By Cathleen Rountree
Imagine: The presidents of the United States and Iran, increasingly irritated by and frustrated with each other’s policies, declare war. But, dig this, rather than across a battlefield, the combat goes down on a dance floor; and, instead of tens of thousands of soldiers from both sides risking their lives, limbs and conscience, only the heads of state clash. But their tête-à-tête is more a toe-to-toe in a symbolic duel of passionate b-boy moves. (Yeah, well, in another universe, maybe.) As hip young men and women in nearly every country in the world know, breakdancing is not only cool, it saves lives, both literally and figuratively.
Benson Lee was recently in San Francisco accompanying his film Planet B-Boy, featured at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival [where it won the Audience Award for Best Doc - ed.] The film debuted last year at Tribeca in the International Documentary Feature competition. Lee, born in Toronto, was raised near Philadelphia and attended NYU and the University of Hawaii. The first-time documentarian also wrote and directed the narrative feature Miss Monday, which was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 1998.
Planet B-Boy considers the international resurgence of breakdancing and closely follows five of the most prominent teams from Korea, Japan, France, and the US as they prepare for the annual Battle of the Year (aka the “World Cup” of b-boying) at its home base in Braunschweig, Germany, which is attended by 10,000 spectators. Launched in 1990 by Thomas Hergenröther, the BOTY is recognized as the most important breakdance event in the world. Filmed in the desert outside Las Vegas, in a Jal Jang Buddhist monastery on the Oh Dae Mountain in Korea, on the back streets of Osaka, and the suburbs of Paris, the film covers the 2006 competition attended by teams from 19 countries, including Germany, France, Brazil, Hungary, South Korea, Japan, South Africa, Australia, China, Thailand, Spain, Denmark, Italy, USA, Latvia, Belgium, Greece, Taiwan and Israel.
Part modern dance, part gymnastics, part martial arts, the entirely hip artistry of breakdancing explodes onscreen as we enjoy a front row perspective of the “battles” and, more poignantly, enter the personal lives of several b-boys. For example, Lil Kev, 14, one of the few white kids (and the youngest) among all of the troupes, is a member of France’s Phase-T from the suburb of Chelles, 25 kilos from Paris. “The guys are like brothers to me,” he tells the filmmaker. At first, his parents were against his joining P-T because, as his mother says, “They were all 6-feet tall and black, black, black! And he’s very small for his age and blond, blond, blond.” Lil Kev had thought he wanted to be a fireman before he discovered dancing. When his mother says, she would be proud of him, if he were a fireman, the boy waves his hand at her disgustedly, as he says, “Get over it.” In another case, a Korean father of a Last for One member wishes his son would become a professor or doctor. The boy’s mother died when he was a child and his father raised him on his own with great difficulty. Both father and son admit that their relationship is strained and they don’t know how to relate well to each other.
It’s fascinating to see how each crew internalizes and represents a cultural quality associated with their nationality, such as the individuality of Americans as epitomized by Knucklehead Zoo, and as with the group Ichigeki, the homogeneity of society that the Japanese prize so highly. Unsurprisingly, as Ken Swift, a famous b-boy from the 70s says, the French b-boys “dance more beautifully than anyone in the world.” But according to BOTY organizer Hergenröther, “on a technical level, there’s no one who can touch the Koreans.” However, recognizing the b-boys’ rebellion against a socially repressed culture, he continues, “Right now, it’s like South Korea is spawning new super hero killers. They’re inspiring a lot of people to go just ridiculously crazy!”
Planet B-Boy, which opens in New York and Los Angeles on March 21, and on March 28 in San Francisco, San Diego and Washington, DC, is all about the passion for dance. As a member of Phase-T says, “We’ll be France’s ambassadors of its hip-hop culture today and we’ll do our best to represent. We’ll wake up the audience and let them know that France knows how to dance. That’s for sure.” Or, as a member of Knucklehead Zoo puts it, it’s “just a bunch of amazing shit.”
How did you become interested in the Battle of the Year? When did you first learn about it?
It was on a cold winter night in 1998 and I asked myself, “Whatever happened to breakdancing?" So I googled it and discovered an entire subculture that I had no idea still existed. That’s when I also discovered there was an annual World Cup of b-boying, where 10,000 fans came out to watch crews from 19 countries battle it out in of all places, Braunschweig, Germany.
Why is breakdancing an important art form?
Most people don’t know that this dance was originally called b-boying and that it came out of a gang style dance called “rockin” that started circa late 60s, early 70s. B-boying came into its own in the late 70s. It’s a legitimate dance form that has its own foundation of moves such as the six step, as well as various styles such as toprock, footwork and power. But unlike other dance forms, this is the only dance that’s core has a very serious competitive element that inspires self-expression. Furthermore, there are no real steps because of it. The dance is totally designed around the music and its mostly improvised. This is a dance that encourages individuality. A dancer can bring anything into the dance that he or she wants, but has to maintain the foundation to some degree, as well have b-boying “attitude,” which is basically being a warrior.
How did the term b-boying evolve from breakdancing? I’m assuming they’re synonymous?
The truth is, the terms “breakdancing” and “breakdancer” are sort of derogatory terms for b-boys. They were coined by the media that made all the old 80s exploitation films. For the dancers (and the general public), they revive images of street kids dancing with magical brooms, dancing with nunchakus in West Side Story-like choreography, while wearing parachute pants that would make MC Hammer’s eyes roll! So it leaves a bad taste in the mouth of every b-boy or breaker. It’s politically incorrect. It’s like calling an Inuit an Eskimo. They would appreciate it if you called them b-boy, b-girl or even breaker. The correct term for the dance is b-boying, b-girling, and breakin.
What, in your opinion, accounts for the globalization of hip-hop culture in general, and breakin in particular?
It’s for the simple reason that it is an art form and culture that provides different categories for people to express themselves. For example, if you’re into the art aspect, then do graffiti. If you like music, you can rap or DJ. If you are more inclined to dance, then break. Back in the day, it was common for kids to do a little bit of everything because it was all related and relative to living what is called hip-hop culture. This culture is for people who reject other similar forms in self-expression that are deemed more mainstream. This is a voice for the kids who can relate to the voice of hip-hop which says that it is misconstrued by most as "Check out my bitches and my ho's."
Do you consider yourself a hip-hop head? Do you perform any b-boy moves yourself?
No, I’m a just a hip-hop enthusiast, and when I was younger, I was a closeted breaker. But, I do plan on taking some lessons and learning breakin the proper way. To be a hip-hop head, you need to have put in some major time and been recognized as an authority in any of the hip-hop elements (i.e., m’cing, graffiti, djing, b-boying, beatboxing). This can take a lifetime of achievement and dedication.
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