If you missed the debut of breaking as an event at the 2018 Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires, Argentina last week, you missed another first—the crowning of a gold medalist named Bumblebee. The other medalists were also mononymous. The silver medalist was Martin from France. And in third place there was Shigekix from Japan. Bumblebee, for his part, dances for the Russian Federation.
These young men do have surnames, but if you’re going to try to import breaking and its culture to the Olympic movement, you’re not going to force people to suddenly start going by the names they were given at birth. And so b-boy gold medalist Bumblebee it is.
The breaking competition was held over three days at the Urban Park in Buenos Aires. The space was brightly lit and the floor was lime green; the color scheme suggested the set of a Nickelodeon TV show. There were also basketball hoops, because breaking was sharing the venue with 3-on-3 basketball, another Olympic test sport.
Using a space that wasn’t specifically designed with breaking in mind was one of the few ways in which the Olympic test sport of breaking hearkened back to the early days of the form, when b-boys and b-girls made do with the spaces they could find for practice and competition. Sometimes this meant sneaking into fancy apartment buildings to make use of the marble floors in the foyers, which were ideal for practicing spins and sliding moves. There’s a metaphor there for breaking making its way into the Olympics, if you want it.
But in Buenos Aires, the b-boys and b-girls were unquestionably at center stage. The tickets to the finals were sold out, with overflow spectators crowding around outside the space. B-boy legends like Richard “Crazy Legs” Colon of the Rock Steady Crew were on hand to judge the event and even do a little dancing themselves. It’s traditional for judges to throw down a set in breaking, and it’s something gymnastics competitions might do well to emulate. Some, like former U.S. national champion Kristie Phillips-Bannister, can still do some high level tricks, even into their 40s.
That Crazy Legs was there at all was something of an upset. In late 2016, when the IOC announced that breaking would be an event at the 2018 Youth Olympic Games, it was met with skepticism from many within the scene. In a video circulated online, Crazy Legs, who helped propel “breakdancing”—a term many in the community reject—to worldwide acclaim, questioned who was behind bringing the art form he helped make famous in the 1980s to the IOC. “We don’t actually know who is calling the shots,” he said in 2016. “People who have put years and decades into the game were not even approached.” It was clear that he spoke from personal experience.
Judging by his enthusiastic presence in Argentina, it seems like the dance powers that be finally reached out. And not just to him, either: from b-girl AT of Finland to b-boy Mounier of France, a number of breaking notables turned out to watch their art’s maiden voyage as a sport.
Bringing breaking to the 2018 Youth Olympics was not an idea that originated within the “community,” however you choose to define the groups and individuals that make up the global breaking scene. It was the World DanceSport Federation, the sports governing body for ballroom dancing, that shepherded breaking towards the Youth Olympics. Once the news was announced in December 2016, the community got on board. “Our view is, ‘Hey let’s get involved, let’s see if we can do something, make an impact and have an impact in terms of the way breaking is presented,’” Steve Graham told me. Graham started breaking more than two decades ago when he was an analyst at Goldman Sachs. Back then, his b-boy name was Vanilla Shake; these days he’s called B-boy Silverback.
It’s as Silverback that he helped found the nonprofit Urban Dance and Educational Foundation, which has organized a tour of breaking events and competitions in the U.S. I spoke to him in 2017 at one of the UDEF tour’s marquee events, the Silverback Open, which was held in a gym complex outside of Philadelphia. We sat on a large red block at the back of the gym, facing a soccer pitch out back where kids were playing in the waning daylight hours. Graham said that he had returned to the breaking scene after a 25-year hiatus because he wanted his young children to learn the dance. If WDSF’s bid to bring breaking from test sport at the YOG to full Olympic inclusion is ultimately successful, kids might someday compete in breaking leagues alongside youth soccer leagues.
There were b-girls and b-boys from all over the world competing at Silverback. The winners of both the b-boy and b-girl battles were from Japan and the victorious crew featured dancers from Russia. Also in attendance were 50 or so dancers who had made it through the first stage of YOG qualifications by submitting video of themselves breaking to be evaluated by experts and were age eligible to compete. (For the YOG’s purposes, breakers had to have been born between January 2000 and December 2002.) Graham and the U.S. b-boys agreed to host the continental qualifiers for the Americas on behalf of the WDSF.
