Dancing to break the mould
At Mumbai’s iconic Famous Studios, where many a classic Bollywood blockbusters have been shot since 1946, a bunch of children and teenagers sit, forming a neat square in the middle. A remixed tune of the 1970s hit Dum Maaro Dum plays at full blast in the arena.
In the middle of that makeshift seating area, participants from around 30 countries are engaged in a feverish breakdancing contest at the Last Chance Cypher—a qualifying round for 29 B-Boys and 28 B-Girls to enter the Red Bull BC One World Final, a world championships of sorts for breakdancing.
“Aaj inn gore logo ko dikha denge bhai (today I’ll show these foreigners how it’s done),” boasts Ramesh Yadav, aka B-Boy Tornado, as he greets his friend before it’s show time for him. Yadav is the only Indian B-Boy in the Last Chance Cypher, and he makes it a point to own his 15 minutes of fame in front of the hundreds packed into the small hall.
Breakdance, with its origins in the hip-hop culture of African-American and Latin-American youth in New York in the 1970s, is no longer just a street show. A whiff of the rebel may still be lingering, but breakdancing has won the recognition of the International Olympic Council (IOC) which sees its vibrancy as ideal to draw young audiences to the world’s biggest sporting show. It is set to be included in the 2024 Paris Games. B-Boy, or break boys, is a term coined by a DJ in the Bronx because they dance to break part of the music.
Mumbai is a 14-hour flight from the Big Apple, but the gathering is evidence of breakdancing’s growing reach and influence.
Dressed in a loose white tee and black pyjamas, 21-year-old Yadav performs head spins, couple of eye-popping moves that show off his nimble feet before ending his routine with a two-second headstand—it’s called freeze—for the photographers. He signs off by removing his tee, flinging it away and obliging the crowd with high-fives. The kids in the front row are on their feet, awestruck at what they had just seen from one of their own.
Yadav was among them seven years ago when he entered the world of breakdancing—breaking, for the pros.
Growing up in the slums of Mankhurd in eastern Mumbai, the 14-year-old Yadav chanced upon a group of six-seven people performing stunts—as he took breaking—on the makeshift stage of a temple. He went up to them, requesting they let him practice with them. “Maar ke bhaga diya (they hit and chased me away),” Yadav recalls.
Undeterred, Yadav would watch them every day and ape their moves, from a distance, across a sewer separating his house and the stage. This went on for two months before the group finally took the young enthusiast under its wings.
HIGH ON LIFE
A friend then told him about a breaking group that practised at the Juinagar railway station, also in the Mumbai suburb. With an upturned collar and a spring in his step, tobacco-chewing Yadav walked in there one day and met B-Boy Wasim, one of the oldest B-Boys in Mumbai.
The only problem was that Yadav was what a lot of youngsters in his locality were—high on life and drugs.
“Aisa hai na (That is how it is, right?)” Yadav says, “In our slum, even if you don’t find anything else, you will find drugs. It’s like, ask anyone to share a vada pav and they won’t. But ask them to give you a drag of weed, and they’ll say, ‘bro, take it’.”
The passion for breaking, however, would soon bring him down from that perennial state of high.
“When I saw no one in that group did it (drugs), I feared if I went there high, they will throw me out, not train me. I controlled my urge. As I began spending more time with the group, I slowly got out of the slum world of fights and drugs and entered a new one.”
A slow learner but a keen one, he turned up daily for the two-hour session at the station at 7pm. Wasim saw a spark in him, and in 2016 invited him to accompany him for a breaking jam in Nepal.
Yadav begged and cried at home for some money, and while the others in the group took a flight, he travelled by train to the Uttar Pradesh border and then took a bus to Kathmandu.
“I had never stepped out of Mumbai, and here I was straightaway in Nepal. Kya scene tha (what a scene it was).”
That year, his alcoholic father died in Lucknow. Yadav doesn’t recollect seeing his father; his mother distanced herself and her four children from him. Luckily for them, Yadav’s maternal grandfather had left behind three shanties in the slums. The rent took care of the family’s bread.
Yadav’s mother and two elder brothers neither knew nor cared about his breaking escapades, but insisted their younger brother started earning. In his second year of college, he dropped out and began working as a technician for a satellite TV provider.
