October 20, 2008

Breakdance's Global Domination

Print More

To anyone who has ever ventured into Penn Station or Grand Central on a busy afternoon or evening, the sight of a mysterious circle of onlookers oohing and ahing at youths effortlessly gyrating in choreographed tandem is almost taken for granted. They’re street performers to many, but to those youths, and to a widespread global hip-hop culture, they represent the continuing art of b-boy breakdancing.
For an audience that might have vague ideas of the art from movies like Stomp the Yard, Step Up 2 and the almost ubiquitous punch line that is You Got Served, well … this is a reminder that their knowledge of B-boy culture is vague at best. Although those films boast significant levels of well-choreographed dance exhibition, the flimsy narratives, laughable antics of their “characters” and the weakness of the dialogue are distractions. And as survivors of the ’80s probably remember, breakdance was quite the fad “back in the day.” These mainstream mutilations of an explosively creative art form seek no more than to capitalize on and ultimately obscure it.
So filmmakers who wished to honor the dance took the nonfiction approach. And thus, the documentary Planet B-Boy was born, and the articulation and expression of the dance form’s founders and progenitors are brought unfiltered to the screen to show it like it is.
Although American in origin, breakdancing has since gone global on an unprecedented scale. The documentary focuses on one annual German competition, the “Battle of the Year,” the veritable World Cup of the genre, in order to demonstrate the multicultural approach to the combination of dance, musical art and sport that is b-boy breakdance. 19 teams from dozens of countries as diverse as France, South Korea and Israel are fielded to compete for world domination and glory. Planet B-Boy documents their struggles, styles and stories.
It is not surprising that there is a cultural disconnect, but it is surprising where the disconnect comes into play. B-boys from France and the U.S. are easily distinguished, as are those from South Korea and Japan. The film explains subjectively that each culture places certain aspects of the art at different priority levels. South Koreans, relatively new to the game, compensate with hard work and intensity. The Japanese are noted for innovation, the French for artistry, and the Americans for their aggressiveness during dance battles. Although each culture places a new spin on their spins, the overall art is universal across the world.
The disconnect comes between generations — the parents of today’s b-boys and the practitioners and supporters of the art form. Deep generational divides are candidly explored in interviews, and topics of inherent racism and class structure, as well as the equally universal anxiety faced by parents about their children’s futures, are probed and thrown front and center for inquisition. The parents’ apprehensiveness in displaying support and difficulty with understanding the culture of the b-boy is juxtaposed with their children’s enthusiasm and raw, undeniable talent. Their willingness to express themselves and their passionate defense (e.g.: “Hip hop is not rap, and b-boy is just one part of hip hop, along with mc-ing, dj-ing, and graffiti art.”) speaks volumes on the difficulty involved not only in learning the moves and improving one’s abilities, but also in legitimizing the style and overcoming the odds of succeeding — both unique to each culture and universal.
That’s not to say that the cultures aren’t at odds, although not at all dissimilar. There is palpable tension between teams vying for the glory of winning Battle of the Year, as the second half of the documentary focuses on the competition and the training leading up to it. The Battle is the pivotal event that has helped both the individual teams and the artform to gain acceptance among participants’ families as well as home nations and popular media. The documentary closes with allusions to success being achieved in the b-boys’ lives, ranging from acceptance to commerical benefits, and optimism towards sustenance and perpetuation of breakdancing as a form of artistic, individual and cultural expression in the 21st century.