“Once the IOC decided to define breaking as ‘dance sport’ I said to the breakers, ‘The train has left the station,’” Graham told me. What’s left, for him and everyone else in the community, is figuring out where those tracks are headed.
In many ways, breaking is eminently suitable for Olympic competition. It’s competitive and aggressive by nature. Judged battles have been a mainstay of b-boying since its early days, and the Olympics are no enemy of subjectively evaluated sports. Breaking also features incredibly acrobatic stunts called “power moves” that play well on screen, which matters to the IOC since its primary driver of profit is TV contracts.
More important, given the Olympics’ thirst for youth, breaking is young. It’s right there in the names of practitioners: b-boy and b-girl. This was a dance created by kids in the South Bronx in the 1970s, and the youthful title stuck. Crazy Legs is 52-year-old man, but he is decidedly still a b-boy.
Given breaking’s inherent suitability to athletic competition, it should come as no surprise that 2016 wasn’t the first time that a person or organization sought to bring the dance to Olympic-style competition. This idea is decades old, going all the way back to breaking’s breakthrough decade—the 1980s. In the 1984 book Breaking and the New York City Breakers, the crew puts forth the following proclamation:
“We, the New York City Breakers see the olympic games as our future. We see breakdancing as a future olympic sport, and ourselves as pioneers in making this dream a reality.”
The author of that book was a hip-hop impresario, musician, and filmmaker named Michael Holman. He was an important figure during breaking’s and hip-hop’s early days in New York City, and opened Negril, the first hip-hop club in downtown Manhattan. DJ Kool Herc and the Cold Crush Brothers performed there, and Holman also brought in local b-boys to dazzle the artsy downtown crowd.
At the time, the most prominent crew was Rock Steady, which was headlined by Crazy Legs, Frosty Freeze, and Ken Swift. Holman told me that he wanted to showcase a breaking battle and asked Crazy Legs to recruit another crew for Rock Steady to compete against. He brought the Floor Masters, a crew from the Bronx, down to Negril for the battle. “It was generous because the Floor Masters were really good,” Holman said. “He [Crazy Legs] could’ve picked a lesser crew to make Rock Steady look stronger.”
The Floor Masters impressed Holman with their sheer athleticism. “The Floor Masters just blew me away with the speed and power that they exhibited that was so different from Rock Steady,” Holman said. “Where Rock Steady had more finesse, Floor Masters had more power. I consider them, in many ways, one of the pioneers of the power moves.”
He said that after consulting with renowned graffiti artist PHASE 2, Holman decided to create an all-star b-boy crew. He said he got rid of the weaker dancers in the Floor Masters and then raided other crews for their best b-boys; he called the superteam he created New York City Breakers. The name, he says, was PHASE 2’s idea.
Though “super crews” abound now—at Silverback Open one of the top crews in the 3v3 battle was Monster, a collection of elite b-boys backed by Monster Energy Drink—crew members tended to be from the same or nearby neighborhoods back then. “It was buddies, friends, neighborhood peeps,” Holman said. “When I created the New York City Breakers, that was a real sea change because now here’s a crew from all the boroughs.” Holman paused. “Not all of them. Not from Staten Island.”
With this all-star crew in place, Holman started to book gigs for the group. New York City Breakers performed for President Reagan at Kennedy Center Honors in 1983. If Reagan gave any thought to the fact that his policies—the increased funding and enforcement for the War on Drugs and his attacks on the social safety net—were destroying the communities from which these young dancers came, it didn’t seem to trouble him. He seemed pretty into it, in fact, pointing and smiling at the b-boys who were dancing onstage to the Jimmy Castor Bunch’s breaking classic “It’s Just Begun.”
The New York City Breakers also appeared on Soul Train. This time they were wearing Hind suits, which were far more athletic in appearance than the duds they’d worn for the DC folks. They resembled something you’d see a speedskater wear.
The athletic aesthetic was no accident. It was around this time, in the early 1980s that Holman says he started thinking about breaking as a sport. Beyond the book and his conversation with me, Holman has brought up the topic of Olympic inclusion several times before, including in this interview he did for the 2002 documentary The Freshest Kids:
“When Floor Masters came down to perform, a light turned on in my head. What I saw was breakers who may not have been as good as Rock Steady Crew in the finesse and style end of breaking. What they lacked in that, they more than made up for in the athleticism of breaking. They spun longer, faster, and harder. And I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do. I want an athletic-like crew. A crew that would eventually find its way into the Olympics.”
