Two competitors make their way up a compact set of stairs and onto an elevated platform. A rowdy crowd of around 2,500 erupts with excitement and anticipation as hip-hop music begins to play.
The setting is the famed Hammerstein Ballroom in Midtown Manhattan. The event is the Red Bull BC One World Final. The thousands in attendance and the millions that will watch from home are about to witness a historic moment in the history of both hip-hop and New York as a whole. This is the breaking world final. The largest and most prestigious one-on-one breaking competition in the world. The grandest stage for an art form that has been a staple of the hip-hop community since its inception.
The grandest stage, of course, until breaking makes its debut in the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris.
It started as an underground art form on the streets of South Bronx. Now, breaking, more commonly known as breakdancing, is an internationally recognized sport ready to take center stage at the Olympics. But how did we get here? How did breaking go from a niche street dance developed by marginalized communities in New York City to the most expansive platform in the sports world?
Breaking began as a way for underprivileged kids in The Bronx to express themselves. Young people in the poorest neighborhoods of New York City used breaking to distract themselves from the trials and tribulations of their everyday lives. These kids didn’t have money. They didn’t have access to the opportunities and amenities that others were afforded. They had nothing. Breaking was a way to make something out of nothing.
The origins of breaking are very much rooted in gang culture. The art form helped transform street culture, turning gang violence into dance crew battles. An emphasis was placed on community-building and individuality instead of the divisive, sometimes territorial aspects of gang life. Breaking quickly became one of the four foundational elements of hip hop, along with DJing, rapping/MCing, and graffiti. The term “breakdancing” didn’t originate until the 1980s when media outlets coined the phrase in an attempt to appeal to a wider audience. You could argue it worked as breaking found mainstream appeal in movies such as Flashdance and Wild Style. Groundbreaking TV shows like Soul Train helped “breakdancing,” and hip hop as a whole, reach a more extensive market.
To the pioneers of this art form, however, it will always be called breaking. The artists/athletes are b-boys or b-girls. They’re not dancers. This isn’t breakdancing. It’s breaking.
Despite its heyday coming some 40 years ago, breaking has undergone somewhat of a renaissance in recent years. The rise of commercialized competitions and increased globalization has introduced this art form to an entirely new generation of b-boys and b-girls. It’s the competitive aspect that has helped make breaking the global sensation it’s become.
This year’s Red Bull BC One World Final meant a bit more to the hip-hop world than previous editions. Not only is 2023 considered to be the 50th anniversary of hip hop as a genre, but the event returned to the birthplace of both breaking and hip hop, New York City, for the first time in 13 years. In fact, this was the first time the Red Bull BC One World Final was being held in the United States since 2009 — a testament to just how global this sport has become. In many ways, New York was the perfect location to showcase that globalization. New York City is a fusion of the world’s cultures. It’s a melting pot of race, ethnicity, religion, and anything that defines us as human beings. Now, 32 competitors from 20 different countries have returned to the birthplace of hip hop and arguably the diversity capital of the world to celebrate this historic moment.
One such individual is b-boy Victor. Born Victor Montalvo, Victor grew up in Kissimmee, Florida, and started breaking at the age of six. His father was a b-boy back in Mexico and Victor proudly represents both his American and Mexican roots at competitions. Victor was the only American male among the 16 b-boys to compete in this year’s Red Bull BC One World Final. As such, he was the obvious crowd favorite. Those in attendance roared with enthusiasm whenever Victor took center stage, and he fed off their energy. So much so that he was able to make it all the way to the finals where he emerged as the winner. An American-born b-boy winning the largest competition in the breaking world in the year that it returns to the United States and the birthplace of the art form? You couldn’t write a better story. Victor explained to reporters after the event the significance of his victory.
“This dance comes from New York, it comes from The Bronx,” Victor told me. “It was started by kids that had nothing. Kids like myself. I’m an immigrant and this dance has given me a voice.”