“I failed my Class 12 exams the year my father passed away. My family shifted to Lucknow for a year to get possession of our property. I was alone here, so I left studies and entirely focused on breaking. Because I started earning, my family was like, ‘do whatever you want’. They were at least happy I had not become a drunkard.”
The job gave him enough money, time and freedom to pursue breaking. The turning point came last year when he won his first solo competition at a breaking contest comprising 16 B-Boys in New Delhi.
“I went there with an injured left shoulder after I crashed my bike. Par udhar jaan laga di (I gave my life there). I won R69,000. For a person living in slums, that is a huge amount.”
Still, Yadav is not after money. He is chasing something he discovered while performing at the Last Chance Cypher, after sealing a berth by winning its India qualifier. It didn’t matter he didn’t qualify for the World Final.
“B-Boying has taught me the value of respect, and I saw it here with how people were cheering for me. I haven’t thought about making money. I want to keep breaking, keep travelling. Money comes and goes, but this life yaar (friend) is all about respect,” Yadav says.
Respect was in abundance that evening at Famous Studios. Soaking it in was Rhoda Rodrigues, mother of Johanna, as she watched her daughter excel as India’s lone B-Girl in the competition, a spot she earned by winning the BC One Cypher India.
Unlike Yadav, B-Girl Jo’s tale isn’t one of a survival, but of winning a perception battle. Helping her fight that was her widowed mother.
The 23-year-old Johanna lost her father when she was around seven. She soon got used to often treading a lonely path while Rhoda was busy teaching in an international school in Bengaluru. The seeds of feminism were sowed in Johanna, also studying in the same school.
“As a kid, I was good at running. I was determined to prove to people I could do it better than the boys,” Johanna says.
While her running dream went off track, she was introduced to breaking by friends in the neighbourhood, who took her to a jam in the city while she was in Class 11. “The vibe there was better than anything I had seen in my life,” she says.
Bengaluru’s breaking boys thus had a new member; a girl. Until then unsure in terms of career, she found her calling in breaking. Rhoda sensed that.
“Every night after coming back from college, she would be crying. She told me, ‘If this is how you want me to live, I’ll go to college and do it. But I’m going to be unhappy because I want to do breaking’,” Rhoda says.
“The next day I woke up and told myself, ‘okay, no more of this’. She’s my only child, and I couldn’t have had a depressed one at home.”
Johanna decided to pursue BA psychology through correspondence, and enrolled for a one-year movement course in a dance school that taught her various forms, bharatanatyam and kathakali as well as the Kerala martial art, kalaripayattu. It also helped that she had done a yoga course.
Johanna imbibes the best of all worlds in her breaking, using her eyes and hands as a means to express, as much as flips and headstands.
To add to her daily training sessions with her group, Johanna signed up for a lifetime online breaking course—called B-Boy and B-Girl dojo. She first entered a competition as a B-Girl in 2014 and managed to reach the top eight.
Johanna travelled with her boyfriend—a B-Boy—to Mumbai and Hyderabad for jams in unreserved train compartments, something her mother could not have imagined had she been the same old, reserved girl.
“Once I gave her that liberty to do what she wanted, I saw a more secure, responsible and grounded child. She was making more informed choices,” Rhoda says.
For B-Girl Jo it was about not letting her mother down once she got what she would otherwise desperately seek from the society—freedom.
“When my mom trusted me, I was like, ‘It’s up to me now. Do I want to do this half-heartedly or go for it and do it full time?’ From then on, I became single-minded. I left a lot of the social circles I was a part of, stopped going to parties. Breaking gave me a lot more than anything else,” Johanna says.
She wants to give back, for the cause of women’s empowerment, using breaking as a tool.
Now a personal yoga teacher and owner of a small public studio named Breaking Brahma, Johanna also teaches little ones, especially girls, who are attracted to breaking.
“Breaking has given me a sense of freedom and equality. It’s physically empowering. But there aren’t as many girls doing it as the boys.
“If girls want to try breaking, they should. They shouldn’t have parents telling them, ‘who is going to marry you’. I hope my story touches those girls who want to break. Don’t let anybody else say you cannot,” she says.
Her mother wants to see Johanna soar.
“I gave her freedom with responsibility and saw her feel a sense of fulfillment. Now, I want to see her fly.”
“Fly…Fly…Flying Machine,” chants the crowd inside the mammoth Dome at Mumbai’s National Sports Club of India. It’s playing host to the BC One World Final, where Arif Chaudhary, or B-Boy Flying Machine, will become the first Indian to compete.
