Emerging from a cardboard-covered sidewalk in New York’s Bronx and making it to the holy grail of the sporting landscape, breakdancing’s whirlwind of a rise packs an intriguing story in itself. Back in the 1970s, no one could have envisaged that such an urban art form and the breakers, who hardly abided by anything but the beat booming in the background, would figure on the Olympics stage.
A part of the hip-hop culture predominantly identified with African-Americans, it was heavily commercialised by the ’80s pop culture. Crews soon mushroomed in different parts of the world and the breaking scene’s edges sharpened. It was at the turn of the century that megacorp Red Bull essayed in something elaborate and held its first-ever BC One World Finals in Switzerland. Since then, breaking has been replete with independent event promoters powered on by corporate entities such as Red Bull and Monster Energy.
We have been requesting the Union Sports Ministry for funds to organise three to four national-level events. We are also planning to send top-3 Indian B-boys and B-girls to the Asian Breaking Championships from July 1-2 in Hangzhou, China. We are hoping to get some help from the government. —Gaggun Bedi, Chief technical director, All india dance sports federation
As the years advanced, breaking evolved too. No longer a street phenomenon, it is governed by the World Dance Sport Federation (WDSF) and is an official Olympics medal sport. After making a thud at the 2018 Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires alongside sport climbing, skateboarding, futsal, etc, it will be Paris’ turn to roll out the red carpet for the B-boys and girls — that’s what you call its practitioners — from around the world next year.
“I’ve been dabbling in breaking for 14 years. Even within the dancing culture, nobody took us seriously. Our form of expression has been highly misunderstood,” reflects Arif Chaudhary, who goes by the moniker B-boy Flying Machine in the breaking circles and is a four-time Red Bull One Cypher B-Boying India champion. He is the only Indian to make it to the prestigious Red Bull One World Finals. “When the Olympics tag became official, I was glad that the efforts we breakers had been putting in had paid off. We needed this badly,” adds the 25-year-old, who hails from Mumbai’s Jogeshwari suburb.
However, the days of ignorance are far from over. Many wonder why the art-cum-sport is even considered a sport. For those who do not know, breaking involves exceptional athleticism, rubber-like flexibility, and the breakers have to adhere to rigorous practice routines as any other sport requires. At the top level, it almost resembles gymnastics with all the slick moves such as the windmills, airflares, jackhammers and head slides, freezes, etc, leaving one open-mouthed amid a rapture of applause.
“Still people are coming to terms with breaking as a sport at their own pace. When we tell them that we are going to be a part of the Olympics, they are like: ‘Oh, so you guys will be performing at the opening and closing ceremonies’,” quips Gaggun Bedi, chief technical director of the All India Dance Sports Federation (AIDSF), which is overseeing the formation of the Indian team alongside the Breakdance Federation of India (BFI).
Learning to fly
It was in 2019 that the Indian dream began to take flight when the Jalandhar-based Bedi, a renowned choreographer, was chosen to kickstart the selection process. It led to spawning of the National Breaking Championships — the first of which was held in 2021 — and international exposure tours. Then, there were always the Red Bull One Cyphers which thrust the breakers into the limelight and opened up avenues like sponsorships and as a parameter to test oneself. However, the cyphers are not part of the Olympics qualification process.
The procedure entails a long-drawn method. For the 32 slots on offer (16 B-boys and 16 B-girls), there are three routes through which the breakers can secure a berth at the 2024 Games — the 2023 World Championships, Continental Games and the Olympics Qualifier Series (OQS). As hosts, France reserves one quota each in both the categories. The two Worlds winners will directly qualify (one per gender), while 10 breakers (5 per gender) will earn quota through the continental meets. The best chance for Indian breakers to secure a quota place is through the Breaking For Gold (BFG) events as the points collected will help them qualify for the OQS, which will see seven B-boys and seven B-girls compete for the quota places. But it is easier said than done.
