As breaking joins the Olympics, meet the B-boy who hopes to lead Korea to victory
From 2024, B-boys and B-girls will be more than just dancers. They'll be Olympic athletes.
Break dancing will officially become an Olympic sport at the 2024 Paris Games, one of four new additions to the Summer Games in a bid to encourage more young fans to tune in. The Olympic sport will officially be called "breaking," and with four years left before the Games begin, Korea is already looking like a medal favorite.
As with the inclusion of Esports at the 2018 Asian Games, there are plenty of sports fans who don't think breaking is a sport, or at least not enough of one to make it into the Olympics, especially as more established sports like baseball did not make the cut.
Break dancer Kim Heon-jun, better known as Skim, the head of Korean B-boy crew Jinjo Crew, thinks the new sport should be given the benefit of the doubt.
“Dance is dance,” Kim says. “But this is the only kind of dance that includes so many different personalities. It has both athletic and artistic aspects. B-boys can dance to music of any genre, both old and new. It's the only form of dance that can really embrace the past and the future.”
And embracing the future is what the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is hoping to do, leaning on break dancing's athleticism to incorporate it into the Games while hopefully also incorporating a new generation of sports fans at the same time.
This isn't a completely new idea either. While Paris 2024 will be the first time breaking makes it to the Summer Games, it has already appeared at the 2018 Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires. As one of Korea's top break dancing crews, Jinjo Crew was the backbone of that Team Korea squad, winning bronze in the girl's event.
Jinjo Crew was founded on Christmas Eve in 2001 and quickly rose to the top of the Korean break dancing scene. Kim was a member of the squad from the very beginning.
With break dancing now an official Olympic sport, Jinjo Crew, and especially Kim, have a busy few years ahead if Korea is to have a shot at Olympic gold.
Breaking may have its roots as an urban dance with a definite anti-establishment feeling, but that doesn't mean it doesn't fit within the bureaucratic structure of Korean sports today. The Korea DanceSports Federation (KDF) is the body that has overall control of Korean professional dance activities, and within that body the breaking subcommittee takes chance of break dancing. As the vice chairman of that subcommittee, Kim has a simple job — lead Korea to Olympic glory.
“Breaking itself had enough potential artistically but it also has the sports element,” Kim says. “When we held it at the Youth Olympics, it received a lot of positive feedback. It wasn’t just about the competition. When the competition was over, music was still playing and the dancers were continuing to dance. It was like a festival.”
That success at the Youth Olympics is what pushed the IOC to add the event to the Games. As a new sport, break dancing remains under the purview of the World DanceSport Federation, and thus the KDF, but the B-boys and B-girls at their hearts hope that one day they'll have an international governing body of their own.
In preparation for that, Kim established the Korea Breaking Federation in March 2019, meaning Korea is ready to sign up as soon as an international organization exists. In the meantime, Korea's break dancers remain members of the KDF subcommittee, but they hope to one day replace that with their own federation.
New sport, old crew
Jinjo Crew may not be that well known in Korea, but globally if you're in the break dancing world, you've probably heard of them. Among many accolades, the Korean group was the first-ever B-boy crew to win all five major international competitions.
In fact, Jinjo, named after a Chinese character meaning rising fire, is the winningest crew in the world and the "Jinjo Museum" in the lobby of its studio in Bucheon, Gyeonggi, proves it. In fact, pretty much the only trophy missing from the walls of the lobby is some Olympic hardware.
“Winning once or twice, people can call that luck,” Kim says. “But we’ve won more than 200 times. Can they really call that luck? That's what these trophies mean — proof that we can do it. And they raise our confidence. Every time I see them, it reminds me that I can keep on trusting myself. It continues to motivate us.”
That many trophies only come after years of hard work. For Kim, that journey started back in 1999.
“There’s really nothing special as to how I started,” Kim says. “But at the same time, I think it's very important to me. I started with a friend, who asked me to dance with him. I asked them what kind of dance we were doing and at the time they didn’t even know how to describe it.”
Kim and his friend started off without even knowing exactly what breaking was. They'd heard of both break dancing and B-boys, but they weren't sure which one was the name of the dance. In the end, they used to refer to it as "the dance they do in the movies.”
Kim and his friends didn’t exactly start their infatuation with this mysterious dance with huge aspirations.
“Rather than starting with the thought of being the best in the world right away, I think that is a goal that came up as I continued on,” Kim says.
At first, it wasn’t easy for Kim to keep on dancing as his father wanted him to focus on high school and university.
“When I calculated the time and all that, I figured that I didn’t have time to dance,” Kim says. “I thought that if I practiced with the little time I had, I would only become a bad B-boy, but at the time, I was scared of my father.”
Despite having a fairly strained relationship with his father, Kim cared enough about dancing to find the courage to speak up. He asked if he could attend a different high school that ended earlier, allowing him time to both study and dance.
“[My father] asked me why,” Kim says. “I told him and I made a whole load of promises, which ultimately made me a stronger person.”
Kim got his way and dived deeper into the world of break dancing. Through a friend, he became aware of comic books and TV shows that introduced him to hip-hop culture and break dancing, and slowly "the dance they do in the movies" became something more serious.
Although this was only the case for Kim, not for the friend who started the whole thing.