For others like b-girl world champion India, this was their first time in the United States. Born India Sardjoe in The Netherlands, India became the youngest champion in Red Bull BC One history when she defeated the American-born Logistix, last year’s winner, in the finals. At 16 years old, India is still in high school. The last time the Red Bull BC One World Final was held in the United States, India was just three years old. She represents the future of breaking. The next generation that will carry this medium to heights never before seen. But she’s also a direct representation of the globalization that makes breaking so special.
One look at this year’s 2022 Red Bull BC One World Final bracket is all you’d need to realize how international this sport has become. There were participants from countries like Kazakhstan, Venezuela, Morocco, India, France, Greece, and even Taiwan all representing their countries. Each b-boy and b-girl has their own unique story, and much of that story is defined by their culture and where they grew up. Perhaps that’s also what makes breaking so unique. Every breaker has their own style — a style that tells the story of the individual. Simply watching these performers do their thing helps provide insight into who they are as human beings.
Take b-girl Luma for example. Real name Luisa Fernanda Tejada Pulgarin, Luma was born and raised in Medellin, Colombia. She didn’t begin breaking until the age of 17 when she was still in search of her own identity. Luma quickly fell in love with the dance because it made her feel safe and strong. “Breaking made me feel comfortable with who I am,” Luma told me. It allowed her to find herself and discover her individuality. Her inspiration for breaking is based in traditional Colombian dances like cumbia, tango, merengue, and salsa. It helps distinguish Luma from her fellow b-girls who grew up with very different inspirations. The difference can be seen elsewhere as well. Luma believes that many Latin American breakers have a chip on their shoulder. They might not have been afforded the same opportunities growing up as others living in various other parts of the world.
“We need to fight for this,” Luma explained. “When you decide you want to do breaking for a living in Colombia, it’s a risk because no one is going to pay you to dance.”
Luma understood that very risk she was taking. If she failed, she wasn’t going to be able to eat. She wouldn’t have been able to afford her rent. She bet her life on this career working out — it’s why she never takes any battle for granted. She’s not just breaking as a hobby. She wasn’t some child prodigy who was raised around the sport. Luma dances as if her life is on the line every time she steps foot in the circle. This is her livelihood, and she’ll be damned before she ever takes it for granted. The chip she carries on her shoulder can be seen in her individual breaking style. She’s powerful, confident, and assertive, almost as if she’s trying to prove herself to the world. When she first started, Luma didn’t have anyone to support her passion. “I was my own sponsor,” she told me. Now that she has corporate support and financial backers from companies like Red Bull, she feels an added responsibility. “I love when others believe in me because I believe in me.”
Breaking culture is alive as ever in a Latin American world that has deep roots in dance, but the sport is truly worldwide. Perhaps the region where the art form has experienced its most growth in recent years is India, and 2022 Red Bull BC One participant Wildchild is proof of that. Born Eshwar Kanhaiya Tiwari, Wildchild began breaking at the age of 14 back in 2012. He recalls watching a video of the 2004 Red Bull BC One World Final. He was immediately captivated by the incredible feats of athleticism and artistry he witnessed. His first introduction to breaking came a few years earlier when he stumbled upon a b-boy showcasing his moves at a local beach. Wildchild sat and watched the man for roughly 30 minutes before asking him if he could show him how to do some of his moves. At the time, breaking was almost completely unknown in India. The rich veins of its history had yet to breach the walls of the subcontinent. One time, early in Wildchild’s breaking journey, he was practicing footwork at his house when his uncle found him. His uncle, unaware of breaking’s existence, asked Wildchild if he had lost something. He believed that his nephew was looking for something on the ground. Little did he know that in the near future, Wildchild would be on the verge of competing in the Olympics for that strange dance he stumbled upon.
Red Bull hosted the first-ever BC One World Final in India back in 2019, in Wildchild’s hometown of Mumbai. The event drastically grew the popularity of breaking in India. Nowadays, Wildchild says you can spot people breaking at local parks and beaches. It’s become a large part of the growing hip-hop scene in the south Asian country. Wildchild, still just 24 years old, is a pioneer of the sport in his home country. He dreams of one day carrying the flag for his country, his culture, at the Olympics. He gushes with enthusiasm and excitement as he explains what it means to represent his country on a global platform such as the Red Bull BC One World Final. A smile doesn’t leave his face for the entirety of the time we spend chatting. Wildchild is proud of his culture and he’s even prouder that he’s one of the most prominent trailblazers of breaking in India.