For Holman, that meant pinning down the rules and structure that would be needed for battles, with their improvised and inconsistent judging, to become Olympic competition. “I’m already thinking about b-boying or breaking as a sport, as an organized sport with rules, regulations,” Holman told me, “infusing within the battle issues of time limitation, of space, not falling and going out of a certain or space, time limitations.” Holman said he looked at sports like gymnastics, which have very specific rules regarding time limits, deductions for falls, and boundaries—go out of bounds on floor exercise and it’s a mandatory tenth deduction, no matter what—for guidance. The idea was to help the layfolk recognize who was winning a battle and why.
A bare-bones outline of these guidelines appears in the appendix of his book. There, he and the NYC Breakers make recommendations for time limits, required element—backspins, freezes, and the like—and age requirements.
For all his planning, Holman didn’t make much headway in moving breaking towards the Olympics. There wasn’t yet a recognition that this dance, which originated in New York City, had indeed gone global. The IOC would probably not be interested in shepherding a discipline towards the Olympics if it was popular in only one country. That change came in time, thanks in no small part to the 1983 blockbuster Flashdance, though, which featured a couple minutes of dancing from the young members of Rock Steady Crew. It was enough to whet the appetites of aspiring b-boys and b-girls around the world and send young wannabes back to the theater for repeated viewings to learn the moves.
Beyond those geographic concerns, Holman said that he encountered other problems when trying to promote the idea of breaking as an extreme sport in the late 1990s: perceptions about breaking’s racial and socioeconomic status, and the reality of a lack of product tie-ins.
The other extreme sports that were emerging around that time, such as skateboarding and snowboarding, required the purchase of expensive equipment, which could be branded and monetized. “These sports have natural built-in corporate sponsorship,” Holman said. “Skateboards are expensive and hugely profitable, are manufactured and sold at a rate that sponsoring skaters is a no-brainer.” Ditto for snowboards and snowboarders. But what could breaking sell? Sneakers, for one, but the same could be said of a whole range of activities. There’s apparel such as headspin beanies, but not a whole lot else that is specific to the dance. Breaking has real historical significance and offers real aesthetic pleasures—it is one of the four elements of hip-hop, and an authentic American art form—but you can’t really purchase breaking or anything associated with it. You can experience it by learning the dance or going to jams, but there’s no price on that. The transactions take place in person-to-person format. It’s almost like mesorah tradition in Judaism—knowledge passed down via mentorship generation to generation, OG to new dancer, generation after generation. It’s wonderful, but it doesn’t exactly brim with opportunities for monetization and profit.
Another challenge Holman encountered in trying to sell “breaking” to sponsors and network executives was even more stubborn—racism. “These kids, these breakdancers, well into the ’90s, for the most part, were street kids, were urban kids,” Holman noted. “They were black and Puerto Rican. The powers that be in sports apparel or in televised sports or organized sports see this. They are mostly white males, and they do not give a shit.”
Holman’s efforts to get breaking into the X Games sports pantheon—he shared the proposals he sent to ESPN in the late ’90s—ultimately weren’t successful. But he’s not surprised that breaking has moved closer to Olympic inclusion. “I was right in the beginning that this was inevitable,” he said. “This was a train, a fast-moving train heading in one direction, which was b-boying or breakdancing as an organized sport and, inevitably, an Olympic sport.” It just took longer than Holman expected for the world to see breaking the same way he did.
In late 2016, the WDSF was asked by the IOC to put together a proposal for the upcoming Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires. The federation, which was established in 1957, is primarily known for administering and regulating competition of what is typically referred to as ballroom dancing, a category that WDSF breaks down and labels into more specific categories: There are the “Latin” dances (samba, cha cha, rumba, paso doble) and the “standard” ones (waltz, tango, Viennese waltz, slow foxtrot, quickstep). The federation has also branched into “street dances,” and WDSF submitted nine different dances for the IOC to consider for Youth Olympic Game inclusion. The IOC considered the list and chose breaking as its test “dance sport” for the 2018 Youth Olympic Games.
