If you live in a major urban centre you’ve likely seen it — a performer or two, on a street corner awing spectators with gravity-defying acrobatic moves combined with dance.
Breakdancing — or breaking, as it’s known — combines gymnastics, dance and pure strength. Now, that combination will be on display for the world on a new stage: the 2024 Olympic Games.
It’s raised a few eyebrows, but many who know the sport well say it’s not a stretch and it’s high time that it’s recognized at an international-level event like the Olympics.
“It makes complete sense,” said Brian Tong, creative director of Studio 79e in Ottawa and an avid breakdancer. He said breakdancing takes an enormous amount of training and strength.
“People think you just jump in and do one, two steps, but really, there’s lots of callisthenics,” he said.
The International Olympic Committee announced the inclusion of breakdancing at the 2024 Paris summer games in early December, acknowledging the desire to include more, “popular” sports.
Efforts to promote diversity and inclusion at the Olympics
That announcement followed a pattern of announcements in recent years by the IOC. The rescheduled Tokyo 2020 Games will see the debut of skateboarding, surfing and sport-climbing.
“We have had a clear priority and this was to introduce sports which are, in particular, popular among the younger generation and also take into account the urbanization of sport,” said IOC president Thomas Bach.
Angela Scheider, director of the International Centre for Olympic Studies at Western University and a former Canadian Olympian, believes there’s more at the heart of the IOC’s decision to include breakdancing and other sports like skateboarding and surfing.
“I also think that there’s a northern hemisphere, southern hemisphere discussion going on here,” she said. “Many have argued that the Olympic Games itinerary of sports have come more predominantly from northern hemisphere cultures and that southern hemisphere cultures, like Black or Latino cultures … haven’t been really celebrated as much.”
Breaking traces its roots back to New York City, where it’s believed Black and Latino breakdancers first started combining moves from gymnastics and dance in the early 1970s, with heavy influences from performers like James Brown.
Sami Elkout has been a Bboy, breaking in the Ottawa community for well over 20 years. He runs Ottawa’s street dance studio, Flava Factory, and said that the roots of breakdancing are part of what makes it so accessible to so many people even today.
“Breaking started in the Bronx by Black young kids during a time that was really difficult,” he said. “The Bronx was like a concrete rubble jungle and people just needed something to express themselves. And when you are poor and don’t have a lot and you can literally just throw down some cardboard and get down on the concrete, that’s a way to express yourself.”
Making room for new sports and gender equality
With the inclusion of new sports, others have had to be cut or scaled back, and in 2024, traditional events like boxing and weightlifting will be downsized. Both sports have troubled governing bodies and are mostly practised by men, which made them easy sports for the IOC to target in an effort to increase gender parity in the games.
“If you look around the world globally, truly globally, the numbers of women that participate in these sports in some countries, it’s negligible,” said Schneider.
“Maybe there’s a consideration that if we (look to) more diversity in our sports, younger target audiences and more accessibility, we might get greater uptake by women athletes,” she said.
Breakdancing had a test run at the Youth Olympics in Argentina in 2018. The aim was to see how successful it could be as a full-fledged Olympic sport. It turned out to be hugely successful.
But Elkout is cautiously optimistic about breaking being included in the 2024 games.
“This is going to be great when you’re in the dance studio and you’ve got a lot of youth that could become Olympic athletes. It’s wonderful,” he said.
He says those passionate about the sport want it to be appreciated for its strengths as not just a sport in the Olympic realm, but as an art form, too.
“One of the things that a lot of dancers in the breaking community really try to stick by is that it’s an art dance, it’s an art or expression that we do. It’s like a creative thing that we put out there and it’s not just like gymnastics,” he said.
Judging and scoring did prove to be a fiercely debated issue at the Youth Games, largely because it’s not like gymnastics and scoring isn’t as cut and dried. But Scheider says that there is precedent for sports that blur the lines of strength, skill and art.
“I think people have this division in their mind between sport and art, and that’s not always the case,” she said. “If you look at events like ice dancing, synchronized swimming and some of the other events that have essentially judged aspects to them, there are artistic elements to them.”
Advocates like Elkout believe that sports like breaking can and will be successful in the Olympic sphere, but hope that those practising the sport will be accepted as they are and not asked to make adaptations to the IOC’s liking.
“We are hoping that the Olympics will take us in for what we are and people will be able to see what it is,” he said.
As the Olympic Games strive to stay relevant, diverse and equal in an ever-changing world, they will have to continue to look to the streets, beaches, slopes and stadiums all over the globe.