If you’re looking for the world’s best breakdancers you won’t find them in New York.
Although hip-hop is now a globalized culture, breakdancing – also known as b-boying – still brings to mind images of kids spinning on cardboard on Bronx sidewalks. But the art form’s current epicenter is the other side of the world in Seoul, South Korea.
B-boying first arrived here via American soldiers shortly after its genesis in the US, but it wasn’t until the late 1990s that it really took hold. That’s when a Korean-American named John Jay Chon gave a breakdancing video to some of Seoul’s urban dancers, spawning a surge in new interest, according to Benson Lee, director of the documentary "Planet B-Boy."
A couple years later, says Mr. Lee, “John Jay came back and found out that video was copied like hundreds of times and just passed around dance circles. Basically, that one video was instrumental in inspiring a lot of young dancers.”
Korean b-boying’s breakthrough moment came in 2002 at breakdancing’s most prestigious event, the Battle of the Year. In the country’s second appearance at the event a Korean crew won, an unheard of accomplishment.
Now, South Korea's government is seizing the opportunity to increase Korea's global profile.
The fifth annual R16 World B-Boy Championships, were hosted over the weekend by the Korean Tourism Organization and supported by the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism.
Breakdancing's popularity here has even spread to the world of theater performances. A show called "Ballerina Who Loves B-boy" will complete a two-year run in December, and SJ B-Boys Theater claims to be the world’s first theater devoted exclusively to breakdancing.
This increase in visibility has been spurred by Korean crews’ dominance of international events. Korean crews had won three of the four R16 championships prior to this year and six of the past 10 Battles of the Year, including the past two, and finished runners-up three other times.
So why has a dance form so closely associated with New York City reached its current zenith halfway around the world?
Lee believes it’s a combination of social pressure and sweat. B-boying, and hip-hop in general, offers an outlet for individual expression rare in Korean society. “Here’s a form of art for these kids where they excel because they’re really passionate about it, and then they’re recognized for their talents.
“It’s also part of the Korean psychology of ‘We’ve got to really succeed. We’ve got to make something of ourselves.’ And they took that attitude and applied it to b-boying and as a result they excel.”
Kim Heon-woo’s crew, Jinjo Crew, has excelled like no other. Winners of 2010’s Battle of the Year, they came into the 2011 R16 as defending champions.
Despite sitting at the apex of international b-boying, Mr. Kim, a soft-spoken 20-something with a conservative brush of hair, spoke before the event as if his crew – and Korean b-boys in general – still had something to prove.
“Still, there are some countries that don’t know about Korea," he says. "This is a world competition and a lot of people will come, so I want to show my best.”
He did. Jinjo Crew defeated France’s Vagabonds in the final. The world’s best appeared to feel very much at home.