Jean-Laurent Bourquin, the CEO of WDSF, said that the decision didn’t surprise him. “The choice, which could have actually fallen on hip-hop, seemed highly appropriate for the Youth Olympics,” he wrote to me in an email. “[And] in line with the other additions (sport climbing). Breaking is perfectly matching with the YOG DNA (Sport, Culture, Education).”
If it wasn’t a surprise to those inside WDSF that breaking was chosen to represent “dance sport” at the Youth Olympics, it certainly was a shock to those in the global breaking community. “I first heard about it through a Facebook post in December 2016,” Thomas Hergenrother, creator of the Battle of the Year competition, told me via email last year. “When I read about it, I was a bit surprised since I didn’t hear about these plannings before.” Hergenrother started the Battle Of The Year event, which was featured prominently in the Benson Lee documentary Planet B-Boy, in 1990. It was one of the earliest global-scale breaking competitions but has since been joined by others; the Los Angeles-based Freestyle Sessions, which was created by Chris “Cros1” Wright, which celebrated its 20th anniversary last year. There are also Outbreak, a European jam; the Silverback Open; and the R16, a major crew battle that’s sponsored by the South Korean government. No one involved in the planning of these large events was consulted about the bid, somehow. All of them learned about it after the fact.
“I received it [as a positive] and to be honest, I was waiting for this,” Hergenrother continued. “One of my first thoughts was, Great. If this is planned and done in the right [way], it can open doors for the young generation of dancers. But I also thought, Wow, now a big debate in the breaking scene will start.”
When I asked Bourquin about WDSF’s connection to the global breaking scene prior to the IOC’s announcement, he said, “Prior to the day of the announcement of breaking making it to the Buenos Aires YOG, we were mostly working with our National Members that were having urban dance as part of their disciplines.” WDSF wasn’t really connected to the breaking “community,” however you choose to define it, before it decided to invite it under the Olympic umbrella.
“Some people were opposed to us taking on this mandate,” Roland Hilfiker, WDSF’s communications director, told me. “At the same [time], if you really think about it, who else could’ve done it? The IOC wouldn’t call up Red Bull,” he said, pointing to one of breaking’s major corporate sponsors and the money behind a series of global breaking jams. “The only partners that they considered in the Olympic movement are the international sports federations. And we are one of them. And I think we are a good one.”
Graham and others reached out to WDSF to see about getting them involved in fairly short order, Bourquin said. I asked him about the early criticism from prominent figures like Crazy Legs and he said, “To keep the IOC deadlines, we had to make decisions in order to build the YOG team and we were probably misunderstood by a few others, who automatically assumed that they would be left out. That led to some unflattering remarks.”
“When I first saw it come up and people were getting all of their knickers in a twist, I was just like, ‘What’s the panic about? It’s just another competition,’” said Kevin “Renegade” Gopie, prominent UK-based DJ, judge, and founder/coach of the Soul Mavericks. “It’s always this kind of insecurity that I see that blows people up. I thought we were past that. Let’s do our own thing and don’t worry about what everyone else is doing.” Initially, Renegade said he had no interest in breaking’s inclusion in the Youth Olympic Games. “Then all of a sudden, I was contacted,” he said.
Silverback hosted the battle for young b-boys and b-girls in America and Hergenrother’s BOTY held the Europe/Africa qualifier. The breakers qualified to the continental qualifiers by submitting a short video, either directly or via social media with the hashtag #IAmBreakingForGold. The qualifiers to the continental battles were chosen from those video submissions. Each country was capped at a maximum of five b-boys and five b-girls.
At the 2017 Silverback Open, only three of the five U.S. b-boys who qualified even bothered to show up. The reason was that, prior to the qualifier, the USOC informed Graham that they would not be taking any b-boys or b-girls to the 2018 Youth Olympic Games. As it happens, the USOC is also subject to an IOC-mandated cap—they couldn’t bring any more than 75 athletes competing in individual sports to Buenos Aires. Graham said that the USOC informed him that they were planning to reserve those spots for athletes competing in sports that have already been admitted to the full Olympic Games. They weren’t going to squander any competitive opportunities on a test sport like breaking.
“They [WDSF] were not real keen on us putting this [information] out there but I was like, we’re not BSing these guys. If the USOC has said they’re not bringing breakers, we’re letting them [the breakers] know,” Graham said. “On the other hand, we totally understand that the USOC could change its mind and that was Jean-Laurent’s point at WDSF. ‘Steve, from time to time, you see these national Olympic committees change their perspective on something.’ [But] you would think if they’re putting test sports in, they [the IOC] might create special slots for test sports.”
