Breaking: From the ghetto to the Olympic arena

YOG gold medallist in the boy's event - Bboy Bumblebee from Russia (Photo: IOC)

By Justin Kor

On a pavement along Orchard Road, groups of breakers clad in oversized shirts and sweatpants bust out flamboyant dance moves in the form of dynamic head spins, windmills and L-kicks.

With hip-hop music booming in the background, the exhilarating performances and electric atmosphere draw a huge crowd of over 3,000 people. Many eagerly crane their necks to catch a glimpse of the action.

Suddenly, shrill blasts of police whistles pierce the air as the authorities move in to disperse the crowd. Nearby shopkeepers have called the police as the crowds were scaring shoppers and tourists away. The party ends abruptly.

Fast forward 35 years and breakers are back in full force at Orchard Road, thrilling crowds again. But this time, there is no fear of intervention from the law.

Cheers and applause have replaced the police whistles as performers pull off audacious moves. Instead of dancing on the streets, they do so in the air-conditioned comfort of an auditorium at *SCAPE. Impromptu dance sessions have given way to large-scale festivals such as the Radikal Forze Jam that attract a bevy of international dancers across the world.

In recent years, breaking, or breakdancing, has been making a comeback in Singapore.

This dance form, often associated with gangsters, drugs and the shady underground culture, has suffered from an unsavoury reputation. During its heyday in the 1980s, hordes of youths would practise on the streets in town. But the authorities clamped down heavily on these activities as they perceived these street performances as illegal gatherings. Slowly, the hype died down.

But today, breaking is slowly shedding its unwholesome image and gaining popularity. Dance festivals and events around Singapore are promoting the activity, and numerous dance schools organise breaking classes for eager enthusiasts.

Worldwide, the hype is about to go up a notch – the street dance is on the cusp of becoming recognised as a legitimate sport at the Olympics.

Organisers of the Paris 2024 Games have proposed to include breaking as a new sport on the Olympic programme, along with three other non-traditional sports – surfing, sport climbing and skateboarding. These sports are now awaiting the approval of the International Olympic Committee.

Breaking has actually made its debut at the Olympics, albeit on a smaller scale. At the 2018 Youth Olympic Games (YOG), 24 b-boys and b-girls contended for medals in Buenos Aires.

Felix Huang, the founder of breaking group Radikal Forze who is widely regarded as the face of the local breaking scene, believes that the dance form’s inclusion in the Olympics would be a win-win situation for both camps.

“The Olympics can help spread the awareness of breaking,” says Huang, who is also the owner of Recognize! Studios. The dance form will also be a “refreshing” addition to the Olympics, he adds.

Practitioners across the world have also welcomed the move. Victor Sono, a Canadian breaker who attended the recent *SCAPE Radikal Forze Jam in Singapore – one of the biggest breaking festivals in the world which drew over 10,500 dancers this year – says the Olympics would give breakers a chance to make their countries proud by doing what they love most.

“Going to the Olympics means that I can represent my country with my style. Maybe it can also help people respect what we do more and hopefully, through this, I can motivate the younger ones to keep dancing,” he says.

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Japanese breaker Katsuyuki Ishikawa has had a glimpse of what the Olympics might hold for breaking, after coaching the pair of Japanese breakers who bagged a gold and a bronze at the 2018 YOG in Argentina. Their success has given the sport more exposure in Japan.

“Because of the YOG, I’ve gotten more requests from parents to teach their children. A lot of children are telling me they want to win medals as well, so I think the Olympics will give breaking a good opportunity to become more popular,” he says.

However, some purists have argued that the very essence of breaking – having freedom of expression –  would be compromised in the face of rigid Olympic rules. There has been a debate on whether the activity should even be labelled a sport, with some believing that if breaking came from the streets, it should remain in the streets.

But it seems only natural for breaking to chart a new path, as its culture has evolved constantly since its birth in the ghettos of The Bronx in New York City over 40 years ago.

Back then, breaking consisted of basic steps. Those steps have morphed into the stunningly technical and elaborate moves seen today.

“This is simply a natural progression, an evolution of a culture,” explains Huang.

So could Singapore be in shot of a medal if breaking makes the Olympic programme in Paris?

With the right help and infrastructure in place, Huang certainly believes so. “If we can create an industry, it’s not far-fetched to think that a Singaporean can win at the Olympics.”

The clock is ticking.