Anthropology of Bboying (Breakdancing)

This response is in light of the fabulous article reviewed by foradance in 2011, in which she brings forth the possibility of using an anthropological perspective to look at dance. The antropological perspective could, as suggested by foradance, show a lot more about the culture than the dance just being a set of movements limited to style. In this long response, I discussed several issues foradance have proposed, namely:

1. Gender expectations
2. Dance as a ritual
3. The larger social dynamic in which bboying was borne

There are many other areas and topic where one could study about a dance, and it is not limited to the above. Finally, I end my response discussing the current situation of bboying by looking at its change in recent times. A dance, like bboying, emerged from a cultural context which shaped its style. However, over time, the form could be appropriated and packaged in a different way, to a point where the 'style' is separated from the cultural background.

I have been a bboy for more than 6 and a half years. I am in Kyensai Seksay Crew and Battleholex crew. During this time, I have talked to many bboys, and traveled to the United States and Taiwan to learn about bboying.

Bboying has its roots in the late 60s, to the 70s, but is institutionalized by hip hop in 1973 with the birth of Zulu Nation. It comes forth as a replacement to fighting between gangs in New York. How then, did bboying evolve to stop gangfights? We will look at the person, and the gang, which perpetuated bboying and encouraged it such that it became a replacement to fighting.

The Savage Seven/The Black Spades:
The Savage Seven is formed by Kevin Donovan, who was born in the Bronx, South River Project, in 1957. Due to the growth of the gang, he quickly rose to the position of "warlord". During then, the gangs did the 'cleanup' work that the law would have done, by cleaning up the streets of drug dealers, assisting with community programs, and fighting and partying to keep members and turf.

Donovan won an essay writing contest which won him a trip to Africa. Before his trip there, he was already very inspired by the film "Zulu", which depicts the last stand of a Zulu King, Shaka Zulu. Zulu is a tribe in Africa. Basically, Shaka Zulu united the tribes around Africa to mount a rebellion against the British in 1879. During his trip there, he was persuaded and inspired by the communities he witnessed there (I wonder if he saw the Ju/hoansis haha) to use his power and influence for peaceful purposes. He changed his name to Afrika Bambaataa and was also initiated to the Zulu tribe.

Solidification of hiphop as a movement
When he returned, he re-oriented his gang towards doing something positive for the community. His aim changed from the domination of turf to a formation of a community called the Universal Zulu Nation, the proponents of hip hop. His aim was to build a youth movement which encourages creativity of 'outcast youths' with a liberating worldview. The values espounded by hiphop are: peace, unity, love and having fun. Hiphop contains 4 elements: Grafitti, DJing, Bboying, and Emceeing.

The violent struggles among gangs separated by turf and membership is unified under the bigger idea of hiphop. Why they want to do it has a lot to do with their disillusionment of governments and politics. In my 6 years of bboying, including traveling to Taiwan and US to learn about it, I find this a common trend among bboys. I'll write more on that later.

As a result, gangfights are replaced, slowly at first, but mostly in the end, by battles. Battles represents fights between 2 factions, which are known as 'crews'. A bboy battle is typified by it's fierceness, aggression, confrontation within the battle, but the aggression and confrontation is seemingly a non-event when the battle ends. It is under such circumstances that hiphop and bboying is borne, and the form of dance came as an expression of it's background during and after the formation and institutionalization of hiphop.

1. Gendered roles
Okay i know i kinda broke the flow here. But as you know, if you have watched bboying before, you will find that the dance is very powerful, aggressive, and fast. It has influences from capoeira, though it is false to say that it evolved from capoeira. As I have explored that the dance is a language of battle, this may be why bboying is considered 'unfit for women'.

When speaking to bboys in general, you would not have the impression that women who bboy (or bgirls) were not welcome. In fact, bgirls are often encouraged to join the dance. However, if you look at dance battle, you see a different expression of sentiment. Bgirls are often ridiculed because of their gender, and it is a common expectation that bgirls cannot and will not be better than bboys. It is even expressed within the judging, where in many cases, a bgirl of a lower skill could truimph a bboy of a higher skill level, mainly because of gender and the allowances made for it. The bgirl is typically not considered having the strength, aggression, and speed a high level bboy exhibits. Bgirls negotiate this by either: working on other aspects of dance requiring more speed than strength and aggression, or leveraging on their status which in turn motivates them to beat bboys, as this tends to cause shame to the bboy.

2. Dance as a ritual
With reference to its historical heritage, bboying is an expression of hip hop, which expresses values of: peace, love, unity and having fun. There are several aspects of bboying which reflects these values, which are in turn, respected by bboys around the world.

As I mentioned that bboying was a replacement for fighting, some bboys take that seriously, not in the sense that they actually fight, but they dance extremely aggressively and with power. For example, bboy machine, who is known for his musicality and aggression in battle.:
In this video, Machine wears red, battling against the Orange shirt Monkey J.