When I asked Bourquin about the caps and the possible impact on the level of competition at YOG before the games began, he was confident. “I am convinced that we will have 24 outstanding b-boys/girls in Buenos Aires,” he wrote.
For all the logistical and communicative mistakes that were made, he was not wrong. These days, the very best young breakers hail from countries like Russia and Japan. The 1v1 b-boy and b-girl battles at Silverback were won by dancers from Japan. And the results in Buenos Aires bore that out too, with Bumblebee winning the gold and b-girl Ram from Japan taking the title on the women’s side.
The only Americans present when this prototypically American art form debuted at the Youth Olympic Games were there as DJs and judges.
At most of the battles I’ve attended over the years, judging has been largely a low-tech and decidedly seat-of-the-pants kind of thing. At the Rock Steady Crew 40th anniversary battle at the Bowery Ballroom, for instance, Crazy Legs called out to the audience, asking if anyone had a pen for the judges. (I had one, but I was taking notes for this story.)
Usually, at the end of the battle, an odd number of judges would point to the dancer they felt had won. The one with the most votes would win. In the event of a tie—sometimes a judge would cross his arms across his chest to signal that he couldn’t decide which one to choose—the dancers would have to throw down another round. I didn’t think the IOC would go for this system for breaking’s Olympic debut.
“What you see out there right now is that they’re working with absolutes,” the breaker Niels “Storm” Robitzsky told me. “They’re pointing in one direction, which means this side won 100 percent. And that’s something I don’t agree on.” This can make close battles, in which two b-boys seemed to be pretty evenly matched, seem like blowouts if all of the judges point in one direction. There’s no way to know how close the call was for some of those judges—a rout and a coin-flip end the same way. “It could’ve been, like, a difference of maybe 5-10 percent,” he said. “The audience, what they will see is this side won and both dancers ask themselves, ‘Why?’”
Storm helped developed the “Trivium” judging system that was used at the Youth Olympics to evaluate the battles. We spoke at the 2017 Silverback Open about the system that he and Renegade created as the crew battles, which were not part of the YOG qualifying process, were being contested inside the sports complex. Storm is one of the most famous b-boys in the world and as we sat cross-legged on the ground and talked, numerous young dancers approached and asked to take photos with him.
The system that he and Renegade devised doesn’t use points like other judged sports, such as figure skating and gymnastics. Those systems need a points-based system to rank athletes because the competitors don’t compete head to head—one athlete goes and then the other, and points explain how they relate to one another in terms of skill and performance. In breaking, though, the dancers go head to head, and each dancer needs to do enough to defeat her opponent by taking as many rounds from her as possible. In the very first battle of YOG, eventual b-girl gold medalist Ram faced off against a lower ranked competitor from the Netherlands, b-girl Vicky. Vicky was clearly not as skilled or experienced as Ram, who entered the competition as the youth world champion. Vicky’s first set was long and her foot speed was on the slower side; she recognized that she was up against the best dancer in the competition and so she was throwing everything she had at Ram. That’s understandable, of course, but it had the feel of a run-on sentence.
Ram responded to Vicky’s long throw down with a comparatively short set that was also very complete, and which followed the usual template for the dance. First, you start with a toprock to show off your dancing style. Then you drop to the floor for footwork, performing intricate moves—the part that most people recognize as “breaking.” And then you end with a freeze, a static pose that is sometimes upside-down and which is all the more effective if it is hit on beat and directed at the opponent. When done right and perfectly timed, this is often more exciting than any crazy flip or headspin; all the tension that’s steadily building throughout the set is released in one perfect moment.
In Foundation: B-boys, B-girls, and Hip Hop Culture in New York, Joseph Schloss interviewed famed b-boy Ken Swift, who explains that the dance is structured like a text. (In the interest of disclosure, I should explain that Schloss is a close friend.)
“A b-boy set has a clear narrative form: the toprock is the equivalent of the salutation of a letter. The dancer is addressing the crowd directly, defining his relation to them, and giving them a sense of what is about to do. The floor work is the body of the letter, in which the dance explores a variety of themes...The story is concluded with a freeze, which Swift characterizes as a ‘flash statement.’ In other words, the freeze serves as a kind of punchline to the story.”
