In November 2005, 16 ambassadors from around the world gathered in Berlin to settle an age-old score: Who rocks hardest on the dance floor? Once the exclusive domain of street gangs and hip-hop artists, breakdancing is now enjoying a renaissance. Kids from the far shores of the world have breathed new life into a scene that many thought died in America in the ‘80s.
Born of the street—like Krump, and Parkour—breakdancing has always been combative; a form of physical one-upsmanship, confrontational and aggressive. Also known as “breaking”—as much for its iconoclastic nature, as for the way it sheers off traditional dance moves—the sport was long rumored to have been a method for settling turf disputes.
Chronicled in mainstream films like Breakin’, and Beat Street, breakdancing peaked in the US over 20 years ago, but it has always enjoyed cult status. The art survived an interim banishment predominantly through its resonance with Europeans and Asians, who embraced and renewed the scene with updated moves and music. As such, you’re more likely today to see a French or Korean champion breaking to the electronic beats of the Bombfunk MCs than an American in a matching tracksuit spinning to Run DMC. From the big screen (You Got Served), to prime time (So You Think You Can Dance), audiences are again clamoring for breakdancing’s uniquely explosive choreography.
Reared on legends like Turbo and Ozone, Gen-Xers who’ve lapsed in their attention will gape at the physicality of today’s breaking. Unless you’re on the circuit, you’ve never seen anything like a Six Step; and chances are, you won’t see the Worm. Already in its third year, BC One is the sport’s new championship forum, dropping fans squarely into the vortex of 21st century breakdance. The 2005 Battle of the Year (sponsored by spaz-tastic energy drink Red Bull, a b-boy staple) is one of today’s truly international competitions, with nearly a dozen countries represented.
Like the fearsome Kumite ring from Bloodsport, the battle stage in BC One is dramatic: A circular black mat centered below towering bleachers that are writhing with fans. Befitting today’s more liberal corporate budget, the film is shot in digital and is richly textured, with steady close-ups that frame the players against the packed risers behind them. Like a pacing wolf, the camera circles at floor level on a rolling steadicam rig, just outside the fray of combat.
Hosted by Rahzel—famed beatboxer, and member of hip hop outfit The Roots—the event is loaded with street cred. Unfortunately, while he brings the old school juice (having grown up around Grandmaster Flash), his emcee skills are woefully one-dimensional. Rahzel lacks the charisma of a true host, often stumbling over himself with a sloppy and predictable delivery. The filmmakers further handicap him with editing that is often amateurish (jumpy cuts and clunky music fades will make anybody look bad). Thankfully, the dancing has an undeniable pulse; more than sufficient to raise the roof, even if Rahzel can’t.
European DJs Ace and Billy Brown provide the competition’s live dance mix; infectious, mid-tempo, electronica that’s saturated with breakbeats and fleet vocal arrangements. It’s dancy, without being distracting. Strangely, however, the mix is superimposed over the film (like a soundtrack, rather than a live feed), which creates a fuller sound up front but drowns out the natural crowd noise; a strategic misfire by the producers. Things really go awry when the audience claps don’t sync with the beat onscreen. It’s unforgivable at this level of competition to omit the lively catcalls and frenzied shouts that punctuate killer moves and feed the fires of battle. One feels increasingly disconnected without those real-time cheers.
Nevertheless, this DVD is a keeper. Light on plot and loaded with money shots, BC One is like porn for breakdance enthusiasts. Each performer is allotted three minutes to battle in quickly paced, turn-based routines. The head-to-head duels are daunting, and early on, the posturing is provocative, but fun. These guys are total athletes, whose fluidity and gymnastic prowess will leave you shaking your head in disbelief.
Each player faces off, chasing the other around the ring, and then fronting aggressively at the end of his routine. As Rahzel quips, “Light on his feet and quick to the beat” he could be describing any one of these Olympians. From Sonic’s ninja blurs—moves so quick you’ll think you hit the fast-forward button by mistake—to the contortionist, abstract-style of Rubberlegz; these breaks will stand your hairs on end. For an historical perspective, keep an eye out for Omar (last year’s reigning champ), whose muscular, arrogant style epitomizes breakdancing as it looked in the Bronx streets of the early ‘80s.
