Hip Hop at 50

Back in New York, Red Bull championship spotlights how breakdancing has changed

Like all of hip-hop, breaking now has corporate backing, formal training and an international base

In the quarterfinals of Red Bull’s world championship break-dancing competition in Gdansk, Poland, last year, American Flea Rock battled the defending champion, Japanese B-boy Shigekix. After an arsenal of gymnastic moves from Shigekix, Flea Rock responded with a witty retort: making his hands into the shape of guns, he fired off shots as his feet moved to the beat. Then he wiggled down to the floor and army crawled toward Shigekix, guns still blazing. The crowd erupted and a judge jumped out of his chair.

The matchup put a spotlight on the tension between artistry and athleticism that has always been present in breaking. In a surprising development at an international competition, Flea Rock’s outlandish style won the battle and for a moment, Old Skool swagger reigned over New Skool pyrotechnics. 

As ever more acrobatic battles occur in the ramp up toward breaking’s debut as an adjudicated event at the 2024 Summer Games, the wide spectrum it straddles between art and sport is increasingly apparent. When the 2022 Red Bull BC One World Final returns to the birthplace of hip-hop — New York City — on Saturday, it will be held at the Hammerstein Ballroom in midtown Manhattan and livestreamed on ESPN+. Viewers will have an opportunity to take stock of just how far breaking has come in the 50 years since hip-hop culture was born in the Bronx. The contest sponsored by Red Bull, now one of the biggest honors in breaking, offers winners a championship belt, an undisclosed amount of prize money, and, of course, bragging rights.

As breaking has evolved, the world that was once centered on cyphers, where rappers, beatboxers, and/or breakers gathered in a circle, extemporaneously making music together, and dance battles in parks and parties has given way to professional dance studios, training gyms, a pro tour, and highly produced events run by corporations such as Red Bull or governing bodies such as the World DanceSport Federation, which is overseeing breaking as an Olympic sport. Prize money and sponsorships are in the mix for those who come out on top, but getting there requires more time, dedication, and potentially dollars spent on training, than ever before.

Before all this professionalization, the boundaries between the five elements of hip-hop — DJ-ing, MC-ing, breaking, writing (graffiti), and knowledge — were more porous. In the earliest days, it was common to try your hand at all of them.

“I’m not a casual observer, I’m a former B-boy myself,” said Curtis Brown, also known as Grandmaster Caz. He was a member of the seminal hip-hop group The Cold Crush Brothers and known for being the uncredited writer behind Big Bank Hank’s raps on “Rapper’s Delight.” Brown will open the Red Bull BC One World Final as a DJ and emcee.

“In the formative years we saw the first B-boys and emulated them, and then I went on to other elements in hip-hop until I finally found my niche — and that’s as the emcee on the mic,” he said. “But when I started out in hip-hop, like everybody else going to parties, I gravitated towards the dance. Prior to the spotlight that was put on breaking, it was pretty much just an urban street thing. You couldn’t even break-dance at the clubs. They didn’t allow that. They was like, ‘Yo, you gotta take that outside. All right? You gotta take that out to the park.’ ”

“Like most people at that time when I came in, you knew how to write your name with style, hit the turntables and DJ, and grab a microphone and kick a round about yourself, and you knew how to bust a few moves. People were practitioners of a whole culture,” said Kenneth James Gabbert, aka B-boy Ken Swift, an original member of the Rock Steady crew.

Today, a combination of prize money, corporate sponsorships, commercial gigs and teaching opportunities have helped turn the lifestyle into a personal brand.

B-girl Logistx of the USA celebrates during Red Bull BC One World Final in Gdansk, Poland, on Nov. 6, 2021. She’s back this year to defend her title.

Romina Amato

“I’m doing this for a living, I take it serious,” said 19-year-old Logan Edra, who as B-girl Logistx is the reigning Red Bull BC One Champion and is back in this year’s competition to defend her title. “Everyone is trying to win now because you can actually make money from this. If you win and do well in battles, then you get known and if you’re known, then you get more opportunities. And if you get more opportunities, then you have a greater chance of making this a living.”

Sponsored by Red Bull and Nike, Edra’s team includes her crew at the studio Breakin MIA, who spar with her in practice battles and give her feedback; a manager, who takes care of her business and communication needs; a personal trainer, who sees to her cross training and nutrition; and a therapist, who helps with her mental preparation for the battles. 

Edra started breaking in grade school. A hip-hop class at a church led to breaking classes at the San Diego dance studio Culture Shock. By 14, she was winning competitions and beginning to see breaking as a profession. Edra’s path is evidence of how far breaking has come as a global industry, to a place where there is the possibility of remuneration for practitioners, teachers, and all manner of consultants and coaches.

Yet breaking is still happening for free, on the street, and informally, in homes and recreation centers.

Victor Alicea, B-boy Kid Glyde, learned at home in Queens, New York, from his dad, B-boy Glyde, who was once the leader of the Dynamic Rockers crew from Queens.

