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Bay Area "Bboys" on what it takes to stay on top of their game

Flickr Creative Commons/Nerfski

Art movements come and go, but one particular dance style seems to be here to stay. "Bboying," or "breakdancing" (as most people would call it), began in the Bronx in the late '60s and has since expanded internationally. As it’s grown, it’s changed – and that change has led to some major cultural conflicts between the younger dancers and the older ones. 

One day, when Brian Huang was 10 years old, he was home watching a Japanese show on TV.  Almost immediately, something caught his attention.

“He started breakdancing,” recalled Brian, referring to the guy on the show. “I was like ‘Whoah! That’s awesome!’ and I wanted to be like him.”

Brian saw spins. He saw rolls. He saw some crazy, gravity-defying move up three feet in the air. He was hooked. But he didn’t know anyone in San Francisco who was bboying, so he just kept that interest in his mind... until he went to Burton High school. That’s where he met an older student who was starting a bboying class. That’s how he found his crew.

"They’re like my second family," says Brian. "In high school, there’s always a lot of drama. [But in bboying,] everything is just gone, all the drama’s gone, it’s all about breakdancing and having fun. I love it.”

Before we get too much further, let’s lay down some quick definitions.   

First, “breakdancing.” It’s the term most commonly used to refer to the dance, but it’s also the one most bboys dislike. The proper term for the dance style is “bboying” or “breaking.”

Next, we have “crew.” That’s a group of people that break together. If they’re competing, then they’re like a team.

Then, “foundation.” Those are the fundamental moves bboys incorporate into their dance. These moves are usually personalized by the bboys to develop their own style.

Then, finally “biting.” That’s when you rip off another person’s moves or style.

To Brian, though, bboying isn’t about definitions. It’s more than just a dance style; it’s a lifestyle.

“What matters is you – and the floor,” Brian explains. “When I’m mad, I break. When I’m happy, I break. Really, you can tell by a guy when he’s mad, when he’s breaking sometimes.”

For a lot of the younger breakers in San Francisco, no matter how chaotic their lives are, they can always rely on bboying. It’s a form of release.

“When I’m breaking, how I feel is, I really feel really more of myself, and it’s a really easy way for me to unplug from all my problems ‘cause I get to really be who I am and not really be judged for it. And like, it’s just a really good way just to let myself out there,” says Burton High School student, Herman Huang

But while Herman and Brian know bboying as a dance style, they have yet to know it as part of an older culture. Bboying started in the Bronx more than 40 years ago as a way for rival gangs to settle out their differences, battle over turf, or to just gain each others’ respect.

Bboying became an important part of hip hop culture. It was an outlet for the youth in response to violent hardships and their struggles. It was one of the few things that they could say belonged to them. But that culture’s changed since it started. And some older bboys say a lot of the younger ones seem to lack an understanding of the bboy culture.

“This generation’s kinda like very separate, like they’re not – most bboys or breakers or breakdancers aren’t even into the music,” says Profo Won, a local breaking teacher in San Francisco. He’s been breaking since the late '80s and has about 20 years of experience in the Bay Area bboying scene. He’s been a major contributor to keeping the hip hop culture alive. Profo judges battles, competes in events, and leads workshops to help spread his knowledge. But he says he can see why it’s hard for younger kids to understand where bboying came from. 

“I don’t blame them because the hip hop out on the radio right now is not the greatest," Profo admits. "I mean they don’t relate with it. A lot of bboys in the '80sbecame the gangsters and the gangster rappers. So the first thing that they saw of hip hop was bboying. And without that ‘ghettoness,’ it’s kind of like lost in translation; it becomes just the moves.”

In other words, young breakdancers today don’t understand hip hop. They don’t understand the music that goes with bboying, and it shows when they get down on the floor.

This disconnect from the hip hop culture is related to access, something Brian Huang experienced during his middle school years.

“In this community, it’s really hard to find like – a teacher. Like, actually, I recommend people learning from YouTube. At least you’re learning. Just try not to hurt yourself, really,” says Brian.

While Brian thinks YouTube is okay, Profo says YouTube is the reason it’s harder for teachers to reach out to students.

“With there being YouTube, it’s harder to guide. Before, when there was no YouTube, you would have to find someone who would know. Now that there’s like YouTube – where you could just access it from your living room or your bedroom – you don’t need a mentor. You just see, wow, that guy did a flip! And then [you tell yourself], ‘I’ll do the flip!’” he says. “But then, no one’s teaching you about the culture. [You think], ‘I could do it myself! There’s how-to videos on YouTube! Why do I need this guy?!’ Cause his stories might be more valuable than the moves that he gives you, so you have the understanding.”

So many people are teaching themselves moves on YouTube that they’ve got a name: e-boys. 

“You need to really find somebody who they can actually ask questions about moves," says Profo. "You’re seeing things on YouTube as 2D. You can’t really ask them a question. You can’t really see if they’re putting strain on their move really, and they can’t really help you out or show you. And you can’t walk around them to see how their arms are or anything, and then you can just hurt yourself.”

Profo says there’s another issue. Most of the mainstream videos on YouTube involve power moves – athletic and acrobatic feats. So a lot of younger bboys are just picking up the flashy moves they see, and that makes everyone’s dancing look the same, causing the dance itself to look repetitive and bland. But YouTube isn’t all bad. Even Profo says it has some pros to it, too.

“I just watched a video I didn’t know that was out there, that I never had access to,” he says. “I’ll be like Storm vs. Swift Rock 1989, ‘Oh, I’ve never seen that!’ I can watch it now.

Because of the YouTube generation, I get to put myself out there more at the same time,” Profo continues. “So I’m not against it. It’s just, I would suggest that a lot of these guys, a lot of the young guys, just look for guidance then, look for guidance. As long as we keep that open mind of hitting up the old school guys and original guys, it’ll be a balance from the new and old. So everyone could like benefit from it, y’know what I mean? Yeah.”

Like Profo says, that’s exactly what the bboying community needs –  variety. That’s something Brian Huang can agree with.

“I don’t want them to start thinking that all you need is power moves and the cool moves that make it all fancy and showy. It’s like your body is reacting to the music and it’s like your body is an instrument you’re using,” he says.

Keeping the old hip hop culture alive, while incorporating new innovations, allows everyone to learn something and helps the community grow. With some moderation and thoughtful ideas, bboying as a dance style can continue to evolve. 

Ben Vu is a rising senior at Burton High School in San Francisco, where KALW is based. He was a summer reporting intern with us this year.