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Breakers Grapple With Hip-Hop’s Big Olympic Moment

The thumping music died to a whisper upon Alien Ness’s request. As the veteran breaker — never “break dancer” — stalked and snaked around the room, his many rings caught the spotlight that illuminated the dance floor.

Ness coached a few dozen amateurs — men, women, Black, white, Asian — during his footwork class before Red Bull BC One’s USA National Final, one of America’s biggest breaking competitions, held in August at the Fillmore Philadelphia.

“They say dance is a vocabulary,” Alien Ness said, exhorting the dancers to contort and pretzel their bodies to spell their names. He added, “If it feels like the letter, if it moves like the letter, then it is the letter.”

Alien Ness, a pioneering B-boy born Luis Martinez, joined the Mighty Zulu Kingz in the early 1980s when breaking, along with lyricism, turntablism and graffiti, were among the distinct elements that coalesced to form hip-hop.

In the decades since, breaking has mostly faded from hip-hop’s forefront in the United States, while achieving a modest popularity in countries including Japan, Australia and France thanks to demonstrations from originating dance crews and the popularity of TV dance competition shows. It has largely been left out of the giant block party commemorating hip-hop’s 50th anniversary. Domestically, regional scenes and pockets still flourish, but the biggest convergence points are the corporate-sponsored competitions, like the one Alien Ness patrolled.

Now breaking, born in New York City, is preparing for its biggest international spotlight yet when it bows as an Olympic sport at the Paris Games in 2024. “It changes everything,” Alien Ness said. “Now it’s an Olympic gold medal. Now it’s a box of Wheaties. Now it’s your own Nike shoe. It’s everything that comes with that.”

The new platform has left pioneers and younger breakers to grapple with issues of authenticity that some of hip-hop’s other tenets have already confronted.

If D.J.s founded hip-hop, B-boys and B-girls offered it pulsating vibrancy and staying power during a period of economic and social unrest in the Bronx. They eagerly anticipated a snippet from James Brown or an Incredible Bongo Band break at block parties and jams presided over by foundational D.J.s like Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash.

Circles formed. Dancers hit the ground performing dizzying, athletic, explosive moves that were also influenced by the martial arts talents of Bruce Lee. “We were walking around with bald spots on our heads when we were kids,” said Chino Lopez, who took the name Action. “That’s how you knew a kid was awesome in head spins.”

Early groups like Rock Steady Crew, Dynamic Rockers, Zulu Kingz and New York City Breakers exported breaking globally, appearing in movies like “Flashdance” and “Beat Street.” They performed before presidents and royalty. New York City Breakers participated in a 1984 NBC television special, “The Stars Salute the U.S. Olympic Team,” where Lopez even challenged the gymnastics team.

By the 1990s, breaking was surging in popularity abroad. In America, its reach became increasingly regional throughout the decade, leading to Red Bull’s sponsorship of the first Lords of the Floor competition in 2001, and global competitions.

A cash prize of $4,000 attracted top talent. Red Bull sponsored the event again the next year before it evolved into its popular BC One competition, an annual international breaking showdown.

The lure of cash and elite competition drew top breakers, but to many the style practiced at organized competitions, and soon at the Olympics, is distinct from breaking as an art.

“I don’t think it’s an accurate representation of what breaking is,” said Odylle Beder, a B-girl from Brooklyn known as Mantis. “Breaking is a lot more organic, and the way that we do it in the Olympics is, like, ‘Do a round. Stop, look at what your score is. Now do another round.’

“It doesn’t feel real because when someone goes into the circle and they finish your round, you want to go right after to respond,” she said.

The World DanceSport Federation, recognized by the International Olympic Committee during the organization’s efforts to introduce ballroom dancing to the Olympics, is breaking’s governing body. “They really have no clue what we’re doing,” said the longtime breaker Gabriel “Kwikstep” Dionisio. In 2017, more than 2,000 people signed an online petition titled “Get the W.D.S.F.’s Hands Off Hip-Hop.”

Where early B-boys and B-Girls spun windmills and threw out freezes to the funk and soul breaks used by pioneering D.J.s, the large competitions are bound by copyright laws and use nondescript music designed for breaking.

“The music is what drove us,” said Chino Lopez. “These kids just took what we did, and they’re just copying it. And it evolved. Don’t get me wrong. They’re doing crazy stuff now compared to what we were doing, but I see that they’re not living through the music, and that’s very, very important.”

When breaking was included at the 2018 Summer Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires, more than 50,000 people attended events that garnered more than 2.5 million social media views, according to the I.O.C.

Kit McConnell, the I.O.C.’s sports director, cited breaking’s diverse global communities as a major factor in the decision to add it as an Olympic sport. Breaking, like the music that inspired it, had been successfully exported beyond the poor Black and Hispanic communities that birthed it.

