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Hip hop is a force and it's historically been comprised of five elements: deejaying, emceeing, graffiti, knowledge -- last, but not least -- B-boying. In hip hop's infancy, in the 1970s, those dancing were more revered than those speaking. DJs like Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash reigned supreme over parties by giving the soundtrack to many nights, while playing break beats of songs with no words, so B-boys and B-girls of all ages could spin, glide and twist on almost every limb God gave them.
But, that was four decades ago and now hip hop is the most popular genre of music in the world, largely thanks to rappers dominating Billboard charts, airwaves, and stages. You're more likely to see a kid pick up a mic than get down on the floor as a B-boy. So, is one of the most integral elements of hip hop extinct? No.
Picture this: Someone stands on the edges of a stage before crossing their legs and gliding a few feet across it. Before you know it, their feet shuffling turns into a spinning handstand, which leads to a series of smaller but tight ones. Then, they lay on their back, tuck their legs in to their face and spin their body to the sound of cheers -- all while a horn and bass loop plays in the background.
That wasn't in 1975. That was in 2019. That was Pebblz during the Red Bull BC One Tour's B-Girl National Finals earlier this month in Houston, Texas. She's a nine-year veteran and she’s only 16 years old.
At this age, she's grown up in a world where her peers spend hours a day staring at cell phones, leaving little room for the extensive training she does for dance. Yet, Pebblz has been breakdancing since the iPhone 4 was new and trains everyday.
"There are still kids that have that dedication. But, sometimes the phone does distract you. It even distracts me. When I was younger and I didn't have a phone, I was less distracted," B-boy Victor, the 2015 Red Bull BC One Champion, told REVOLT TV. "For me, I would practice every day. I would practice all day because I had no phone and I had no computer. I had none of that. The only thing to do was go to school and practice."
A child spending more time practicing dance than tweeting may appear to be an anomaly today, but it wasn't always like that. At the age of 10, Rock Steady Crew co-founder and automatic for the B-boy Mount Rushmore, Richard “Crazy Legs” Colon; would "eat, sleep, drink and shit breaking," as he eloquently told REVOLT TV. Growing up in Bronx, New York meant that he saw his hometown burning from frequent fires destroying older buildings, New York City being broke, and the Bronx being the poorest county in the state of New York. The Bronx was barren land to outsiders, but a perfect foundation for backspins and power moves for the children growing up too quickly there.
"As children, we were already old souls because of the nature of our environment. We were strong-willed warriors coming up in the hood," Legs said.
In those days, you'd seldom walk down a New York City street and not see people spinning on the top of their Kangol hats and popping-locking in their Adidas tracksuits, which would momentarily freeze time and garner your attention. Nowadays, you'd be hard pressed to find any populating NYC streets.
Seeing fewer dancers around could be a sign of a declining art form amongst youths. It could also be a sign of a narrow-sighted misperception. Red Bull BC One All Star B-boy Neguin was born in Brazil in 1987, and studied martial arts and capoeira. When he became a teenager, he would begin learning how to breakdance. Unless you were around him during those times, you would've had no idea he existed, let alone knew he was becoming a master of body control.
"Back then, we didn't have much information. We didn't have YouTube or [Instagram]. We couldn't check out this guy from Korea or this guy from Europe or this competition. Now, there's more information,” he told REVOLT TV.
Sunny, one of this year's Red Bull BC One B-Girl National finalist, is a testament to the influence that new technology has on breakdancing. She was born in Kentucky, a place you wouldn't automatically associate with hip hop dancing because -- according to her -- there wasn't really a scene. But, thanks to her younger brother immersing himself in the global B-boy community by watching videos on YouTube, his gymnast of a sister was able to get involved.
The Red Bull BC One competition is predicated on the breaking of regional barriers. Red Bull has been giving B-boys and B-girls the chance to battle the best of the best from around the world since 2004 and the competition is highly revered by the community. Sunny says the competition is "99% of B-boys' dreams" and "what you grow up watching." For an elder statesman such as Crazy Legs, the energy drink company's involvement in this art form has a deeper historical significance.
"If there were some sort of reparations for how we grew up in the hood, and a company came and said, 'We like what you do. We're about what you do,' that would be Red Bull."
Beyond incentivizing people to dance with cash prize competitions, Red Bull has shown an uncanny ability to keep the youth interested in breaking with other initiatives like their workshops. During the Houston stop of the tour, Neguin helped lead the "Evolve Your Style" workshop, an exercise wherein Neguin focuses on mental and physical techniques that blend Brazilian Martial Arts, and hip hop. The participants’ ages ranged from 15 - 23 and each of them spend hours practicing with their master instructors -- instead of staring at their phones.
To be fair, the perception of cell phones hindering kids from getting into physical activities may be as narrow-sighted as the one about B-boying's decline. Neguin -- who has more than 148,000 followers on Instagram -- attests to seeing a direct pipeline from social media to dance competitions. “Those little kids look up to me on social media. They go to my Instagram, they check my stuff, they get inspired from there and then, they blow up.” But, social media is also a double-edged sword.
"Some watch videos just because they want to steal moves. A lot of people are talking about how the newer generation aren't making up their own stuff. They're more so just taking from the older generation," Sunny said.
That begs the questions: Does mass adoption alone equal survival of the art form? Or, is creatively pushing the art form forward integral to its survival? There weren't any gripes about thievery at the cyphers in Houston. Instead, breakdancers -- young and older -- often dispersed into disparate, mini-cyphers spread across the massive Warehouse Live venue. In a touching moment that crystalizes the communal spirit of the weekend, Crazy Legs surprised everyone by coming through the crowd and participating in a rare battle with his fellow Red Bull BC One All-Stars.
"Breaking has always survived. It may not have survived consistently throughout the world at the same time. But, in different countries, it kind of maintains its own, while there were lulls in other countries," the legend said.
One of those countries where it may be seeing a lull is America. In the ‘70s and ‘80s when Crazy Legs was coming of age, rent in New York City was a fraction of what it is today and the unemployment rate was reaching historic lows. As a child grows, he/she can be pulled away from interests like breakdancing by bills and other obligations. The lack of B-boys and B-girls could be a product of the harsh reality that makes one believe that they can’t always support themselves with art.
"At least across the northeast, breaking is actually kind of dying. Life is difficult and you have to work jobs to make a living, and breaking isn't a viable way to sustain yourself financially," Sunny said. "So, people end up giving up on breaking. So, the community doesn't have people nurturing new generations here."
Still, you could argue that breakdancing may be on the precipice of its biggest leap in decades in terms of international exposure. The organizers of the 2024 Paris Olympics announced, earlier this year, that their recommendation to the International Olympic Committee will include breakdancing as a sport. This news came six months after the first-ever breaking competitions at the Summer Youth Olympics in 2018. Remember, it was the Dream Team of the 1992 Olympics that helped transform the NBA into the international attraction it is today. But, it was also the Dream Team dominating the world’s best players -- proving the best basketball talent resided in America -- that was central to that popular explosion.
With an international institution like Red Bull BC One, its tours, workshops, and the litany of world-class dancers, kids may already have a path to international recognition long before the Olympics touches down in Paris. Plus, the people will forever remain the core element of hip hop.
"Basketball is in the Olympics, but the Olympics is still not the NBA. So, let's recognize the power that we have and what we are, and realize we are the machine that keeps things going," Crazy Legs concluded.
Hip hop. It don’t stop.
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