“It is morally wrong to wear Puma kicks with a Nike shirt!” emcee Pedro “Cikmode” Morillo boomed into the microphone as a clueless break dancer stepped into the circle wearing this unfortunate sneaker-shirt combination. The crowd—fellow dancers representing a variety of sportswear brands, races, and ages—roared with laughter. One b-girl who was to dance later confessed to glancing at her own outfit to make sure she hadn’t made the same mistake. “I sometimes wear Adidas and Pumas together at practice,” she whispered.
“When there’s no money in a culture, everybody has to be cutthroat, scrambling for the same pennies,” says one of the NBL’s founders. “I decided to try to make another bank, get pennies of my own.”
If Chris Coupelin and Jeremy Schweitzer have their way, however, missteps like that will someday be much more than a fashion faux pas—they will be a contractual faux pas. Coupelin and Schweitzer are the co-founders of the National Breakin’ League, a scrappy collective of mostly men (and a sprinkling of women) who hope to turn break dancing into the next big-name, big-budget extreme sport. Their goal is to put the NBL on the same path that skateboarding followed when it became a cultural and commercial force in the early '90s, dominating the X Games, spawning celebrities like Tony Hawk, and finding fans in all income brackets.
But four years after the NBL’s formation, mega-mainstream popularity remains a fairly distant dream, as an ESPN film crew discovered when it arrived at the site of the NBL’s New York finals on March 6th in Manhattan’s Chinatown. ESPN had clearly been expecting a strongly lit stage set in the center of a flashy club. Instead, what they got was a basement gymnasium with faded yellow walls and basketball hoops. I asked the producer, a crisply dressed woman wearing high-heeled boots, if she had brought more comfortable shoes. It was 2 p.m., and the jam (b-boy speak for battle) would likely last past 10 p.m. Those shoes were going to pinch her toes, and there was nowhere to sit except the gym floor.
NBL New York Finals, March 6, 2010. Video courtesy of Christopher Tan.
Coupelin, 29, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force and a b-boy with 10 years experience, hopes to upgrade to seated venues next year. He wants to capitalize on breaking’s second wind of popularity due to shows like America’s Best Dance Crew and So You Think You Can Dance, both of which have featured break dancers prominently. (Legacy, the b-boy from the most recent season of So You Think You Can Dance, became an instant audience favorite for his tough-guy-who’s-not-afraid-to-cry persona.) Coupelin recognizes that to generate more corporate investment in the fledgling league, he and Schweitzer will have to take what has traditionally been gritty and underground, and add a layer of professional gloss to it. For instance, Schweitzer has developed the Real Time Scoring system, which awards points throughout the battle. “People can follow the number,” says Coupelin. “This team has 30 points and this one has 50, so this one is winning.”
Ultimately, the NBL hopes to establish itself in all states, with official teams facing off throughout the regular season. Top-ranked crews would compete in the postseason, culminating in a media-saturated national championship. (This year’s NBL championship takes place on Saturday in Phoenix.) Essentially, they want to take the present structure—a loosely affiliated collection of individuals and local crews hosting one or two jams a year—and gel it into a cohesive brand. “What the NBL wants to build is coast-to-coast unity,” says Coupelin.
Schweitzer, 28 and a native of Paris, acknowledges that one of the chief tasks of the NBL will be education. They’ll have to teach hoped-for investors—and mainstream sports fans—about the culture and terminology: “the footwork, freezes, power,” rattles off Coupelin.
They’ll also have to convince them that a thirst for break dancing exists. Many of these investors probably assume breaking died in the ‘80s. It didn’t. In fact, it went underground—and global—and is now probably bigger than ever. The Korean government sponsors several crews, and even uses b-boys to promote tourism to the country in its campaigns. In 2007, a documentary called Planet B-Boy that ended up at the Tribeca Film Festival followed crews from France, Korea, Japan, and the U.S. as they prepared for 2005’s “Battle of the Year” in Germany.
In the past three decades, the genre has changed. The term “breaking” has largely replaced “break dancing,” a phrase associated with the intrusions of corporate interests in the 1980s. That period, assumed by many to be break dancing’s golden era, was actually perhaps its nadir, when many young kids were unwittingly exploited by Hollywood and underpaid for their talents. Throughout the day I heard many old timers echo the same sentiment: “But when the money runs out…” They remember a time when the linoleum had been pulled out from under them, and as such, they’re skeptical of the NBL’s attempts to commercialize break dancing, fearful of being pulled back into another boom-and-bust cycle by profit-focused businessmen.
In an interview with Strife TV, Richard “Crazy Legs” Colon of the famous Rock Steady Crew, which achieved worldwide celebrity after appearing in Flashdance, was emphatically against the goals of the NBL. “Hell, no!” he said. “It’s not a sport. To make it a sport is to belittle the impact it has culturally.” But perhaps it’s a harbinger of Crazy Legs’ fears that even he himself was wearing his Red Bull cap on camera. Red Bull is a corporate early adopter of the breaking world today, collaborating on a break dancing videogame for Nintendo DS, and sponsoring an annual 1v1 b-boy battle, which has all the trappings of a major sporting spectacle—exactly the kind that the NBL hopes to create.
Coupelin chuckles when confronted with such criticism. “The funny thing is that some of the people that tell you it should be or stay a certain way are people that benefit from it staying that way.” Crazy Legs, for instance, has managed to sustain a career dancing well into his forties, which is quite rare. As one of the b-boy pioneers, he travels around the world, performing, teaching workshops, and judging battles. But he’s also benefited from his association with Red Bull, a sponsor that some in the scene say undercompensates the dancers that take part in its events. “When there’s no money in a culture, everybody has to be cutthroat, scrambling for the same pennies,” says Coupelin. “I decided to try to make another bank, get pennies of my own.”
Not all of the old school b-boys are opposed to a league. Gabriel “Kwikstep” Dionisio, co-founder of Full Circle Productions, acted as one of the three judges at the NBL’s New York finals. He remembers the 1980s, when the cash stopped flowing, and he’s cautiously optimistic at the prospect of a league. Like Coupelin and Schweitzer, he looks to activities that became “extreme sports” as a model. “If you look at skateboarding and snowboarding, they all have sponsorship,” he told Strife, “but the core cultural aspect of it is still together but it just makes it accessible for people to make a career out of it.”
Joseph Schloss, an ethnomusicologist, NYU professor, occasional b-boy, and author of Foundation, a book on breaking, agrees that skateboarding is an appropriate role model for the NBL. “Skateboarding has carved out that space in the larger culture. There’s a concept of extreme sports and rebellious world where you can still make money. Skateboarding is also like b-boying in that they’re both naturally competitive anyway. The idea of setting up a skateboarding competition or b-boy competition doesn’t go against the values of the community.”
For all its attempts at professional sheen, this battle in Chinatown still had the feel of a local park jam. But Coupelin remains undeterred. He’s quick to note that in its early years, the NFL was more akin to a traveling circus than a professional sports league. It was the introduction of television that brought in the money and sponsorships. Breaking already has TV on board. Now the NBL may just need to provide chairs. ESPN, for one, would almost certainly appreciate it.
The National Breakin’ League Championships will take place April 10 at the US Airways Arena in Phoenix.
Dvora Meyers is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. She blogs about the unholy union between Judaism and gymnastics at Unorthodox Gymnastics.