10 years ago, breaking was a foreign concept to the Indian world. Now, as Wildchild puts it, “everybody wants to be a b-boy.”
This is how a sport grows. You’re witnessing it firsthand in India. Breaking doesn’t have the same cultural significance in that area of the world. To them, it’s simply a new sport with its own set of rules, guidelines, and competitions. An 18-year-old b-boy or b-girl growing up in India is going to have a vastly different style than a 30-year-old from New Jersey or even a 25-year-old from Germany. That’s the beauty of this art form. The goal is to compete, sure, but it’s also to carve out your own uniquely organic story in this community.
Wildchild’s breaking origin story is incredibly similar to almost everyone I spoke with. They happened to stumble upon the sport at some point in their lives and they immediately became hooked. That right there is where the greatest opportunity for growth exists when it comes to breaking. These individuals fall in love with the art form by happenstance. It finds them. There are more eyes on the breaking world than ever before, and those eyes will only continue to multiply with the Olympics on the horizon. The sport is growing exponentially, and so too is its potential target audience. The more eyes on the sport, the more fans and future competitors you will attract.
So exactly how far can this sport go?
Can it become a mainstream sensation or is it destined to be forever niche? What’s the ceiling? If you ask the competitors themselves, the sky is the limit.
The Olympics is going to shed light on this sport to millions of people around the globe, but that event is just one, albeit important, step in the exponentially developing breaking world. The real champion of growth for breaking can be attributed to the rise of social media, spurred on by Gen Z. Breaking was made for social media. Its breathtaking displays of athleticism and marvelous feats of physical and artistic prowess are perfect for the hyperactive, algorithm-driven world of online media. Think of Wildchild, for instance. He fell in love with the world of breaking through a video of the 2004 Red Bull BC One World Final. Years later, the videos he would post on social media would eventually allow him to be discovered. He received invites to various tournaments based solely on his social media clips. That medium didn’t exist a decade ago — at least not in its current form. Social media directly contributed to Wildchild’s passion for and success in breaking.
He’s not alone.
B-boy Lorenzo of The Netherlands, another participant in this year’s Red Bull BC One World Final, also sees the power of social media. “Breaking itself looks very impressive,” he told me. “A lot of people don’t know about breaking, but when they see it, their minds are blown. It leaves an impact on people.”
At just 16 years old, Lorenzo is a part of the generation that will carry breaking into the future, much like this year’s b-girl world champion, India. Their introduction to the breaking realm has been very different than their predecessors. B-boy legend and Red Bull BC One All-Star, Roxrite, is a perfect example of this.
Born Omar Delgado, Roxrite grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s and was first introduced to breaking through movies like Beat Street and by observing other b-boys and b-girls. There was no online media to help spread the art form. He learned about it on the streets and his breaking style is a direct reflection of that. Roxrite is one of the most famous b-boys in the world and is widely considered to be a pioneer of the culture. He was one of the first b-boys to prove that breaking can be a legitimate career. While he emphasizes tradition and respecting the culture, Roxrite is well aware that evolution is a necessary part of growth. Roxrite has a vision for breaking. He believes that the sport will one day become mainstream, and he believes that education is the platform for its development.
“I can see this dance being implemented into the school systems because breaking is a true American dance,” Roxrite told a group of reporters after the event. “It comes from America and it needs to be learned about.”
Roxrite sees a future where breaking is taught as an extracurricular in schools. He sees it as having its own TV shows, movies, documentaries, and even books. He believes that the evolution of breaking from art form to competitive sport is what will allow this growth to take place.
“Now that breaking is being presented as a sport, there’s a different type of attention that is being given to it,” Roxrite explained. He’s right. In fact, the very setting of that quote proves that what he said was true.