“We’d move the furniture in our living room, or we would go back to where he used to practice when he was younger at the community center,” remembered Alicea.

Now Alicea leads the crew and runs the dance studio Kids Breaking League in Harlem. But he insists kids are still learning to break even when they can’t pay to play.

“When I do performances or outreach in neighborhoods where the family income is pretty low, I’ll open a circle and find that these kids already have more than the basics,” said Alicea. “They tell me they practice on their own or watch YouTube. So you don’t really have to go to a studio — a lot of people choose to, but it all depends on the person’s determination. I’ve seen videos of kids in other countries dancing with no sneakers and doing moves that I can’t even do.”

Victor Alicea, B-Boy Kid Glyde, learned breaking at home in Queens, New York, from his dad, B-boy Glyde, who was once the leader of the Dynamic Rockers crew.

Kien Quan

The divergent paths into breaking prompt another fundamental question: Now that a competition like the Red Bull BC One is airing on a major sports television network, does it still speak to hip-hop culture?

“The original coming together and checking each other’s moves out and seeing who’s better than who, that remains and will never, ever go away, no matter how many corporations platform it for their own gain,” said Ana Garcia, B-girl Rokafella of the Full Circle Souljahs, a Bronx-based crew. “The spectator, the actual participant, the musicians or the DJs, everyone is participating and contributing and receiving from that interaction. So, that will never change, that kind of spontaneous creativity is unmatched by anything that anybody can sell you or that you can buy.”

Indeed, breaking has always been a gathering around a battle, and an opportunity to build an identity.

“The term breaking drives from two things. First, it was a term to describe anger or if you were argumentative with somebody, like, ‘Why you breaking on me?’ ” Brown said. “And the dance at the time was so erratic, when people did it, the other people backed up and made a circle around it like they were fighting. The second meaning is that we dance to the breaks of the music — when the instruments drop out, the vocals drop out, and the song is reduced to its foundation, which is the drums.”

But the stakes of battling to those drum breaks have changed. Before, reputation and respect were on the line, and in some cases even safe passage around your neighborhood. Now, careers hang in the balance. At the same time, the type of dancing that commands a big purse has changed, too.

The Black and Puerto Rican kids who started breaking grew up with parents who were fans of James Brown. Soul Train was on the TV and dancing was a common social activity. Black social dances such as the Lindy Hop — which did have floor moves, “but only for the brave,” noted Garcia — and Latin traditions such as salsa, where the drums are prevalent, met with capoeira, a martial art that came from Brazil via Angola. The resulting remix reverberated in this new dance form.

But if the soul of breaking is the music — the drum break — the purpose of the dance has been to find the infinite variations of movement that form an individual style that can outwit opponents. To copy another’s moves, or to “bite moves,” is a serious offense. But as YouTube and Instagram increased its exposure, some unspoken rules have been lost.

“There’s a commercial aspect and you sometimes see it in the way that people compete and show up in battle,” said Edra. “Sometimes people can look like robots or like they are not really dancing, they’re just throwing moves and are actually biting moves, which is a huge no-no in hip-hop.”

When Gabbert teaches, he focuses on the fundamentals — toprock or standing footwork, drops to the floor, spins on all parts of the body, things you do in the air, and freezes — to educate breakers on where the moves come from so they can see the possibilities of where they can take it. As breaking gained traction beyond New York, those possibilities have included more gymnastic-style flips and airflares — a maneuver where the breaker twirls in a circular path on her hands or head, torso rotating and legs almost cartwheeling — now more generally termed as “power moves.”

Ana Garcia, B-girl Rokafella, of the Full Circle Souljahs, a Bronx-based crew.

Sabrina Santiago/The Red Bulletin

“In the early 2000s, when the South Koreans busted out onto the world scene, they were innovating power moves in ways that no one had ever seen before,” said MiRi Park, B-girl seoulsonyk and a doctoral student at UCLA. “The West Coast and Texas started innovating power moves too and they were also being criticized for just executing moves: ‘You’re not dancing to the beat. You’re not showing us who you are.’ The ideas about breaking initially were, how are you original. What are you bringing to the table that no one else can bring?”

According to Park, the criticism was taken, and the new breakers started making power moves more musical and looking for unique ways to “freak the beat.” 

“Particularly New York has always been in conversation with the international breaking community to say, ‘Oh, this is good, or this is not good,’ or ‘We’re missing this,’ or ‘It’s too mechanical …What’s wrong with your toprock?’ ” said Garcia. “But it feels like it’s alive and in dialogue. It isn’t a monolith or stale because it’s constantly in flux.”

Original crews such as the New York City Breakers and Rock Steady brought breaking to the rest of America and the world, through movies such as Beat Street and Flashdance. World hip-hop tours would plant seeds that the internet has now fully sown. A look at the competitor list for the Red Bull BC One and the 2022 WDSF World Championship Breaking held in October in Seoul, South Korea, confirms that story with competitors hailing from countries as far-flung as Kazakhstan, India, Venezuela, and Taiwan.