The battle is done on an arena, against the music, where 2 dancers pit their skills against each other. However, while the battling may be very aggressive, all confrontation and aggression disappears at the end of the battle. The battle functions as an embodiment of the history of hiphop, while expounding the peaceful nature of hiphopin that all aggression and challenge is settled on the floor.

Considering the 4 elements of hiphop, Emceeing, DJing, Dancing and Graffiti, they reflect the way hip hop was borne to convert inter-gang fighting into a unified community: through the party. Parties are held then in 1970s by Afrika Bambaataa to 'disillusioned' youth, and gang members out of their gangs and the street. Ultimately, the bboy battle enforces peace by the restriction of aggression to the floor. It enforces love by being a representation of the dissolution of inter-gang fights. And with a common belonging under the Hip Hop movement, it breeds solidarity, unity and love. The values of the movement gives it a substantial grounding for the movement to sustain itself. Hence, the hip hop community is a community of people with rituals around the party, in which bboying is a part of it. The bboy battle is only one of the many examples which goes back to enforce the 4 values of hiphop.

3. The larger social dynamic in which bboying was borne
Alright, i am not completely sure of the next next paragraph. A lot of this i got through talking to bboys over 6 years. It is especially in America that I felt these sentiments being the strongest.

With my experience and conversation with the American bboys, many bboys in America see the liberating ideas which generate the sense of a worldwide, borderless community centered on the 4 values antithetical to the values they see in the world. They reflect a anti-government sentiment. Some of them reflect that the way the world is is antithetical to the values of hiphop. For example, in a workshop in Taiwan, Bboy Flearock comments that the state prevents human movement and freedom from taking place, by erecting borders, constructing citizenship, and passports. He expresses disenchantment with the myths propagated by states and authorities, in areas such as freedom, democracy, consumerism. If any of you watch fight club, some of the things he say are very much like what Tyler Durden said.

The rise of hip hop is fueled by events in the 70s. There was widespread protests against the Vietnam war and human rights issues, which expresses disillusionment against society and the state. The time frame may be a major factor allowing the rise and solidification of hiphop as a subculture. Hip hop, promoting values of love, unity, peace, and having fun, is the antidote to the subject of protests (i am not saying bboys tend to be protestors, but i'm just saying that hiphop is a social expression of disappointment against mainstream society, hence, a subculture.) I am not sure if these social factors were a definitive cause, but in my opinion, it is a catalyst to the formation of hiphop. Hiphop offers an alternative of reality, where disillusioned youth could find a place of belonging and expression which was personal and real, as opposed to their disappointment and subsequent distrust in the state. Even today, bboys, especially in the US, express the same disillusionment towards their government, as i find many of them having very little trust in their government. In my interaction with US bboys, quite a number of them would say that the 9/11 was a Hoax. Upon further questioning, it was obvious that there wasn't any solid reasoning behind their stance, but it's rooted in belief.

The ritual expression of hiphop, the party, stands in stark contrast to the ritualistic expression of modern society, which is in short, the working man. The 'social' about hiphop (in the Durkheimean sense) are its values, standing in contrast to the goals in modern society which is perceived to be centered on money making (and many other ills that come with it eg. alienation, bureaucracy, lack of control..). In this sense, it is a subculture, in this sense, the expression of bboying, which enforces the hip-hop, can be a ritual of reminder of the values hiphop stand for.

4. Commodification in the present society

What is happening in the past few years is that the very things hiphop came out against, in its protest towards consumerism, etc, is that it had exactly undergone the same thing. Firstly, the dance is commodified and packaged and sold to the public. Bboying is packaged as acrobatics, stunts of impossible difficulties. A person normally equates bboying to headspins, flips, stunts, instead of knowing the history of the dance, the meaning of the moves, etc. The form is taken and promoted because it is highly demanded, but the meaning and culture is not divorced from the style. This is one example of the commodification of culture. One can compare it with Thai Boxing, in the reading in Everyday Life in Southeast Asia. Just as the cultural expression of Muay Thai is separated from its substantive underlying codes and meaning, bboying experiences the same in the modern context. This is one way which a subversive culture could depart from the dance, where commodification occurs, which takes the form of dance away from the subversive values preached by the subculture, into a way which is no longer subversive to the mainstream status quo.

This is just one of the many changes happening to the dance now, that instead of being a integrated form expressing meaning in the culture, the form is taken without the meaning, and sold in a manner separate from it. The dance hence becomes a 'style', and while it is distinctively a style, the word obscures the cultural and historical meanings behind the dance, that the dance is historically not a movement and style, but an expression, enforcer, and partial embodiment of a culture.

Chang, Jeff. Can't Stop, Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. St Martin’s Press, 2005
Chang, Jeff. "It's a Hip-Hop World". Foreign Policy 163, Nov/Dec 2007
George, Nelson. Hip Hop America

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