For a period of time in college, I patiently listened to my boyfriend rave about Korean bboys with odd stage names like Ducky, Hong10 and The End. When we hung out with his friends, they all inevitably gravitated towards the computer to watch YouTube videos of US and Korean crews with equally uncommon names: Knucklehead Zoo, Last For One and Gamblerz. They cheered, shouted, and argued about who roasted who, and who’s toprocks or freezes were more impressive. While they proceeded to copy the acrobatic flips, jumps and turns in the living room, I sat quietly in the background hoping I’d get some personal attention from my boyfriend later.
In 2009, the first thing my husband (the aforementioned boyfriend) and I did when we moved to Korea was attend a bboy battle. Seeing YouTube stars alive in the flesh in the crowded Hongdae dance studio was a revelation, and I suddenly understood my husband’s obsession with the dance form. What went on that night was far beyond anything you could experience at a choreographed “Ballerina Who Loves a Bboy” performance—stamina, sweat and super-hero-like moves rooted in the beats of the hip-hop way of life. If only I had the physical strength and improvisational skill!! Alas, my own past attempts at a baby freeze left me sore with darkly bruised elbows.
What many outside the bboy world do not know is that Korea has produced some of the finest dancers at the global level. In the last decade, Korean crews have won first place five times at the famed Battle of the Year, a prestigious hip-hop event in Germany. In the years they didn’t win, they’ve placed in the semi-finals. Here’s a secret: you don’t have to make it to Europe this fall to view the amazing-ness—you can see it all here in Seoul at the Korea elimination battles taking place this Sunday. But before you go, here’s some background info to get you ready to be a part of this event:
Know The Lingo
Bboying: Commonly known by mainstream media as “breakdancing,” the true term for the dance form is either “bboying” (break-boy-ing) or “breaking.” If there are female breakers, it’s referred to as “bgirling.” Developed in 1973 at house parties in the Bronx, DJ Kool Herc coined the term by putting a break in the record, where all the music dropped out and only the beats remained. Bboying is just one of the four fundamental aspects of hip-hop including: DJing, MCing (rapping) and graffiti.
Battle: It’s just like it sounds—a battle to see who has the greatest artistic skill, athletic ability, improvisational response and attitude (you know, swag). There are either crew battles in which the whole team faces off against another team, or one-on-ones, where individuals challenge each other.
Set: A series of dance moves performed during a piece of music. Most of the time, you can tell it’s finished when the dancer ends in a freeze (see below).
Biting: Copying—a big no-no in any creative environment. Dancers might “bite”a bboy/bgirl’s signature move or an entire routine. You’ll know it when the audience or fellow dancers clench their fists, lift their forearms chest high, bend them in a 90 degree angle and make a “chomping” action—a little hard to describe, but you’ll know it when you see it. Feel free to boo at this point!
Smoking/Roasting: When one crew clearly outdoes the other, don’t say, “They beat the other crew.” Instead, say, “They smoked/roasted them!” During the battle, dancers might make a gesture akin to smoking a joint (yes, that kind of joint) when they know they’ve outdone the others.
Know the Jams
All bboys and bgirls know their music well. If it seems they are dancing according to pre-choreographed moves, they sort of are. Training over and over to nail the athletic aspects, they also work to inculcate the musical beats into their bodies. Improvisational talent is revealed when the DJ puts a break in the record to create his own combination of beats, or when the dancer is challenged with a complex set of moves by an opponent. When you hear these classic beats and jams on Sunday, shout, scream and go crazy—because all the bboys and bgirls will, too.
Know the Moves
It’s hard to appreciate the athletic ability that goes into breaking unless you actually attempt it yourself. But consider this: American gymnast and 2008 Olympian Paul Hamm trained for months to achieve the airflare, a bboy power move that everyone applauded during his floor routine. For bboys and bgirls, it’s just a typical, though impressive, part of their repertoire. The four basic categories of moves are:
Toprock: Dancing done standing upright. This is where a dancer can really show his creativity and battle attitude.
Footwork: Dancing done on the floor.
Freeze: Yup, you guessed it—a frozen position. The dancer usually holds herself up with one limb, or maybe even just her head. Freezes often signify the end of a set—a good time to wave your arms and shout to encourage her.
Power moves: These acrobatic moves are definitely the most dramatic and crowd-pleasing. Keep an eye out for those airflares, backspins and head spins. Korean bboys (and this incredible bgirl, MisLee) specialize in power moves, so you’ll see quite a few of these on Sunday.
Ah, attire. Although it’s not critical for you to come dressed in any special street wear, you should definitely come in comfortable clothing. If you’re into fashion, take note of the trademark look for bboys and bgirls: it’s reminiscent of hip-hop styles from the late 70s and early 80s. Old-school Puma, Nike and Adidas track wear and sneakers are a must, along with matching color bandannas or caps.
The Battle of the Year Korea Eliminations will be held Sunday, October 21, 3 p.m. at Yongsan I-Park Mall . Admission is free. It will be held outdoors so dress for the weather and be sure to show up a little early to claim seats!
About the photographer
Paul A. Youn is husband to Ruth M. and a soon-to-be father. A Korean pop star disguised as a teacher, he is also a part-time bboy who loves getting back scrubs at jjimjilbang and is crazy about photography. Check out more of his dynamic images on Facebook.