Roxrite spoke about the future of breaking to a room full of reporters from some of the most reputable media outlets in the sports world. Representatives from The Athletic, Fox Sports, Sports Illustrated, FanSided, and numerous others were in attendance covering this event. 15 years ago, Roxrite was paving the way for the next generation of b-boys and b-girls, but even he couldn’t have imagined how far this art form would go. He appreciates that his time in the limelight has come and passed and he’s excited about the future.
“These guys are the first generation of what’s to come,” he explained. “I got to experience a certain part of breaking and hip hop in my time.”
Increased media attention comes with increased revenue which ultimately leads to brands getting involved. Commercialization is the key to the growth of breaking. To many of these athletes, breaking is their passion. A lot of b-boys and b-girls aren’t in it for clout and money, but the monetization of the sport has afforded them opportunities that they never could have dreamed of.
In many ways, monetization and commercialization can be seen as necessary evils. The art form was created by poor, marginalized communities in the streets of New York City some 40+ years ago. Now, you could argue it’s being commercialized by the same group that contributed to that marginalization. It’s a bit of a catch-22 situation. Ultimately, money holds the key to growth. With growth comes opportunity. With opportunity comes comfort and prosperity. In essence, money. It’s a cycle of sorts — a cyclical loop of the development and evolution of the sport.
Right now, breaking is in the growth and opportunity stage of that cycle. Brand deals and sponsorships are how many b-boys and b-girls make a living now. Companies like Red Bull and Nike are sponsoring breakers, allowing them to live comfortably and make their passion a livelihood. B-boy world champion Victor even told reporters about a new brand deal he signed with world-famous ice cream company Häagen-Dazs. There’s big money involved in the sport, and we’re still over a year and a half out from the Olympics. Victor has been able to buy a home because of breaking. He’s been able to travel the world and provide for both himself and his family. The opportunities are there for aspiring b-boys and b-girls to make a career out of breaking — opportunities that didn’t exist for people like Roxrite 20 years ago.
Globalization and monetization are integral to the growth of any sport, and breaking has only just begun to undergo this renaissance. It’s evolved from its street dance days, but the roots of breaking will always be ingrained in hip-hop and New York City. The 2022 Red Bull BC One World Final was the perfect example of that. The event was streamed worldwide on Red Bull’s website and can be found on ESPN+. There were reporters from the largest sports media outlets in the world in attendance. There was a post-tournament press conference, a media session for interviews, high-level camera work, industry-standard production levels, and participants from nearly two dozen countries around the world.
Heck, the Empire State Building was even illuminated in Red Bull colors on the night of the event.
There was no greater representation of the growth and evolution of breaking than that night in Manhattan. But at the same time, the Red Bull BC One World Final made sure to honor its roots. New York City hip-hop legends Grandmaster Caz and Rakim made special appearances and even performed for the home crowd. Queens-based hip-hop duo Black Sheep reunited to perform as well. The event managed to maintain the underground, traditional feel of a breaking cypher while simultaneously presenting the sport to a worldwide audience of millions. There’s a fine line between progression and honoring pioneers. It’s an ever-present battle for those in the breaking world, but on that night in the Hammerstein Ballroom, the Red Bull BC One World Final accomplished exactly what they set out to achieve. They balanced evolution with tradition.
During the press conference, one reporter raised his hand to ask a question specifically to b-girl champion India. The man spoke in a heavy Dutch accent and inquired if he could ask India a question in her native language. Her face lit up with excitement as the two spoke in Dutch about her experience at the event. That moment perfectly encapsulated what the entire night was about. My mind wandered as I thought about just how far breaking had come. From the streets of The Bronx to a full-fledged international press conference with representatives from some of the biggest media outlets in the world. Breaking is worldwide. Hip-hop is worldwide.
No one knows for sure what the future holds, but one thing remains clear. Breaking is and always will be a foundational part of the hip-hop community — a community that is as expansive and universal as its ever been.
Hip-hop is mainstream, and soon enough, breaking might be too.