Earlier last week, it seemed the world — or, more accurately, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) — had finally gone bonkers.
After months of careful deliberation over the line-up for the Paris 2024 Olympics, the number of weightlifting and boxing weight classes was reduced, and squash was rejected for the fourth time on the trot, much to the fury of the squash federation.
In their place, along with skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing — which already had the nod for Tokyo 2021 — was, er, breakdancing.
Safe to say, the reaction — other than from the utterly ecstatic British breakdancing world — has not been entirely favourable.
Breakdancing?! How is it a sport? Isn’t it just a load of people hanging around a shopping precinct taking turns to impress each other with their dodgy hip hop dance moves, asked some.
Earlier last week, it seemed the world — or, more accurately, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) — had finally gone bonkers
‘Oh my God!.. It’s sort of making a mockery of what the Olympics is,’ was the reaction of three times-world squash champion, Michelle Martin, from Australia, whose sport has also lost out to BMX biking, golf and wushu (a martial art).
‘The IOC is an utter embarrassment to sport,’ declared one sports writer. And British Olympic weightlifter Gareth Evans called the decision ‘shameful’ in a Twitter post.
But hang on a minute. Surely twirling and whirling and jumping and popping and spinning on your head and holding yourself up on just one arm takes a good deal of skill, training and dedication?
It’s certainly a lot more physically demanding (and more fun) than clay pigeon shooting or darts — and arguably more inclusive than squash — as I find in my session with Damien ‘Tenacious’ Anyasi (all self-respecting breakers have nicknames).
Damien’s a lovely chap from Woolwich, South London, who founded B-Better, a dance company to link the underground street scene with the public and has taught more than 100,000 people worldwide in the past 16 years.
After months of careful deliberation over the line-up for the Paris 2024 Olympics, the number of weightlifting and boxing weight classes was reduced, and squash was rejected for the fourth time on the trot, much to the fury of the squash federation
While he hops and pops and spins around the upstairs room at the Thanet Community Centre in north London like a man half his age, Damien, 41, fills me in on the break-dancing world: The jams, the battles, the cyphers (more later), the British competitions, the international contests, the top British ‘breakers’ to look out for.
And how you must never, ever — unless you want to sound like a dinosaur from the 1980s — call it breakdancing. This is ‘breaking’, the dancers are B-Boys, B-Girls or breakers — and please, if you want to maintain any semblance of cool, don’t forget it.
But most startlingly, he tells me that, despite there being no Government funding, no official governing body in the UK and next to no sponsorship, breaking is something we Brits might actually be rather good at.
‘Olympic medal good at, maybe,’ according to Rob Pountney, the founder of ProDance Agency and manager to three of our great hopes.
Which is quite something, given our contenders are forced to train in converted garages, struggle to pay their way and are often powered by Nando’s chicken dinners, while athletes from Korea and Japan have their own studios, sponsors, nutritionists, psychologists and drivers.
In their place, along with skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing — which already had the nod for Tokyo 2021 — was, er, breakdancing
B-Boy ‘Kid’ Karam Singh, now 22, was just ten when he first back-flipped onto the world championship stage, becoming our youngest breaker ever to compete.
Since then, he has danced all around the globe, won huge competitions in China, the U.S. and Europe, while completing a sports science degree and is part of the Trinity Warriors breaking crew in Derby.
‘When you get to a certain level and you’re making headlines, the event organisers pay for your hotels and flights,’ he says. ‘Which is a good thing as otherwise I wouldn’t be able to go.’
To make ends meet, he works part-time in a Sky call centre and, with his parents’ blessing, has converted their garage into a gym where he trains for up to six hours a day. He also swims at the local pool and does long-distance runs, all the while keeping his weight steady at nine stone with a high-protein, low-calorie diet.
‘The Olympics is huge news and I think we’ll get a look in,’ he says. ‘There are a few of us travelling internationally, competing at world level so I really hope so.’