Chaudhary battles B-Boy Robin from Ukraine in the Round of 16, and although all five judges unanimously vote for the Ukrainian, the 22-year-old local boy is no less a winner. As the 1,000-odd spectators stand up and applaud, Chaudhary walks to the centre of the stage, acknowledging them with a namaste.
He is the most prominent face of breakdancing in India, having been a three-time BC One Cypher India champion. He travels the world over after getting the backing by a couple of brands. Chaudhary makes his style statement too—wears a cap, leather jacket, bright sneakers with his ears pierced. However, he hasn’t forgotten the days when he used to mend torn bags to buy second-hand shoes worth R100.
His introduction to breaking came 10 years ago, when his friend showed him a video of BC One. “Mera dimag satak gaya dekh ke (my mind was blown after watching it). That’s when I told my friend, ‘I want to do this’.”
Coming from Jogeshwari, a western Mumbai suburb, he looked up online for breakdancing groups and events in the metro. He found one happening near his area. While the introverted boy visited the place a few times, he didn’t muster the courage to ask the group to train him.
Internet proved his friend again, and he began learning moves by watching videos. It drew Chaudhary to a point that breaking became an obsession. “I used to think about the moves even in my sleep,” he says.
He would watch videos and train in his room, in his school basement, while he went to the nearby park a few times to practice, all the while keeping it from his parents, who would be worried their son could get injured making the moves.
“My parents would often question me when I came home with bruises on my arms and elbows. I would tell them I got hurt while playing. But they suspected something and would ask my friends,” Chaudhary says.
“I come from a Muslim family, and for them these things are considered taboo. They thought breakdancing was like a circus. They felt yeh ladka gayela hai (this boy has gone out of hand).”
So sure was Chaudhary of the direction he was taking that from Class 9, he started earning by doing small-time jobs to fund his travel for breaking jams. He worked as a tailor’s help, to stitch bags and clothes, and even worked as a background dancer in Hindi films. “They would say, ‘yeh time pe aana, ek flip maarna aur chale jaana (come at this time, perform a flip and leave)’.”
ON OWN FEET
The money received was enough to ensure he didn’t have to ask his father—a construction material supplier—for more. “Ever since I chose this path, I never took help from my family. I just told them to morally support me. I wanted to be independent and responsible, and I learnt that from dad because he improved our lives. Now, it was my turn.”
A boost to his career came in 2015 when he won the BC One Cypher India for the first time. Until then, the breaking culture was largely untapped in India, and Chaudhary became one of its initial faces. He began exploring the commercial aspect, and a couple of years later when he became BC One Cypher India champion again, Puma signed him on as a youth wing influencer.
He recalls being on a flight for the first time on a trip to South Korea in 2015, wondering how far he had come in breakdancing. “I started to feel I’m heading in the right direction. I saw the shock in my parents’ eyes; even they felt ‘this boy is doing something’. It proved to them that breakers can earn money and make a career for themselves.”
It’s this keenness that the trio hopes will seep into India with breakdancing set to become an Olympic sport. The final vote will be taken by the IOC in December, 2020.
Though breakdancing is almost five decades old, the concept is new in India with terms like “stunts” and “circus” still used to describe it. Johanna feels the biggest benefit from its inclusion in Olympics will be that this perception will go. “It will legitimise the movement a lot more. Parents are going to be fine with their kids learning breaking. For me, that’s the biggest takeaway of it being at the Olympics,” she says.
Breakdancing was part of the 2018 Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires, and though some breakers fear it might lose its artistic touch once it is formalised as a sport, Chaudhary is not among them.
“Olympics is the best place for breaking to be,” he says. “It is more intense than any sport, and has all the qualities that should be there in an athlete and an Olympic sport. It needs balance, physical strength and mental dedication. It’s not easy to blend all of it.”
Chaudhary compares breaking to artistic gymnastics and hopes just like how budding Indian gymnasts were inspired by Dipa Karmakar’s 2016 Rio Games showing, the Olympics tag can provide breaking its own little place in the country.
“I see people in my locality wanting to become sportspersons, actors and musicians. I’m waiting for the day when a kid walks up to me and says, ‘I want to become a B-Boy or a B-Girl’.”
That kid could come from among the many wide-eyed spectators at the Famous Studios.