Ram checked all of the boxes on Swift’s checklist even though her statement was terse. This meant Ram could save her best moves (and energy) for when she really needed them in the later rounds. Repetition in b-boy jams is frowned upon, which means that if you use your biggest tricks in the first battle, you’re going to be in trouble down the line. If the breaking had been evaluated more like gymnastics, it wouldn’t have been sufficient for Ram to have done just enough to beat Vicky, because she wouldn’t have been competing just against Vicky. She might have to do more difficult things in order to amass points to stay ahead of opponents who haven’t even competed yet. Instead, Ram took both rounds—each dancer danced twice—and all 10 votes from the judges while keeping her best stuff in reserve.
“In our system, you have different criteria, and all together these different criteria, they work with percentage, so if one side wins, it’s not necessarily the case that they win with 100 percent,” Storm told me. The way the judges express these percentages is pushing sliders up and down on a tablet. There are also ways to impose penalties for slips and falls.
“This guy has done some mistake, that guy has done some mistake,” he continued. “This guy was using more creativity, the other guy was physically stronger, and on and on.” The judge will move the sliders up and down on his tablet from red to blue side—each dancer is assigned one of those two colors—and the dancer with the higher percentage at the end of the round, wins that judge’s vote.
This is valuable information for the dancers, the audience, and even the other judges. Dancers can see the specific areas in which they can improve; spectators gain some insight into why a battle was decided the way it was; judges show their evaluative work. According to Storm, this approach allows us to “find out who is coherent with the other judges, who is judging totally off so we can question these people why. ‘What was your thought, why were you thinking this guy was better in this realm, let’s say musicality, why was this guy better there?’” The Trivium system is far less inscrutable than a hand pointed to this side or that, and less restrictive than one that depends on mandatory deductions and decimal points.
There’s still a fundamental challenge, though: what exactly is being measured or ranked by the system that Storm and Renegade devised?
Renegade explained that he, Storm and others started the process of figuring out the judging criteria by simply making a list. “The first step we took was to list all of the words we associate with judging: foundation, dynamic, whatever else.” He said the initial list ran to approximately 100 words. “Then when you look closely, you can distill it down because some concepts don’t make sense, like foundation.” Foundation refers to the basic moves of the dance, which most consider vital to the dance and culture. But is it really a category of evaluation?
“Some words, they mean the same thing,” Renegade told me. “ ‘Character’ and ‘style’ are very similar so you just need one word to cover it. After this distillation, we came down to about six, seven terms that cover the other terms.”
A good example of “character” or “style” is this bit from an old battle with Alien Ness, a b-boy legend and president of the Mighty Zulu Kings’ b-boy division: He knows the music so well that he perfectly times a “cough” to the track.
How do you evaluate and reward a perfectly timed cough? Is it worth more than headspins? Air flares?
Hardy Fink, one of the key figures behind the open-ended scoring system that eliminated gymnastics’ old 10.0 scale, frequently used the word “content” instead of “difficulty” when we talked about the judging system. By “content,” he meant the “skills in any given routine.” This irked me at first—I was a freelance writer and “content” is a term that has been used to devalue the work of writers, especially online. But then I realized what that word choice meant. “Difficulty” is an evaluative term, and when we say something has “difficulty,” we’re saying it’s hard to do; when we say that one gymnast has more “difficulty” in her routine than another, we’re typically suggesting that the former’s performance should be rewarded more than the latter’s. “Content,” however, is a neutral term that, in this context, simply means, “what’s in the routine.” As a word choice, “content” makes no suggestion about how we should value that stuff.
“Difficulty” in gymnastics is a term mostly assigned to the acrobatic component of the sport; it’s called the D-score. The sport’s expressive qualities tend to fall under “artistry.” These two are usually depicted as being at odds with one another in a struggle that only one side can win. Of course, performing with artistry is also difficult. If it was easy, everyone would do it.
To its credit, the Trivium system doesn’t force this false choice; it delineates different criteria but allows the judges to determine how to weigh things. This also leaves room for creativity, both in the performance and its evaluation. “Every time I go to practice, I come up with three to five new moves, and everybody else who is creative is doing the same thing,” Storm said. If a judge is sufficiently inspired by a dancer’s burst of inspiration, she can push the scoring slider accordingly.