B-Boy Sunni, 24, from Bristol — one of the rarities to have a sponsorship deal, with Red Bull — has now moved to Amsterdam to train because there was no one here to train with.
‘Sunni is dope [very good],’ says Damien, admiringly. ‘He’s strong. He’s big business.’
B-Girl Terra, meanwhile, has danced since she could walk and is ‘good, crazy good’.
When she burst onto the scene aged six in a grey tracksuit and with a truly extraordinary set, her ‘battle’ video went viral overnight and she was suddenly popping and spinning on the Ellen DeGeneres show in the U.S.
She is still only 14 — her parents take her to every battle (contest) — and is already world famous, highly respected, hugely talented and surely one of our main Olympic contenders.
Breaking is thought to have originated in the Bronx, New York, in the 1970s, where rival gangs danced off against each other during the break, or instrumental part of songs.
As the breaks got longer — looped and repeated by DJs — the dancers became increasingly ambitious, developing spins, jack hammers (where you support your body on one arm and then pump it up and down) and air flares (spinning your body around while doing a handstand).
By the early Eighties, the craze reached the UK and soon shopping centres across the country were a-boom with gravity-defying gymnastic dance-offs as beat boxes blasted early hip-hop.
All you needed was a piece of lino — or at a push a bit of cardboard box — on which to spin, an Adidas tracksuit or some form of ski wear, some extra thick shoe laces if you really wanted to look the part, and a boom box.
Standing in a circle, or cypher, the breakers would take turns to hop into the middle and do their set. Each responding to the one before, like a conversation.
‘It can be funny, have attitude, you can show off, but mainly it’s freedom to express yourself through dance,’ says Damien.
So some sets would focus on threading — ‘creating a hole in your body and putting another bit through’ — others might be dominated by spins or power moves.
Forty years on, nothing has really changed, other than the ski wear — today everyone just wears what they’re comfortable in.
The moves are similar and come in four categories; Top Rock (all standing moves), Foot Work (all down on the floor); Freezes — where you hold a move, supporting your entire body on one arm,
or maybe your head — and Spins or Power Moves.
The only difference is that all are now judged by a panel, marking on execution, individuality and the all-important ‘flavour’, something Terra has in buckets: ‘It’s the thing you can’t teach — that something special, that moment in time.’
Despite all Damien’s kindness and encouragement, I am woefully lacking in flavour and, for that matter, execution and individuality.
But there is something about the brilliant music, the fun of it, the cheek, the sass, that despite my creaky knees and shot ankle, gets my ‘top rock’ going and my body moving to the beat.
It was when breaking was included in the 2018 Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires, and instantly became the championship’s hot ticket, that the Olympics became a possibility.
Come 2024, there will be three breaking Olympic classes: B-Boy, B-Girl and mixed pairs, or ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, as they call it, but no crews.
The French are apparently very strong, with a great breaking infrastructure and good funding. Korea and Japan are the the main medal contenders: the latter’s Shigekix is talked about in hushed awe.
With his home-made gym and lack of support, it must be a teeny bit daunting for our Kid Karam. But for now, he’s just revelling in the news: ‘To be in the Olympics! It would be a dream come true, after all my training. Hopefully. Hopefully.’
Not that everyone in the breaking world is celebrating. There has been some mumble and grumble about cultural appropriation. Breaking came from the Bronx. They don’t want posh Josh from Tonbridge taking it over.
But, as Damien says, ‘breaking is the most accessible dance style on the planet. Put a load of four-year-olds in here now and put some music on and at least half of them will be at it. You can’t not!’
Others huff and puff that once elevated to an Olympic sport it will lose its authenticity, damaging the heartbeat of the scene.
A couple of days ago, I’d probably have agreed with all the critics, that it’s inclusion was mockery, a travesty, a desperate nod to inclusivity and youth.
But now, I’m sorry, I’m with Karam, Damien and the rest of the B-Boys and Girls.