Tokyo Olympics

Breakers Eager for 2024 Olympic Debut, But Some NYC Originators Apprehensive

Breaking’s roots can be found in the Bronx, where street dancing emerged as a form of expression in the 1970s as a means of escape amid chaos for minority communities — and leaders of that movement fear ceding control of the art form to a body such as the IOC could cloud breaking’s culture

breaking competition
Dean Treml/Red Bull via Getty Images

It’s not difficult for Fabiano Lopes to grasp what will be at stake in three years when breaking makes its Olympic debut.

Better known to his 500,000 Instagram followers as B-boy Neguin, Lopes discovered breaking — known more widely as break dancing to the annoyance of its originators — nearly 30 years ago when he caught snippets of b-boys doing windmills on Brazilian television.

That little exposure led to a life-changing career. So what happens when breaking ends up on TV screens across the globe?

“There’s no boundaries,” he says, “because this art form is free.”

That’s the hope held by Lopes and others in the breaking community after the International Olympic Committee announced last December that breaking would become an official Olympic sport at the 2024 Paris Summer Games. But that optimism is hardly unanimous.

Breaking’s roots can be found in New York’s Bronx borough, where street dancing emerged as a form of expression in the 1970s as a means of escape amid chaos for minority communities that felt mistreated by the powers that be. For the leaders of that movement, such as Harlem’s Gabriel “Kwikstep” Dionisio, there’s concern that ceding control of the art form to a body such as the IOC could cloud breaking’s culture.

“The people at the Olympics who have a particular way of how events run at that level, that doesn’t fit with breaking in the way it’s run around the way,” Dionisio said.

As a child and young adult in Harlem, in upper Manhattan, during the 1970s and 80s, Dionisio used breaking as a means of therapy for the “baggage” that accompanied life on the streets.

“To me, it’s like taking the badge of honor of an urban samurai with focus and discipline, rhythm and soul,” Dionisio said of early b-boy dance-offs. “And you walked around with your sword, with your badge of honor, like, ‘Who wants this? Who’s the best in Harlem?’”

Not that Dionisio is opposed to sharing that craft. He and other b-boys/girls of his generation appeared in films, TV shows, music videos and commercials as hip-hop ascended into popular culture.

It’s because of that commercial work that the 33-year-old Lopes first saw those windmills — a signature move where breakers spin continuously on their upper back and shoulders with feet in the air.

Lopes moved from his hometown of Paraná to São Paulo in the 1990s to pursue breaking. He discovered a vibrant scene that had taken the foundations of Bronx-born breaking and blended it with local flavors. Lopes developed his b-boy style by layering his performances with moves inspired by his background in capoeira, a Brazilian martial art.

Breaking satisfied his soul, but its burgeoning competitive scene is what sustained him. He became a world champion in 2010 at Red Bull BC One, an annual breaking competition that’s likely the most popular venue the sport has had yet. He’s since signed on as a member of the Red Bull BC One crew, a sponsorship deal that supports his other artistic passions — including DJing, graffiti and song-writing — while traveling to 141 countries.

“Breaking was the one that took me to see the world,” he said.

The globalization doesn't bother most of breaking’s old school. In 2019, Dionisio and others in New York hosted workshops for b-boys from Portugal with Olympic aspirations. Now in his early 50s, Dionisio was still on the floor in a Harlem dance studio, reinforcing fundamentals for students who had done much of their learning via YouTube and other social media.

“The key is that they came here and they get to see, ’Oh, this is a different experience,” Dionisio said.

Kenny “INFMS” Rodriguez, a breaking instructor from Long Island, New York, is from a generation younger than Dionisio. He senses opportunity in the Olympics, but also understands Kwikstep’s concern.

Not every change ushered in by the competitive scene has been welcome. Rodriguez said that because Red Bull BC One crowns individual champions, the team element of breaking has fallen out of fad. That’s a major cultural shift from breaking’s Bronx roots, when competitions almost always took place between crews.

Rodriguez is hoping the Olympics will consider team events, as a way to bring breaking back to its fundamentals.

Of course, the breaking community is uncertain just how much the Olympics are ready to listen. In the leadup to the announcement last winter that breaking would become an Olympic event, old-timers such as Dionisio became frustrated that they weren’t being asked for input. Even Lopes — among the biggest stars breaking has right now — hasn’t heard anything from the IOC regarding details for the event.

“I think there are different views,” Rodriguez said. “There are hardline fundamentalists in everything you do and those people are worried that it’s going to take away from the authenticity, that expressive nature, the artistry of it. That’s a legitimate fear, a legitimate concern.”

But it’s one he thinks can be overcome. He points to skateboarding as an example — the competitive scene has exploded, including via Olympic inclusion, but there’s nothing stopping skaters from forgoing the half pipes and keeping things old school.

On that point, Dionisio agrees.

“You’re going to have the Olympics,” he said. “But you’re always going to have what’s happening around the way.”

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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