Return of the B-Boy Breakdancing Sees Global Resurgence
Breakdancing, an artform invented by New York street gangs in the 1980s, is seeing a renaissance on a global scale. Today's battles may be big-budget spectacles with flashy acrobatics, but they still prize one thing above all else: style.
The bald spot in the middle of Khaled Chaabi's head is the price he's had to pay for his career as a dancer.
It's shortly after 11 p.m. on a Friday night in Berlin, and the B-Town Allstars are rehearsing on the second floor of an office building near Alexanderplatz, in a space once occupied by the telecommunications agency of the East German government. There are loose power cables dangling from the ceiling, and the floor is covered with shiny green PVC flooring material.
It's a good surface for breakdancing.
Hip-hop beats are booming from two loudspeakers. The artists, young men in excellent physical shape, their hair styled like models, do somersaults and bend their bodies to the rhythm of the music as if they were made of rubber. Then Khaled Chaabi steps up, does a headstand, gets his momentum going and turns himself around his body axis, three times, five times and then ten times, rotating on his skullcap like a human top.
The move is called a headspin, and it's Chaabi's specialty. He has done the headspin so many times that a bald spot the size of a saucer has formed on his head. He probably won't have any hair left at all one day, says Chaabi.
Battle of the Year
After an hour, the rehearsal room reeks of sweat and stale air. The dancers have been practicing almost every day, and often into the night, for the last three months. The Allstars are rehearsing for the Battle of the Year, a breakdancing world championship, which will be held in Germany this year.
"I heard that the Koreans spend six hours a day rehearsing for the world championship," says one member of the group.
"Then we'll just have to make it seven or eight," says Chaabi.
They want to bring the trophy home to Berlin.
Breakdancing is actually a product of the 1980s, the era of ghetto blasters and neon-colored jackets, when the dance style became popular in the United States. Then, in the 1990s, breakdancing faded out in much of the West. But now the Facebook generation has rediscovered the dance. In subway stations and at bus terminals, in dancing schools and youth clubs, young people are now once more practicing the acrobatic moves that characterize breakdancing. The Internet is full of films of dance groups from around the world. The wave has even reached conservative countries like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
Breakdancers call themselves b-boys and b-girls. In Germany there are more than 100 groups, or crews, that regularly take part in dancing competitions known as battles.
Berlin's Top B-Boys
The B-Town Allstars are among the stars of the breakdancing scene. The crew consists of 12 young men from Berlin, many of whom grew up in the city's rougher neighborhoods. One of them used to work in a printing shop, while another did a training program as a painter. Now they are all professional dancers, with stage names like Snoop and AfroKilla. Two members of the group have German roots, while the others are from Morocco, South Africa, Palestine and the Dominican Republic.
A few days before the world championship, the dancers perform in front of the Adlon Hotel, near the Brandenburg Gate, spinning on the pavement like circus performers. Passersby stop to watch, marvel and applaud. "Bravo!" exclaims a retiree.
Breakdancing is ghetto art, a product of street culture. Gangs in the Bronx, a borough of New York City, invented the dance style. Breakdancing seems to adhere to a simple motto: You can turn nothing into everything.
Khaled Chaabi's stage name is KC1. He is originally from Syria. Shortly after he was born, his parents moved from the Syrian city of Homs to Berlin, where they lived in an apartment building in the Wedding district. Chaabi has seven brothers and five sisters. He says that when they were young, his father said to them: "Kids, you have to fend for yourselves."
Chaabi grew up in the streets. He was a "bad boy," as he calls it, getting into fights, stealing and interacting more with police officers than teachers. Some of his friends from those days are now in prison "for knifings and things like that," while he barely managed to get his act together, says Chaabi.
When he was 13, he saw a breakdancing group performing in a local youth club. "It was a magical moment," says Chaabi. "I couldn't understand how a person could do movements like that without snapping in the middle." He began practicing. "In my gang, it was all about quick thrills and fast money. Breakdancing is exactly the opposite. It takes many years to get a move right. I learned to stick with it and be patient, and to take the frustrations in stride."
From the Street to the Stadium
Chaabi now earns a good living dancing. He performs with the Flying Steps, a show group that dances to classical music and is sponsored by Red Bull. He has given performances around the world, and even audiences in remote parts of Australia are familiar with his headspin.
The world championship is the highpoint of his career. For breakdancers, there is nothing more important than the Battle of the Year.
The event was actually conceived by a German, Thomas Hergenröther, a 44-year-old from the northern city of Hannover. His goal was to become a physical education and English teacher, but then he hit upon the battle idea. He now heads an event-planning agency, which organizes the world championship every year.
Hergenröther used to have to drag stoned dancers from the stage, while others sometimes destroyed their hotel rooms. "Nowadays, b-boys don't get very far with the rock star image," he says. The industry has become more professional. Dancers watch what they eat, and some even meditate before shows. "I've seen cool guys crying backstage after losing their battle. It's become a high-performance sport," says Hergenröther.
When the world championship was held in the southern French city of Montpellier, the team from France, a European stronghold of breakdancing, won the title. This time Hergenröther has booked the Volkswagenhalle convention center in the central German city of Braunschweig.
Braunschweig? "Oh well," he says, "slumming it a little is part of breakdancing."
Competition on a Global Scale
The B-Town Allstars have arrived by bus. The arena starts filling up with people hours before the show begins. It's a sold-out crowd, and the 8,000 fans from all over Europe are in high spirits. DJs are playing hip-hop, funk and soul music. People are dancing everywhere.
A crew from Nigeria opens the show. The dancers do the splits and twist their legs like shoelaces. A team from Venezuela slides across the stage while doing headstands. The Dutch dancers rotate on their backs like spinning bottles, and the French spin across the floor, legs spread wide, as if they were windmills.
The objective in breakdancing is to overcome gravity while looking as relaxed as possible. Two groups perform in a battle against each other, alternately sending out their best dancers. A jury judges the choreography and eventually picks the winners.
When the German team appears on stage, the Berlin dancers do back handsprings and somersaults. Then Chaabi does his headspin. He spins 42 times around his body axis, until it looks as if he were trying to drill a hole into the stage floor with his head.
The audience is wild with enthusiasm. Hundreds shout along and keep the beat as if they were at a hip-hop concert. The Allstars qualify for the next round.
- Part 1: Breakdancing Sees Global Resurgence
- Part 2: The Elements of Style