Four men in their late teens and early 20s are limbering up in a rehearsal studio just off London's Oxford Street. The first throws himself to the floor and spins his legs around before flipping himself deftly to his feet; the second levitates his lower body, bolstered simply by his arms. The others look on and smile, while I think "it's going to be a long afternoon".
The numerous cringe-inducing aspects of mainstream culture co-opting breakdancing aside, there is something to be said for its beneficial influence on society; it unites people from different walks of life, involves intense training routines and according to its participants, has numerous mental and physical health benefits. This is particularly true at the moment, as everyone from the top-level professionals to those hoping for a bit of private tuition embrace it; on 11 October the "B-Boy" World Championship will be taking place in London's Brixton Academy (in which the quartet spinning in front of me will be competing); its crews are ultimately sourced by the host of breakdancing workshops increasingly taking place in schools and gyms across the country.
"It is very physically demanding to be honest; but for me, it's the mental challenges which I find most interesting," says Ajay Jackson, 23, who will be competing next month and is one of those training with me in the studio. "If you are in training for two days in a row, your body is going to be telling you this is enough; that it can't take any more. But you need to push past that wall in your mind. And each time you do that your stamina increases." In preparation for the forthcoming championship, Jackson is training seven days a week.
Its popularity among children is helped by its credibility. "Young people take to it extremely well because of its rebellious image," says the St Helens-based Ash Nugent, who runs breakdancing and other workshops for schools, youth clubs and even the police force. "The kid who wouldn't be seen dead doing another dance will happily try this. It is definitely gaining in popularity with the boys; the girls like to do street-dance, which is more of the stuff you see in music videos."
Breakdancing crossed over from underground into mainstream culture in US in the 1970s; dancers would battle each other to the repeated and rhythmic, "breakdown" or freestyle drumming sections of funk records. Also influenced by jazz dance and capoeira, it landed in the UK in the early 1980s as hip-hop music was popularised through the launch of MTV. Breaking, should you not remember from those trips to New York's Washington Square, is characterised by four kinds of moves: toprock, the opening string of steps conducted from standing position; downrock; all footwork performed on the floor; power moves, such as the famous, leg-windmilling action; and, finally, freezes, the coup de grace of a b-boy or breakdance set, which requires the breaker to suspend his body off the ground. All of which is pretty physically demanding (you can burn up to 400 calories an hour during training).
Necessarily, such feats require the use of a gamut of muscles; b-boys generally need to weight train using mid-level weights with a high number of repetitions; this helps them tone their muscles and increase their muscle and joint strength (especially important when performing freezes).
For my own workout I arrive and start with some basic stretches. One of the dancers puts on a slow hippity-hoppity beat and I sway slowly from side to side, mainly feeling anxious about what my colleagues will make of the pictures (later, I learn I look like a member of the Hello Dolly ensemble). We start with a simple running motion, something I had luckily perfected circa 1989; and before long I am spinning around on my head as my legs twirl in the air above me (either that or I dreamt it).
Meanwhile the pros fill me in on the health details: I am told it is important to warm up properly, using a proper posture (straight back when crouching), all the while breathing properly. I am also informed that, should I feel any pain, I should stop immediately, though my stitch complaints are mercilessly ignored. Muscles worked include those in the chest, upper back, shoulders, triceps and biceps, as well as quads and hamstrings. It's a pretty thorough work-out.
After the warm-down Ajay describes how he got involved. He says when he was 18 years old he was hanging around with "a difficult crowd" on his Peckham council estate. "We were walking through central London and there were these guys doing breaking and I had never seen it in person," he says. "So I went up to them and I said to them, 'teach me'. They thought I was trying to rob them at first. They said to me if I was serious I should come back the following week. So I did; and the week after that; and the week after that; and the week after that. I was hooked."
Now, he must focus on the gruelling training regime – seven days a week, from 10pm until 2am, including circuit training, simple footwork, squat thrusts along with the moves he and his peers will ultimately be using.
It sums up these boys' passion. "I got into it in a big way when I was 12 and have never looked back," says Ajay's trainer and manager Kevin Gopie. "It appeals to such a broad range of people it's amazing. I've seen kids of seven, eight and nine doing it, along with the old people too. And you can take it to whatever level you like – you can even incorporate hyper-flexible styles, throwing your legs behind your head, but that's more akin to contortionism or gymnastics. It's physical magic. People get into it for the same reason they get into free running or anything off the beaten track. People dedicate their lives to it; becoming part of a huge global scene is a massive bonus."
Ajay's crew the Soul Mavericks will be representing the UK and taking on the world's finest breakdancers when they take part in the Sony Ericsson B-Boy Championships – World Final on 11 October, at the Brixton Academy
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