The clock is ticking and there are over “20 competitions” to be held apart from the BFG World Series. The points the breakers have earned in these competitions will boost their rankings, of which the top 14 in each gender category advance to next year’s four-month-long Olympics Qualifier Series. As of May, the Indian breakers have participated in two BFG World Series events only — in Japan’s Kitakyushu in February and Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro in March.
Three B-boys and three B-girls, including some of the leading breakers of the country, engaged in battles in Japan. The results were a little discouraging as Arif finished 59th, followed by Ramesh Yadav (B-boy Tornado) and Suraj Raut (B-boy Suraj) at 62nd and 91st, respectively. Among the girls, Johanna Rodrigues (B-girl Jo) was the best-ranked Indian at the 50th position, Sushma Satish Aithal (B-girl Sushma) was 64th while youngster Siddhi Tambe (B-girl BarB) ended 76th.
In Brazil, the number dropped to just two participants. Only Suryadharshan Bagiyaraj (B-boy Crazy Bright) and Sushma represented India and claimed the 68th and 51st places in their respective categories.
Break the bank
The reason for this drastic plunge is mainly funding. At a time when breakers should be participating in as many events as possible to improve their rankings, they are coping with blows one after the other due to financial reasons.
As it turns out, they missed out on several key events before travelling to Japan. “I am fully prepared for the challenging dance-offs, the only thing that is stopping me is the finances,” says a still upbeat Arif, the national champion. The face of Red Bull in India, he is sponsored by it. “But they can’t send me to all the events as there’s a cap. Each trip costs Rs 1-3 lakh and there are more than 20 events taking place,” he pauses, before finally letting it out, “If I don’t make it to the Games, it will be because of my financial situation.”
Ramesh, from a slum in Mumbai’s Mankhurd area, goes on to trace the daunting scenario they had to face before gaining a second wind to keep going. “Before battling in Japan, I and Flying Machine were ranked above 500 and after the event, we managed to improve our ranking to 106. We have the potential to surprise the world but missing these games is going to cost us hugely,” says the 25-year-old.
His story mirrors breaking itself — springing out of poverty and landing in the limelight. It all began at a birthday party for him, where the dance floor was emptied for a band of breakers. Mesmerised by their moves, he found his calling in breaking. For the Asian World Finals in Taiwan earlier this month, where he finished 13th, Ramesh had to bear the expenses on his own and was compelled to put up a video on Instagram imploring the masses to chip in. “Fortunately, our hip-hop community is really strong. I have received funds of even Rs 5 and Rs 10 from school students, college-goers, etc, and every penny counts,” he shares.
With a WDSF-stamped letter in his hands, the 2023 national silver medallist thought he was on his way to another battle in France. “But I was not granted a visa!” Ramesh says. “I had all the documents. Funding aside, even getting a visa is a hassle,” he adds.
Siddhi (19) was 10 when she started her breaking journey. Daughter of an Anganwadi worker, she has had her share of struggles too. However, unlike Ramesh, she managed to rope in a sponsorship last year from Welspun — a nationwide initiative that supports female athletes from tough backgrounds. Her Japan trip was aided by it. “Breaking culture is lagging far behind in India because it doesn’t get telecast much. We can’t travel to all these events on our own and the government should show some concern. I’ve a one-year contract with Welspun. Who knows what will happen in the future?” Siddhi, who won last year’s Red Bull Cypher India B-girl, shares.
An appearance at the 2024 Olympics can do wonders to their careers but for every event they miss, the Paris Games and their dreams become more remote. At the moment, the only thing driving them seems to be sheer willpower.
“We’re struggling because a lot of people are sleeping, you know. But yeah, the Olympics dream is very much alive,” Arif’s views echo his peers’ feelings.
Why is it on Olympics roster
It’s not the first time that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has digressed from the conventional path in its bid to add urban sports to its roster. The need was felt a long time ago, with BMX racing making its debut in Beijing 2008. The reason borders on the efforts to remain relevant and become more urbane. With surfing, skateboarding and sport climbing debuting at Tokyo 2020, breaking’s inclusion for the 2024 Games confirms that the IOC is trying to be youth-centric in order to tap into a larger market. It also benefits breaking as the breakers get a larger slice of fame.
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