The five judges are this century’s Knights of the Round Table; a who’s who that includes German b-boy sensation Niels “Storm” Robitzky. Underlining their already impressive pedigrees, each judge performs an intro set to showcase their illin’ moves (I’d like to see Randy Jackson be so bold). Unlike most sporting competitions, breakdancing is judged subjectively, with no discernible rating system. Its sacraments are many, leaving me wondering on more than one occasion if the judges saw things I simply couldn’t. Does a power move win? Or is it creative transitioning? Or grace? We’ll never know (officially), since the judges remain silent, content to move things along by simply raising their name cards to declare a majority winner. To the lay observer, it’s hard to distinguish choreographed routines from improvisational, and seasoned commentary might have been useful. Still, by the time we reach the semi-finals, it’s clear that any one of these guys could take home the prize. As Rahzel says: “Let’s not waste no time.”
One thing’s obvious: More fun to watch doesn’t always mean best dancer. There’s a secret sauce to expert b-boying that no doubt includes talent, respect, and a pinch of brio. Pedestrian moves (like windmills) are quickly played out, and while pioneering elastic flips will wow audiences, they might also land you on the sidelines. The judges seem to favor a combination of old school technique and new school originality. Most moves are over before you can wrap your head around them, from Pelezinho’s flying Capoeira, to Ronnie’s mind-blowing hand-spins. So don’t look away for a moment, or you’ll miss something magical.
As filler between sessions, we’re treated to some of hip-hop’s other core elements. Rahzel unleashes his renowned human beat box (the man can actually lay down straight beats, while humming a tune and simultaneously vocalizing its chorus!); Japanese phenoms Hilty & Bosch give us their madcap choreography with lightning fast mimicry and (finally!) some throwback boogaloo. Even Storm jumps into the action, with a master class in ‘poppin and lockin’ that entertains, while reminding us that it’s a relic art, no longer relevant in BC One competition.
Those who wish to skip right to the title fight can do so thanks to the DVD’s granular menu, which breaks the battles down hierarchically. For the rest of us, it’s worth the wait, as the finals succeed (at last!) in making good use of the ambient crowd noise, while the DJs playfully change the music for each b-boy, in turns complementing their respective styles; breakbeat for one, soulful boogie for another. Stay tuned for Lilou, the unassuming French featherweight, (imagine Urkel in a do-rag) who’s got the ultimate moves. His upper-body boogaloo, spidery one-handed freezes, and flying kicks, take on Hong 10’s fancy toprock, slo-mo inversions, and walking floats (where the Korean holds his body parallel to the floor while balancing on his hands). It’s like hearing angels sing. Best of all, these guys show the love for one another, often inciting the crowd to cheer on their opponent, win or lose. There are no racial lines here, no allegiance except to the mat.
This is not the breakdancing I grew up with (there’s nary a moonwalk in sight!), but rather a whole new breed of uber-athleticism. Like Jackie Chan’s hyperkinetic impact on martial arts, breaking has evolved into a highly disciplined, super-stylized sport. B-boys today understand the physics of rotational inertia, and hybridize their routines with other moves (like pommel horsing) to create a kind of dance fusion. Transitions from toprock (upright foot shuffles) to downrock (floor work) are still there, but the predictable choreography that used to follow is forever gone. Instead, we get amorphous sequences that start on an x-axis and land on a y, often independent of any structure. With limitless innovations, and absent the usual conventions that dictate a sport’s future, there’s just no telling where breaking might go from here.
At 180 minutes, BC One is also packed with over an hour of bonus materials. Fans get a making-of featurette; a graffiti history of breakdancing; outstanding slow-mo photography of the competition; and interviews with some of this year’s more colorful participants (highlighted by insight into the judges’ voting perspectives, and long-time photographer Martha Cooper’s story about mistaking break-fights for a riot in the New York subway). From elbow-stands and aerials, to flares and driving head-slides, BC One boasts an embarrassment of breakdancing riches.