The idea of breaking as an Olympic sport might seem wrong at first. Dance is art, not sport, right? What’s next, a gold medal for the Milly Rock?
But, as they say in Noo Yawk: Nah, B. Recognize the real.
Organizers of the 2024 Games in Paris have proposed adding breaking — that’s the term preferred by the dancers themselves, not “breakdancing” — as an official Olympic event. The concept got a trial run at the 2018 Youth Games in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where B-boys and B-girls from Russia and Japan won gold. If approved by the International Olympic Committee, which said in a statement that it wants to make the games “gender-balanced, more youth-focused and more urban,” windmills and head spins will reach the pinnacle of global sports.
For all you nonbelievers: Breaking is not a trendy rap video jig that anybody can imitate. It’s a precise, hard-earned skill requiring strength, quickness, agility, rhythm, style and creativity. It has principles, an identity and a history that began in New York in the early 1970s when breaking was created by black and Puerto Rican youths as a foundational element of hip-hop culture. And unlike many forms of dance, breaking was born out of competition. The beating heart of breaking has always been battling another dancer, from rocking to footwork to freeze, to determine a winner and a loser.
Breaking is in hip-hop’s DNA, and hip-hop is built on competition.
“Think about it like boxing,” said Bobbito Garcia, a longtime New York City culture creator and member of the Rock Steady Crew, a legendary hip-hop collective that spread breaking worldwide in the early 1980s.
“You’re stepping into a ring. You’re about to battle another warrior,” Garcia said. “The mental fortitude required, coupled with the athleticism — hell, yeah, breaking is a sport!”
Rock Steady Crew president Richard “Crazy Legs” Colón, one of the all-time great B-boys, is an enthusiastic supporter of adding breaking to the Olympics. The purist in him considers breaking a dance, but he knows from experience that competing at the highest level requires extraordinary athleticism. Now is the time to blend both concepts, he said.
Now 53, Crazy Legs travels the world to showcase his still formidable talents and judge corporate-sponsored breaking competitions that can draw as many as 15,000 people. Breaking has more than a million dancers in France, which is one reason that the Paris Games organizers want to include it.
“It serves as such a bridge to bring so many communities together, removing politics and ideology and tribalism,” Crazy Legs said. “It just brings the world closer together.”
It all started in the early 1970s in New York’s impoverished Bronx borough. A Jamaican-born DJ named Clive “Kool Herc” Campbell noticed that dancers would go off during the “breakdown” or “break” of a song — the part featuring just percussion or bassline. Kool Herc started extending the breaks by using two copies of the same record, going back and forth on two turntables. This was the Big Bang of hip-hop culture, a collision of stolen moments from James Brown’s “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine,” The Jimmy Castor Bunch’s “It’s Just Begun” and The Incredible Bongo Band’s “Apache.”
Dudes started rapping over the breaks. The kids who danced to the breaks were “break-boys” or “B-boys.” Two brothers who called themselves “The N—- Twins” are credited with being the first to bring B-boying down to the floor, about 1974 or ’75. Other pioneers included Spy, JoJo and Rock Steady Crew co-founder Jimmy D. Crazy Legs battled his way into Rock Steady — you had to defeat a member to make it into the crew — in 1979.
In 1983, Rock Steady got busy in the hit film Flashdance, which propelled them, and the dance form, to global fame.
Long before white America embraced rap music, B-boys and B-girls took hip-hop around the world. Rock Steady performed for the queen of England. But once corporate America realized that billions could be made from selling rap music, the less profitable dance element was overshadowed. Today, however, breaking enjoys massive global popularity among those who embrace all four original elements of hip-hop culture: DJing, breaking, rap and graffiti.
Now, breaking is hopefully headed to the Olympics, where it can flip, glide and spin alongside such athletic cousins as gymnastics and ice skating.
“At the end of the day, this art form comes from us, people who grew up with nothing, people from the ‘hood,” said Crazy Legs. “The soul of hip-hop comes from the lack of having anything, and making something out of nothing. That’s the voice of struggle, and that brings so much flavor to the game.”
Jesse Washington is a senior writer for The Undefeated. You can find him giving dudes the bizness on a basketball court near you.