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.
The Elements of Style
One of the members of the Braunschweig jury is Ken Swift, a 47-year-old New Yorker who is widely considered the father of breakdancing. "What we show people with our body on stage is something very personal," says Swift. "It's a signature, which we don't make with a pen but with movement."
The coolness factor is very important in breakdancing, a style that has redefined the nature of performance. The battle jurors don't just rate the dancers' creativity, but also the nonchalance or flow with which they perform their moves -- their style. A b-boys with good style can go far in a battle - but he's unlikely to win without breakneck acrobatics.
The B-Town Allstars have a few more minutes left before their second appearance. Chaabi is lying on a massage bench backstage, having his hip muscles massaged by a physical therapist.
"Everything stiffens," he says, running his index finger from his pelvis across his thigh. "I already notice that I get a little stiffer each year." He gets up from the bench and starts doing stretches with a rubber strap.
The acrobatic elements in breakdancing, known as power moves, are getting more and more difficult, faster and more spectacular. There are dancers who can do 20 pirouettes at a time -- on one elbow. The breakdancers' twists and jumps have become almost as challenging as floor exercises in gymnastics at the Olympics.
Danced to the Breaking Point
Being able to endure pain comes with the territory. It doesn't always turn out well when dancers perform a move that involves deliberately falling on their backs, shoulders or pelvises from a height of about two meters. According to a study done at the Essen University Hospital, there are typically more than five fractures for every 10 dancers, mostly in the hands and ankles. Many b-boys have blisters and chronically open skin wounds caused by the rotations.
Chaabi has a long list of injuries: three knee operations, several torn ligaments and a number of dislocated fingers. In fact, his body is in pretty bad shape
At 26, he is already past his prime as a breakdancer. For him, today's world championship represents one last challenge. He pulls a black elbow guard over his arm. Then he finds a quiet corner backstage, holds up his hands, closes his eyes and prays.
Outside, the audience shouts, "Battle! Battle! Battle!" In the semifinal, the German team is pitted against the dancers from South Korea, the favorites. Breakdancing is practically a national sport among young people in South Korea, where the best teams receive financial support from the government.
The Germans twitch their way across the stage, as if they were being given electroshocks. They put up a good fight. But the South Koreans spring out from backstage like a handful of bouncy balls. One of them spreads his legs in the air and lands on his palms with a smile.
The jury votes 3:2 for South Korea.
'How Old Is That Kid?'
Soon afterwards, a few bottles and chairs are flying through the air in the Berlin b-boys dressing room. Chaabi is sitting on the floor, exhausted and crestfallen, a towel draped around his neck.
"We don't really see ourselves as athletes, but rather as artists," he says. "But this really hurts."
He looks up at a flat-screen TV hanging in a corner. The finale is just beginning, with South Korea competing against the team from the Netherlands. The Dutch send out a little boy as their first dancer. He does a headspin, whirling like a tornado, and then he stops abruptly and calmly, almost arrogantly, folds his arms in front of his stomach.
Chaabi, the master of the headspin, looks amazed. "How old is that kid?" he asks the other dancers in the room.
"Twelve," someone next to him says.
Chaabi shakes his head, packs his clothes into his suitcase and searches for the exit.