“That friend actually quit about a year after we started,” Kim says. “But I think this kind of influence is very important. One person really got into something, but since he didn’t want to start things all by himself, he pushed his friend to start with him. Although he backed out a lot earlier, the friend who started because of that person ended up becoming the head of the top B-boy crew in the world.”
Kim didn't have access to any other break dancers when he first started, so he had to learn at home watching videos online.
“I would practice by putting bed sheets on the floor at home,” Kim says.
As he kept on practicing, he slowly got to meet more established B-boys who would invite him to visit their studio.
“That’s when you have the decision to make,” Kim says. “You can go there and learn or stay at this tiny school and be the best person here. And I think this is why people have to go outside and head out to a bigger stage.”
For Kim, that bigger stage was Jinjo Crew, and he went on to lead it to the very top of the sport.
With its competition experience already well established, Jinjo Crew was the obvious person to call when it was time to put together a team for the 2018 Youth Olympics. But, according to Kim, nobody really though to ask the crew.
“To be honest, organizing the Youth Olympics wasn’t our responsibility,” Kim says. “It wasn’t something we had to do. Back in 2016, we found out that [breaking] might be at the Olympics by reading about it online. That was it. We didn’t really think about it. We just thought it was good news because we were the best in the world.”
In fact it wasn't until 2017 that Jinjo Crew stumbled into the Youth Olympics preparations. Or didn't, because nobody in Korea seemed to know it was happening.
“We performed at the Olympic Park,” Kim says, “and right when we were leaving I saw the KDF. We knew that the KDF was in charge of dance and I was curious as to what they were doing to prepare for the Games.”
So Kim knocked on the door and went in to ask about the process. The KDF's answer was simple: They had no idea what he was talking about.
“They weren’t even aware of the Youth Olympics,” Kim says. “So I told them that it’s being held and that they should prepare for it, but they still didn’t do anything about it. It wasn't until later when we started to think that we would have to do it because if we didn’t, there wouldn’t be anyone competing for Korea.”
As Kim had danced internationally for years, he was friends with B-boys from all around the world. He knew exactly how much work other countries were putting into the Youth Olympics, but when he looked at Team Korea’s situation in 2017, there was literally nothing to see.
“Jinjo Crew always has been the team that other people around the world looked up to,” Kim says. “But this time, it was the complete opposite. Korea had nothing. We started thinking about how to organize this toward the end of 2017 and once we found out that [KDF] wasn’t doing anything, we rushed to prepare for it.”
Jinjo Crew very quickly held three qualifiers, helping young dancers pay for their flights to international events rather than relying on support from the Korea Sports & Olympics Committee (KSOC).
“We held the first qualifier here [at Jinjo Crew Studio],” Kim says. “Then we took them to Taiwan for the second qualifier and then to Japan for the third qualifier. Until then, it didn’t matter what we did, but to compete at the Youth Olympics we needed our dancers to be registered with the KSOC. That was really difficult.”
Kim and the crew did manage to pull everything together and just a few months later they sent crew member Hwang Myung-chan, better known as Octopus, off to the Youth Olympics with a squad of young dancers. The team went on to win bronze in the girl's event.
At the 2024 Paris Olympics, the competition will be held in a tournament format. As Kim has experience as a judge as well, he is expected to help the dancers a lot in terms of preparing their strategy for the tournament.
“It’s all about who you are dancing against,” Kim says. “If your opponent is weak then you don’t have to perform at 100 percent. But it your opponent is strong, then you have to know when to use your skills. So you need some luck with the tournament draw. You are evaluated against each other, not against the whole field.”
Kim says that categories include rhythmical elements, like how well you express your techniques according to the music. As the dancers are not aware of what kind of music will come out, they will have to dance freestyle. B-boys and B-girls are required to dance as if it’s the beat that they’ve prepared for.
That requirement to be able to adapt and change their dance style to match unexpected music makes training difficult, Kim says.
“Since B-boys [and B-girls] fall under a specific category, we are hoping that they won’t be required to train at the National Training Centre,” Kim says. “So that means we can control their training quite a lot. I was even thinking of taking them to clubs to give them a different way to train.”
While Kim plans on taking his dancers out to the club, he will definitely ban them from smoking and drinking, as well as dating, because his plan is to make them dance all day according to the music the DJs play.
“They’ll be dancing all day and continuing that feeling they got from the club. They will then work on specific moves,” Kim says. “We’ll be rotating between the two.”
With three more years remaining until breaking makes its debut at the Olympics, Kim has a lot more time to prepare than for the Youth Olympics. As for Korea’s current B-boy situation, Kim has said in various interviews that it has the potential to win medals, but they will have to train hard.
Before the Paris Games, Team Korea will get a test themselves on the international stage as break dancing has been officially added to the 2022 Asian Games.
Moving forward, rather than just with Jinjo Crew, Kim hopes to work for an established Team Korea break dancing crew.
“From this point on, we won’t be lazy, and we never have been,” Kim says. “It’s about time we work as a team to make Korea win gold. We may not be able to battle forever but we will be dancing forever. I want to be a motivation to people who didn’t really consider B-boying to be a real thing. We want to show that B-boying can change the world. If that happens, I think I’ll be very happy.”
BY KANG YOO-RIM [firstname.lastname@example.org]
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