Storm is confident that the system that he and Renegade devised has implications beyond breaking. He used gymnastics as an example of something that could use a fresh approach to evaluation, no doubt because I kept bringing it up as a point of comparison. “If they get it, I’m sure that gymnastics would become more interesting again,” he said. “And also figure skating...if they would use that, they would allow to open the box and have a little bit more creativity coming in where people would be surprised again.”
By most accounts, the debut of breaking at the Youth Olympic Games was successful. The event was sold out; crowds gathered around the venue to watch. “It was the best-attended new sport in the area,” Renegade told me in a Facebook message. “People came and stayed.”
Whether this leads to inclusion in the Summer Games remains to be seen, though. “There’s a chance that the IOC says, ‘Hey we want to expand this and bring it into the traditional Olympics at some point,’” Graham told me last year. “And that’s a game changer. Then, all of a sudden, the major sponsors get interested and there’s opportunity, not just for the young breakers but also for people that are further along in their career.” Despite their eternally youthful titles, b-boys and b-girls can’t keep dancing indefinitely, at least not at the levels where they might win battles and prize money. (And they do win some money: a total of $100,000 in was disbursed over the course of the 2017 Silverback tournament I attended.) As with most athletic pursuits, dancing ability tapers off with age, especially when it comes to the power moves that top dancers rely on to win.
At the 2017 Silverback, Alien Ness danced with two other members of his Mighty Zulu Kings crew in the Top 32 portion of 3v3 battle. While Ness, who is in his 50s and has had two hip replacement surgeries, comes out fast and hard and is certainly dancing on beat and demonstrating the style he’s long been known for, he doesn’t do much more than what most breakers would call basic “foundation” moves; his set was much shorter than any of the other dancers. The hard facts of his age and physical condition were inescapable; there was no way that he and the Mighty Zulu Kings would be able to defeat the young whippersnappers in the crew with the energy drink money behind it.
When the battle was over, we didn’t need the judges to tell us that Monster Crew had won. All seven judges pointed to their right, making it a unanimous decision.
Ness, who now resides in Texas, has figured out a way to make a living off the dance—he has toured the world, dancing, competing, teaching workshops and judging. It’s an honest living, if not a luxurious one. Back in 2015, the Mighty Zulu Kings made a GoFundMe page to help pay for his hip surgery. Increased attention and an infusion of capital probably wouldn’t hurt.
Of course, if breaking makes the jump to full Olympics, it probably won’t look exactly like what you’d see at a local jam or even one of the big ones. “One of the great things about breaking is that it’s so freeform and sort of barely controlled mayhem,” Graham said. “If you get them to the Olympic sphere, it’s going to end up naturally being a little more regimented.”
Some order is a good thing. At the Youth Olympic Games, there was no debate about which dancer would go first; they had a system in place so this matter was decided ahead of time.
It is typically considered a disadvantage to go first in a battle. It’s better to see what your opponent does and then respond. Also, judges are human and it can be a big advantage to be the last one they see before they make a decision. So you end up seeing things like this several minute stare down between Mounir and Gravity at the 2014 Red Bull BC One World Final in Paris.
(Mounir also started out by wearing a shirt that said “Gravity” and removed that shirt to reveal another tee with “Gravity” but this time X’d out.)
Nothing like this happened in Buenos Aires.
One of the positive impacts that Olympic inclusion, or even the promise of it, could have is pushing the dance towards greater gender parity. I don’t know exact figures and no one else does, either, but let’s just say there are a lot more guys in the scene than there are women. But at YOG, the ratio of male dancers to female ones was 1:1. Olympic inclusion could create more opportunities for women in the dance. But even if breaking makes it all the way to the Olympics, which is a big if, the Games are unlikely to supplant the other events, big and small, that make up what is generally termed “the culture.”
“The events that we already have, like Battle of the Year, like Silverback, like Freestyle Session, like R-16, all of these events that we have already and even smaller house parties, rooftop parties, whatever, they are as culturally relevant as the Olympic Games,” Storm said.
“I hope this succeeds,” Holman said. “I can’t wait for that day I’m sitting in front of the TV watching this not just as an auditioning sport, but in a real certified Olympic sport. Which may take, I don’t know, another four or five cycles, I don’t know. But that’s my dream, is to see this happen.”