It is a pastime we usually associate with New York in the 1980s, Run DMC and that guy from accounts doing the worm after a few drinks at the work Christmas party.
But breakdancing is now not only a famous hip-hop dance style, it is a sport. And not just any sport, it’s an Olympic sport – following a bold decision by the International Olympic Committee to have BBoys and BGirls compete at the 2024 Paris Games.
How did a sub-culture dance style born on the streets make it all the way to the Five Ring circus? What are the attributes of the athletes involved? And, when it comes to deciding a gold medal, will it be a good old-fashioned dance-off?
Above: An excerpt from the hit track It’s Like That by Run DMC, c. 1983.
What is breakdancing?
A small point of order to start – the correct term is “breaking” and, after an International Olympic Committee (IOC) vote on December 7, there will be Olympic gold medals in 2024 won by the world’s best breaking dancers, or as they’re known, BBoys (break boys) and BGirls (break girls).
Stay with us.
Breaking is comfortably the most unusual sport ever added to the Olympic Games program, given it has always been considered more edgy artistic expression than sport.
The dance style was a child of the hip-hop subculture that emerged on the streets of the Bronx, in New York, in the early 1970s. DJs created a new music style where they would loop (repeat) the “breaks” in popular disco and funk tracks, having figured out the most popular sections for dancers were the musical breaks between the verses. Rappers would voice rhymes over the new tracks.
The drum-based music is perfect for breaking dance routines, which can combine fancy “toprock” footwork, leg and back spins, flares (legs swinging in a V formation around the body), freezes (suddenly becoming motionless in a balance position), power move handstands and acrobatic flips.
Breaking became massive in the US and around the world in the 1980s and leading groups such as the Rock Steady Crew performed for presidents and even the Queen. Breaking fell out of wider popular culture but has remained a foundational pillar of the massive hip-hop culture, alongside DJing and rapping.
So how is it now an Olympic sport?
Over the past decade, the IOC began worrying the Olympics were being seen as boring, stuffy and irrelevant, particularly to young people. They began looking to modernise the Games and to make them more “urban”, trading old-fashioned sporting events for things youngsters actually do in their spare time.
“We want to take sport to the youth,” IOC boss Thomas Bach said in 2015.
“With the many options that young people have, we cannot expect any more that they will come automatically to us. We have to go to them.”
A reality TV rap program in China in 2017 saw the DJing, rapping and breaking scene explode in popularity.
In 2016, the IOC announced an unprecedented shake-up, adding surfing, rock climbing, skateboarding and three-on-three basketball to the 2020 Olympics schedule in Tokyo. They also gave the Olympic host the ability to choose a sport they thought would work in their Games.
Tokyo 2020 organisers chose baseball and softball and, after considering parkour (fast-paced running, jumping and climbing over buildings and city structures), Paris 2024 chose … breaking. It will be staged on the famous square the Place de la Concorde, off the the Avenue des Champs-Élysées.
France is reportedly the second biggest hip-hop market in the world, and in a pointer to why the IOC greenlit the addition of breaking, hip-hop is also growing at a rapid rate is China.
A reality TV rap program in China in 2017 saw the DJing, rapping and breaking scene explode in popularity and a recent estimate counted the “street dance” community at more than 10 million.
Above: High-school student Ramu Kawai, a medal hope for Japan in 2024.
How will breaking work at the Olympics? Good old-fashioned dance fights?
Precisely. The format for the 2024 Olympics hasn’t been revealed yet but it is almost certain to be based on dance battles.
That’s how it worked when breaking was a trial event at the 2018 Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires, where Japan’s Ramu Kawai (see video above) claimed gold in the girls’ event and Russian Sergei “Bumblebee” Chernyshev (see video below) won the boys’.
Competitors performed in “showcase” rounds before the best 32 went to battle rounds. After a series of six turns each on the stage – over a battle lasting five to six minutes – a panel of judges assessed the combatants’ performance and chose winners. Finally a knockout semi-finals stage, and a gold medal battle, was held.
Critics argue free-spirit breakdancers can’t be judged against each other but Bobbito Garcia, one of original members of the Rock Steady Crew, said that couldn’t be further from the truth. Hip-hop has always been competitive.
“Think about it like boxing,” Garcia told theundefeated.com. “You’re stepping into a ring. You’re about to battle another warrior. The mental fortitude required, coupled with the athleticism — hell, yeah, breaking is a sport!”
How is breaking scored?
Like other dance sports – think, Strictly Ballroom – breaking is judged subjectively by a panel. Or, at least, it was in 2018, when an Olympic format and judging criteria had to be created from scratch.
From the array of accepted moves and styles that leading dancers already use, veteran breaking experts created a system that assessed three categories. The first was Body/Physical, based on technique and variety. The second was Soul/Intepretative quality, composed of peformativity and musicality. The last was Mind/Artistic quality, which assessed creativity and personality.
One of the judges at the Youth Olympics was breakdancing pioneer Richard “Crazy Legs” Colon, who was leader of the famous Rock Steady Crew.
Four other new Olympic sports
Surfing: The popular Aussie sport will be held at Shidashita Beach, or “Shida”, located about 64 kilometres outside of Tokyo in 2021. And in 2024, it will be all the way down in Tahiti.
Rock climbing: Three disciplines – one-on-one speed climbing, bouldering and lead climbing – will be introduced in 2020 (now 2021).
Three-on-three basketball: For 2021, a shortened version of the full-sized game played on a half-court, for a single period of 10 minutes of first to 21.
Kitesurfing: The kite-foil surfing event will debut in 2024 as one of the sailing disciplines.
Can you dust off your boombox and still make the Australian breakdancing team?
You can try. But you won’t be able to just rely on that worm you used to break out at parties, or the odd dangerous head-spin.
Modern breakers are elite athletes with great rhythm and immense upper body and core strength. They routinely go to the gym and train in a studio many hours a day.
Leading Aussie breaker Lowe Napalan said: ” I train a minimum 10 hours a week and that’s on top of a regular job – but that’s just minimum and I’ve been training since I was a young kid.”
But if you’re still keen – or you are an aspiring young BBoy and BGirl who dreams of being in Paris in 2024 – the Australian Breaking Association (ABA) and Dancesport Australia have mapped out the road you’ll need to take. Needless to say, Olympic status will be hard-earned.
After you register on the ABA website (https://www.ausbreak.org/registrationprocess) and if you’re good enough to do well at open and invitational events, you’ll need to then crush it at state and national competitions as well.
The best of the best will be decided and only then will Australia’s BBoy and BGirl candidates for the 2024 Olympics be decided and Aussie team shellsuits handed out.
Sarah is a journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald.