she conducts, in the wake of the pandemic, from her Bengaluru home. “It’s very sport-like… it’s so athletic; it takes a high level of fitness and discipline — quite similar to the training of an athlete.” Rodrigues is also a certified yoga practitioner, and like most other breakers, works to balance out practice, strength and mobility training, food, and rest. She grew up in Bengaluru and saw breaking for the first time in 2013, when she was in Std XII, at Freeze, a much-awaited hip-hop jam hosted in the city every year. She was immediately drawn to it. Ever since, she has continued practising on her own and with one of Bengaluru’s most prominent breaking crews — Black Ice.

Likith Achaiah (B-boy Achaiah), who has been breaking for over 12 years, echoes Rodrigues. “Breaking is one of the most physically challenging dance forms in the world — it’s not something you see and get right on the first try. Just like any sport, it takes a lot of practice, dedication, and focus,” he says. Along with Naser Al Azzeh (B-boy Nas), Achaiah co-founded Black Ice in 2008, at a time when there were no tutorial videos or breaking instructors in the city. In fact, Al Azzeh says, they weren’t even aware that India already had some breakers. The two would rent studio spaces and practise off YouTube videos; eventually they learnt that copying moves (or “biting”) was frowned upon in the breaking world, but with few other training opportunities, they went about imitating until they learnt to develop an original style within the framework they had picked up.

College competitions served as spaces to showcase their newfound skills, but the crew needed a dedicated space for breaking. The fest stage, as most Indian college dancers will know, is a space for well-rehearsed choreography. Breaking, however, is inherently an act that unfolds in the spur of the moment — you don’t show up to display a pre-perfected routine. A breaker responds to the immediacy of the now: the DJ’s syncopated beats (which the dancers do not choose), the atmosphere of the cipher (a kind of circular arrangement of whooping, cheering, bouncing viewers who watch the battle), and the particular moves of an opponent. The battle is spontaneous, and breakers are judged not just for technical mastery, but also for wit, inventiveness and authenticity; a winner might seal the deal with a wink or a gesture — and such nuance can be lost on the uninitiated. Battle judges, therefore, require a precise understanding of the form’s inner workings. The 2024 Olympics will use the Trivium judging system, which will consider technique, variety, performativity, musicality, creativity, and personality on a continuous scale. Unlike gymnastics and figure skating, participants do not receive points for specific moves; a technically sound breaker may lose out in areas of creativity or personality.

Finding their footing

Back in their fledgling days, Achaiah and Al Azzeh saw few platforms for breaking. They began jamming at clubs on Church Street and holding showcases at college fests. Gradually, they created a space for themselves: Freeze the Jam, a competition for breakers. Over time, Freeze grew, and Black Ice had built a name in the world of hip-hop. Pre-pandemic, Achaiah says, “… we had so many events — at colleges and private dance studios, with big promoters like Breezer and Red Bull, and some of these were at the national and even the international scale.” Like Blame It on the Boogie, a jam based in Mumbai, Freeze has grown into a platform for breakers and hip-hop dancers of other styles to gain recognition and connect with the community at large. Meanwhile, Red Bull BC One, an annual international breaking championship, gives Indian breakers an entry into the world stage.

“Sponsorship is still a huge problem,” Al Azzeh says, “because most people still don’t understand what this is.” For many years, Freeze received the support of Bengaluru’s Goethe Institut, which even brought down German hip-hop legend Storm to judge and mentor the event. Continuous funding, however, is still hard to come by, and competitions require participants to pay a registration fee in the range of ₹500–1,000 per battle category. Malls and public spaces help the event gain visibility. “It’s fun to see a grandma in the crowd moving her hands up and down,” he says. “It’s amazing when the vibe from within the jam spreads to everyone who’s watching.”

For Achaiah, too, breaking is culture and art. “It all began in the Bronx, in New York, with the oppressed black and Latino communities coming together to create something positive,” he says. “But I see how it can be a sport” — it is innately competitive and requires a high level of skill — “and it’s amazing that it’s going to be a part of the Olympics.” While many enter the world of breaking for the thrill, few can remain unmoved by its raw expression and quest for authenticity. The SlumGods, an underground crew of breakers in Dharavi, Mumbai, are testament to this particularly transformative quality of hip-hop. Founded by Akash Dhangar, aka B-boy Akku, in 2009, they reject the appropriation of commercial cinema, instead funding themselves through their own enterprise, SlumGods Tours and Travels. They engage in hip-hop not to imitate, but to seek free expression and keep the art — and their journey — alive.

“It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from,” Rodrigues says. “I battle to test myself. You can’t really predict what your opponent’s going to do.” Her spirit mirrors the essence of competition itself: You win some, you lose some, but you come out with a little more awareness of yourself. For a large section of the breaking community, the Olympics is a chance for recognition as a form and not an assortment of “stunts”; it also opens up avenues for instructors. For the world at large, it could be an opportunity to learn a new skill or appreciate a new kind of art. Both Al Azzeh and Achaiah agree that now children learning to spin on their heads can tell their baffled parents —“I’m training for the Olympics!”

“Every dance style deserves for its story to be known,” says Srilakshmi Muralidharan, a dancer and choreographer based in Ahmedabad who represents Paranoid Dance Crew and Kundu House Project. She sees breaking’s entry into the Olympics as a way forward for hip-hop as a whole. “As artistes, our responsibility is to spread art among the community and find purpose through movement,” she adds.

But what happens to the soul of a community-centric practice that becomes a globalised, commercial phenomenon? The breakers are optimistic. “You might win the Olympics and still come back home to a completely different battle or jam,” Al Azzeh says. “It will always remain an art form that we can relate to.”

Anishaa Tavag is an independent dancer and editor based in Bengaluru



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