“Breaking is the lost leader of hip-hop culture,” said Michael Holman, the founder of the New York City Breakers and a conduit in bridging the Bronx and uptown’s nascent hip-hop scene to downtown Manhattan. “Breaking was the thing that brought in people who had no idea about hip-hop culture, and very little understanding of even urban culture.”

Holman, who submitted a proclamation for breaking’s Olympic inclusion 40 years ago, says it is a natural evolution of its competitive origins.

Of course, hip-hop is no monolith and there is no consensus about its corporate embrace. Some breakers are concerned that the Olympics will strip the soul from the struggle that breaking sprung from and contend that breaking is an art form, not a sport.

Others argue that hip-hop is already overly commodified, commercialized and disfigured, its authenticity distilled in fragmented pockets.

And New York, breaking’s birthplace, is left to ponder its place as it preps for its largest audience. “There’s not many moves that you could say that did not come out of New York City,” said Tony Lopez, who went by Powerful Pexster as a member of the Breakers.

“You can be a kid from the suburbs and just see breaking and go to a dance studio and learn it or go to YouTube,” said Oren Michaeli, a longtime breaker known as Flea Rock. “The soul of it, the pain in the dance, the struggle, the funk, you don’t see it too much in these breakers now.”

“It’s dying here,” said Chino Lopez, who’s also a founding member of the New York City Breakers. “These New York kids have no clue. They can’t compete. As far as us having a United States team to go against Japan, Korea, France, we don’t stand a chance. And it’s a shame because we’re the ones that started this.”

New York City’s best hope of reaching the Olympic breaking stage resides with Sunny Choi, a 34-year-old whose path in breaking reflects the dance form’s expansion beyond the Bronx.

Choi, the only Team USA breaker who currently calls breaking’s birthplace home, was born in Tennessee, the daughter of first-generation Korean Americans who raised her in Kentucky. She had just started the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, reluctantly accepting that a torn knee ligament had ended her lifelong gymnastics pursuit, when a friend invited her to a breaking class. The breakers, Choi found, moved freely and powerfully, outside the rigidity of gymnastics.

She began frequenting the Rotunda, a West Philadelphia church-turned-cultural center where hip-hop showcases taught Choi the art form and its history.

“Breaking allowed me to explore parts of me that I couldn’t do in my everyday life,” Choi said, adding: “I never really had a core group in my life either. So it’s also helped me to appreciate what it’s like to be in a community.”

Still, Choi pursued straight jobs when she moved to New York after graduation, eventually nabbing a lucrative corporate role as Estée Lauder’s director of global creative operations. She said other breakers of her generation had been similarly dissuaded from pursuing dance full time. “The fact is that you can’t make a living off of breaking really in New York,” she said. “So a lot of people just had to move on. People got families.”

It wasn’t until Choi won silver at the 2022 World Games in Birmingham, Ala., that she went all in on breaking, quitting her job to focus on the Paris Games, where 16 B-boys and 16 B-girls will compete in head-to-head competitions. The matchups will be assessed by five judges using six metrics: creativity, personality, technique, variety, performativity and musicality.

Choi is known for breaking with a sly smile. In battles, she usually hopes to hit a planned combination move or two. The majority of her performances are freestyled.

“So many people are choreographing, and it’s all about who can do the most difficult move stronger, higher, faster than everybody else,” she said. “That was always part of breaking, but breaking was also about just self-expression and getting out there and having fun and freestyle was such a big part of it for so many people.”

Today, the heartbeat of New York City’s breaking pulsates within Dionisio and Ana “Rokafella” Garcia.

Dionisio was a foster child in New York in the 1980s. He timidly ventured into potentially treacherous neighborhoods as hip-hop spread throughout the city.

Along the way, he met Garcia, who grew up in Spanish Harlem and danced with crews including the Transformers and the Breeze Team.

Now married, the couple formed Full Circle Productions in 1992, running a dance crew through the company and developing educational programming on breaking’s cultural roots. They say they have instructed thousands throughout the years and currently teach invitation-only classes at the Bronx’s Sonia Sotomayor Community Center.

“The attraction of breaking is that it’s your own identity,” Dionisio said. He continued: “When you go to the Olympics, it’s a corporate atmosphere. You become their identity. You’re pushing the Olympics. You’re not pushing hip-hop culture — and hip-hop happens every day.”

Garcia said breaking’s Olympic introduction carried the nervousness and excitement of a drunk uncle’s appearance at a family dinner.

It could go great. Breaking, as she knows it, could be applauded on a global stage. It could also be misrepresented. If a bastardized version of breaking is what draws the plaudits, will it still be a victory for hip-hop?

Alien Ness said he’ll celebrate no matter who wins.

“The first B-boy crew comes out of Bronx River,” he said. “I still live there. I look out my window and I see the playground. I’m like, ‘We going to the Olympics, but this started right here in my backyard.’”

Audio produced by Sarah Diamond.

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