It used to be Zeus, the God of thunder and ancient Greece. Now it’s hip hop and head spins. They call themselves B-Boys and B-Girls and already the International Olympic Committee (IOC) are feeling a little street. Snappy and fun, B is for break as in break dancing, far too long a name for the post millennials, the Gen Z.
Urban and chilled, youthful and edgy with a bankable spill over into music, breaking makes its debut at next summer’s Olympic Games in Paris as the IOC takes a demographic moonwalk towards a younger audience. Learn the language. Crew, set, throwdown, top rock, freeze.
B Boy Aleon, a word play on Alien, aka Leon Dwyer runs with a largely UK crew called Primal Instinct. He’s from Navan and works in Dublin.
He whips up his T-shirt over a wash board stomach and points at the ink. There’s a tattoo of an Extraterrestrial on his rib cage and a spaceship on his chest. Leon is manager in The Ink Factory in Temple Bar and hopes to be the first Irish breaker to qualify for the Olympics.
“Loads of tourists come in, yeah,” he says of the tattoo parlour. “Shamrocks. Always shamrocks.”
Leon has loads too, of tattoos and wears his hair pink and nose with a ring, with baggy red pants. He is disarmingly gentle. His mother was a ballet teacher and now runs yoga classes. He has never been very far away from dance and now hopes to be among the first group of 20 somethings to light up the iconic Place de La Concorde for the two-day event next year.
“My mum, Claudet, was a ballerina. She taught for 30 years and she trained me,” says Leon. “She started up her own dance school and began dancing. She’s now a yoga teacher. Yoga is basically a slow version of breaking. The balance and the control. We call them freezes, where you hold your body up in positions.
“That would be very similar to yoga, the body positions. I still do yoga with her all the time. That’s how I started and then I found myself in hip hop classes and then more into break dancing in my own alley.”
Breaking joins wall climbing, BMX, surfing and skateboarding in the big shift from the foundational Olympic sports. As Olympism seeks greater appeal and relevance among younger athletes and as it strives to maintain and increase its market share, it has been eager in chasing inclusive sports, where non major nations can be competitive.
Dance, acrobatic movements, stylised footwork, call it what you want, Paris will host 16 B-Boys and 16 B-Girls, who go for medals for the first time.
“First thing is, it’s weird for me,” says Leon. “I didn’t expect anything like this to happen in my lifetime. I grew up doing it for the fun and the culture. Being in the Olympics is massive.
“You have a formula, the basic moves so you have to learn all of them. Then you have to keep flipping them until they look different to the basic move. You change little bits, where you can move your hand in a certain way or your leg depending on your body shape – you pick moves that suit your body. You need to make them your own and you can’t repeat the move.
“In my opinion breaking is mental because you need to have your own way to remember everything. It’s like having a conversation against the other person. If they do a move, you have to show you can do it but better. I go through check points where I have my signature moves and then I have the space for freestyle.
“The music, you don’t know what music is going to play. You have to compromise. I would prefer the high energy music but they have a wide variety of African music or funk. It’s all jumbled into one. But everything is changing with the Olympics. It’s mixed now.”
Often the highlight of any performance is the down rock, which involves all moves done on the floor. It features spins, footwork, transitions and most importantly, power moves, which are a complex set of body shapes the breakers showcase by spinning their whole body on hands, elbows, back, head or shoulders.
Initially breaking emerged from run down areas of New York in the 1970s, where young blacks and Puerto Ricans on the margins generated a new culture of dance on streets and in parks. It then connected to hip hop and took form in the lively block parties in the Bronx in the 80s.
It was seen by authority as a threat and on occasion black teens were arrested because of the mistaken view of police that the competitive nature of the dancers was aggressive and violent. Crowds tended to congregate and the music was teen level loud. But it soon became apparent that far from riotous, breakers were eye catching, skilful with cutting edge style.
Now it is a global industry, where the elite level has become more athletic and gymnastic. It’s move from the edge towards middle ground and into the mainstream of Olympism has caused some to claim the counter cultural fringe, which was its initial appeal, has been lost in the journey.
“The first thing is you need to be very creative and have a style that would stand out from everybody else,” says Leon. “A way of doing that is how you dress. I would wear very bright colours, block colours to stand out and baggy clothes to make the ripple effect in my movements. Top Rock is standing, a standing style it’s like an introduction to your dance.
“Then you would have drops, interesting ways to get to the ground and then you’ve footwork. You are on your hunkers and you have to have a certain form and there’s hundreds of steps in footwork. Then your power moves, which is all this spinning, rotational moves, which are the hardest I think. Then you have freezes which are full stops.
“The reason it is called breaking is because you dance to the break in the music. When the music has a break or it stops, that’s when you freeze. You have to understand music quite well. But it also depends on what sort of dancer you are. There would be people who are athletic based, power move based.
“Me I’d say I’m an athlete but a creative. I am quite dynamic with my steps but the way I get in and out is very different from other people. I use that to make my style standout. You need to have your own fingerprint in the game. But you also have to hit the requirements because you need to tick all the boxes in order to win the rounds.”
Just as there are various forms of dance that coalesce and borrow from each other, so too with almost every aspect of breaking. There’s a subjective element like in gymnastics and ice skating. But the judging has never fallen into ridicule, or controversy as boxing did at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
How breakers generate spin and redefine balance points on the human body in their high energy exchanges makes for combative head to heads. Throwing down challenges in faux aggressive stage settings adds theatre but it’s the improbable difficult physical contortions and movements that are jaw dropping.
The first competitor begins the routine for around 50 or 60 seconds before the other replies with a similar high energy set and judges mark them through a series of rounds. At Olympic level, the best 16 male and female breakers in the world that make it to Place de la Concorde will be virtuosos.
No matter how good you are if your stamina stops you see it straight away. It’s like any other sport
A total of 10 athletes (five per gender) will obtain their quota from the Continental Games or Continental Championships of their regions. The European Games in Poland this month (June) is Ireland’s first opportunity to qualify. Leon will be travelling as part of the Irish team of boxers, rugby players, athletes and others. Those breakers that qualify from Poland will compete at the tail end of the Olympics between August 9-10th next summer.
“There are moves taken from gymnastics we have used,” says Leon. “But we completely mix it up. I’ve never done gymnastics, only in school as a kid and I was quite good at it. I train at home, where I have crash mats on the ground. I throw some lino out there and spend hours after work training.
“You are using your whole body. It’s very fatiguing and I think that’s what it comes down to, your stamina. No matter how good you are if your stamina stops you see it straight away. It’s like any other sport.
“Physically there are people with much harder moves. But I know how to use the crowd and take their energy to my side. That’s how I win competitions, taking the energy of the crowd, using that. There’s a lot of visual and battle tactics as well like when a fighter makes eye contacts and gets into the person’s head. That can affect the fighter and I use that as well, different techniques to take down.
“In the Olympics it is mind body and soul. Mind is creativity. Body is the physical aspect and soul is the feeling of the music.”
He competes around the world, sometimes with Primal Scream, sometimes solo. Last week he was in London with Adidas. They had a sponsored event and flew the crew out to compete. They did well, coming in third. He won in Italy two weeks ago, again with the crew in a world qualifier, nothing to do with the Olympics. But the five rings have been a game changer and he’s travelled abroad 12 times since January.
“In other countries they are living in the Olympic facilities, training there every day,” says Leon. “That could be a good step in the future.”
Not such a head spinning idea.