The universe of breaking competitions is equally vast, and the formats, rules, judging criteria, and prizes vary significantly. While there are several well-known crew battle competitions such as Battle of the Year, R-16 Korea, and Freestyle Session that boast large purses, the Red Bull BC One World Final is considered the biggest and most prestigious one-on-one event. This year, thousands of breakers competed in 60 qualifying events. The champions of each country then compete in a Last Chance Cypher to join the final 16 B-boys or 16 B-girls. The single elimination bracket winnows to the final battle in the space of a single evening. In each battle, there are three rounds where breakers have between 40-60 seconds to respond to the music and the moves of their fellow competitor. Not knowing what music the DJ will play means that even though most breakers prepare choreography ahead of time, they must also improvise on the spot.

“I’m training all the time — mind, body, and spirit — five to seven hours a day,” said Edra, who has her sights on the Olympics, too. “And when I’m not training, I’m recovering or studying my footage or my opponent’s footage.”

Francisco Acuna Flores, B-boy Ali, competes at Red Bull BC One Cypher USA in Los Angeles on Sept. 17.

Carlo Cruz/Red Bull Content Pool

Francisco Acuna Flores, B-boy Ali, also spends several hours a day training. He first learned to break from kids at school in Mexico City. More than 20 years later, at 35, he is coming to New York as the 2022 Red Bull BC One U.S. B-boy national champion. Though he is on the older end of competitors, he believes he is in his prime.

“Nothing’s really changed for me. I move the same,” he said. “If anything, I feel like my age kind of works in my favor because I’ve seen so much, I’ve been through so many events, that it’s an advantage.”

Breaking requires that kind of confidence, in part because the judging criteria aren’t well codified. For the Red Bull BC One, there is no set scoring system. Instead, a panel of five judges select winners based on their own criteria.

“I look for someone that dominates the floor, that’s comfortable and has presence,” said Alicea, who will be on the panel this year. “They know how to communicate back and forth with their opponent and with the audience. They can dance to the music even though it is an athletic dance. Then there’s being original — how good are you at creating your own moves. And sometimes there’s that spontaneous moment that makes the whole event.”

While Red Bull has been lauded for staying open to feedback from pioneering breakers and the spirit of hip-hop, some have expressed concern about the Olympics judging process, including the development of the Trivium System, a complex, digital scoring platform that some fear favors acrobatic tricks over artistry. Even as breaking draws comparisons to other competitive dance forms such as ice dancing and ballroom dancing, its improvisational element sets it apart.

Some, like Garcia, are cautiously optimistic that the World DanceSport Federation will learn from the first games in 2024 and bring more of the community along in the future. Others, like Gabbert, are content for breaking to exist on two separate tracks: as part of hip-hop culture and as a sport.

“To me, breaking is never going to be a sport, breaking is a dance,” said Gabbert. “I love sports and the Olympics is cool, and if everybody wants to be an Olympian and win a gold medal, that’s their choice. And that’s beautiful. But I’m a part of a community that sustained itself and maintained the integrity of hip-hop culture with all the elements for 50 years worldwide. People that came together in small communities to make this happen. I know what this community is about and that’s what I love about it.”

Grandmaster Caz will open the Red Bull BC One World Final as a DJ and MC.

Jenny Risher

“Everyone is trying to make individual choices,” said Park. “Are they going to partner with a corporation? Are they going to reject partnering with a corporation? Do we not let anyone in — should breaking never have left the South Bronx? There’s all these big questions, but the inevitability of capitalism is that things will get sold. So what side of it are you going to be on? Are you going to be consumed or are you going to be part of the system? Are there ways that we can change the system?”

Underlying these questions is the hope that anyone drawn in by the physical rigor of breaking or the allure of a gold medal will ultimately embrace the larger philosophy of hip-hop — that sport could be a gateway to culture. And the growing gap between rich and poor worldwide ensures that many young breakers still have a personal understanding of one aspect of hip-hop — defying your circumstances to make a name for yourself.

For Brown, these big competitions simply affirm hip-hop’s staying power as a culture of reinvention.

“I think it’s a testament to the power and longevity of hip-hop. It wasn’t stupid, it wasn’t frivolous. We weren’t wasting our time. I always knew in my heart that whoever got exposed to this would like it.

“So when you see competitions in Japan and in Australia and in France, Spain, Italy, and Greece and all these different places, it just wows me sometimes, you know? I mean, the power of something that we started right here in the Bronx, that’s transcended races, colors, creeds, and time.”

Liner Notes

The Red Bull BC One World Final will stream live at 7 p.m. ET, Nov. 12 on ESPN+ in the U.S. and on Red Bull TV, Red Bull BC One Facebook, and Red Bull BC One YouTube outside the U.S.

Candice Thompson is a writer and dance critic living in Brooklyn.