Battle of the Year: B-Boying–Break Dancing

B-boying is the innovative and athletic dance form that originated on the streets of New York City during the 1970s and became one of the four cornerstones of hip-hop culture, along with emceeing, graffiti and DJing.

Dubbed “break dancing” by the media, b-boying achieved overwhelming visibility in popular culture. Its luster eventually faded in the U.S., even as it continued to flourish around the world, as director Lee Benson discovered in his award-winning 2007 documentary, Planet B-Boy. Today, the basic moves first developed over 30 years ago have evolved into a highly sophisticated and acrobatic form of dance that can be legitimately compared to top-flight Olympic gymnastics.

“The world of b-boying has become global,” says Lee. “In Battle of the Year, which was inspired by my documentary, a coach is asked to put together a Dream team made up of the best b-boys in America with the sole mission of winning the Battle of the Year, which is like the World Cup of b-boying. More than 20 countries compete every year. The Dream team has a chance to bring the gold back home to America, where b-boying started, for the first time in 15 years.”

Battle of the Year (or BOTY) is a real life event that takes place each year in France, attracting crews from around the world. “The competition has been going on for over 20 years,” says producer Amy Lo, who also collaborated with Lee on his documentary. “It’s a global event that attracts thousands of people. You can’t imagine the energy.”

Lo admits she knew nothing at all about b-boy culture before working on the documentary. “What drew me in were the kids’ individual stories,” she says. “Battle of the Year is a chance to explore that world further and share it with even more people. I appreciate the element of self-expression as well as the amazing physical feats, and my hope is that we inspire a new generation to explore this art form.”

According to Lee, b-boying grew out of a need for young people in the Bronx to express themselves through dance. “Wherever it goes, it represents the disenfranchised, so it makes sense that it was adopted by so many different cultures. It gives an option to kids who don’t have the opportunity to go to traditional dance schools.”

Even before Lee and Lo completed Planet B-Boy, they recognized the potential to create a feature film that would reintroduce the b-boy dance phenomenon to the country in which it began. Finding the right framework for their movie was their first challenge. Producer Tripp Vinson of Vinson Films helped the pair develop the property into a feature film.

Vinson says he was peripherally aware of b-boying from its ’80s heyday. “But Planet B-Boy was my real introduction to the culture. One of most compelling things about it is that the people and their stories engage the viewer at least as much as the dance. Their heart and warmth, as well as the struggles they go through to pursue their dream, sucked me in and I felt that it would make a great feature film.”

Lee’s documentary is an in-depth, insider’s look at the international b-boy scene that stretches from Japan, France, Germany and South Korea back to the United States. Using it as a jumping off point, the filmmakers looked for an approach to set their film apart from typical dance movies. “Contemporary dance pictures tend to stick to a formula,” says Lee. “Ballerina meets street dancer. He gives her flavor and she civilizes him. That storyline has been beaten to a pulp, so it was the last thing we wanted to do. We came up with the idea of turning this into a sports film, which seemed like a natural fit. It’s about competition and the dancers are physically on par with elite athletes.”

Elements of teamwork and redemption are woven throughout the story, says Lo. “It is a very American story, with a very diverse group of people with big egos learning to put them aside to achieve a common goal.”

Although the storyline is strictly fictional, it is deeply infused with the spirit of the documentary, using elements of different dancers’ experiences to craft a classic story. “A brilliant coach has fallen on hard times and a hip hop executive wants him to put together the best dance crew in the world,” says Vinson. “The world of b-boying tends to be about the individual and the coach teaches them to become a team so that they can compete in the Battle of the Year.”

The discipline of b-boying has evolved tremendously since the early days of breaking, making it a study in individualism. “The kids overseas have taken it and put their own stamps on it,” Lo continues. “It feeds back into the U.S. on the Internet. All the b-boys study videos from events across the world and eventually that informs their own style. The cross-pollination is really fascinating.”

Lee says that while his interest in b-boying is deep and passionate, he was never a real b-boy himself. “I have always been a huge fan. I was first exposed to b-boying when I saw Flashdance. Jennifer Biels is walking down the street and she runs into a group of b-boys. I’d never seen people dance like that before. There was a host of other movies that came out afterwards, like Beat Street and Breaking. I watched those as well and I was completely sucked in.”

A decade later, Lee had finished his first film and was wondering what to do next. “I happened to see Flashdance on television. When I saw that scene, I started to wonder what happened to the b-boys. Through the Internet, I discovered this event called Battle of the Year and I became obsessed with it.”

He learned that not only were the b-boys still around, they had gone international. “And they had evolved into these really powerful athletes, but no one seemed to know about it. Wherever in the world it has gone, b-boying has come to represent the disenfranchised or ignored, the people without resources or advantages.”

He equates the art form with 1950s-era rock and roll. “It is was a purely American thing that came out of blues and shocked the world. Then it went around the globe and was reinterpreted by other cultures before coming back here. Hip hop has the power of rock. It represents youth. That’s why it has proliferated worldwide.”

Like rock and roll, you either have it or you don’t, he believes. “The best b-boys are the ones who’ve dedicated their lives to it. They draw on their personal experiences for inspiration and ideas. One thing I find that the best have in common is that they don’t feel they chose b-boying. They believe b-boying chose them.”