by guest blogger Adam Mendelson

So I’m here in Barcelona on vacation, and I wanted to catch up with my friend Kapi, who, among other things, has been my primary connection to the hip hop community here in Barcelona since I met him back in the mid 90’s. Because he’s always real busy, the easiest way to hang out with him was to go to one of his gigs, so last Sunday (June 24, 2007) I attended Freestyle Session Spain, a national breakdancing competition for which Kapi was one of the DJ’s. This is the fourth or fifth of these major breakdancing competitions I’ve attended over the last several years, and in many ways this event was similar to previous ones. But there were also a handful of unique aspects that really struck me, leaving me with a need to tell someone about what I had seen.

The event was not without its logistical problems, which is quite typical of these, and I guess almost all Spanish events. But the problems on this day were a bit atypical. The competition was planned for 5pm, putting this event in the category of an “afternoon discotheque”, meaning that all ages are welcome and alcohol (or at least hard alcohol) is not served. But for some reason security guards were checking everyone for ID and turning away anyone under 16. This resulted in a huge conflict for the organizers of the event because many of the crews, some of which had traveled from the far corners of Spain and France to compete, included kids that were under 16. The organizers called in lawyers and police, but the owners of the club insisted that this limitation was in the contract. According to the public apology made by the organizers, they had offered to cover the losses if the club agreed to just close the bars, but the owners of the club wouldn’t budge. A meeting was held between the organizers of the event and one representative from each crew, and it was decided that each crew would have to decide whether or not to compete, but that the show would go on. Of the 20 initial crews, only 9 both had enough members to compete, and felt comfortable participating in this now heavily tainted competition. The problem now became the issue of having an odd number of crews which doesn’t work for a battle format. So the organizers dashed about talking to local bboys in attendance, and a makeshift crew was put together to even the number. As is to be expected, this crew didn’t make it too far in the competition, but shit, one guy was dancing in flip-flops!

From my perspective, none of these problems really mattered. The show started two hours late, and for those two hours I hung out with Kapi, listened to the oldish rap music (almost exclusively from the late 80’s and early 90’s because of the faster dance beats) and modern electro he spun, and happily watched the three informal breaking circles that churned away, apparently oblivious to the problems occurring outside and behind closed doors. I spent a good portion of this time up on the balcony where I could see all three circles at once.

The main circle was where the better known bboys showed off and practiced their more difficult moves. In a second circle, not as brightly lit, bboys looking for a little less attention, and a lot of bgirls danced. While watching this circle and looking around the club as a whole, I was struck by how many women were in attendance and dancing. Hip hop is generally a gender-biased phenomenon with significantly fewer women than men involved. I don’t dare estimate a percentage, but the ratio of men to women at this event was way closer to one-to-one than at any hip hop event, and especially breaking event, I’d ever previously attended in Barcelona. Plus, these girls were good, real good. At previous events I had been to there were always some bgirls, but just a few, and they were usually limited to an almost sideshowish status. They never competed, and usually only danced in the equivalent to a half-time show. While sexism plays a role, part of this second class treatment was undoubtedly related to their breaking being somehow less spectacular, perhaps especially in Barcelona where it seems to me that there has generally been a major emphasis on stalls and other strength moves and less interest in what might more traditionally be considered “dancing”. In the past, most bgirls I had seen in Barcelona were limited to uprocking, downrocking, and fairly suspect stalls. This is no longer the case. Many of the bgirls I saw displayed amazing strength in pulling off the type of acrobatic moves that in the past I had only seen from bboys. Also, it seems that for both men and woman, the “dance” aspect of breakdancing is gaining importance in Barcelona, another trend that has some equaling effect.

Here’s a clip that illustrates a couple of my points about bgirling in Barcelona. It’s from a breaking contest in Spain last year. As used to be the norm, these bgirls were limited to their own separate battle as opposed to competing with men. Based on their moves, and on the trends I saw on Sunday, this separation is no longer justified. Keep in mind that this clip is a year old, and in breakdancing things evolve quickly. As a whole I’d say the level of bgirling I saw on Sunday was higher than what is shown in this video.

In the third circle both bboys and bgirls weren’t really breaking, but dancing a variety of different styles that I’m not quite sure how to classify. Some were clearly popping (think robot) and/or locking (think Rerun from “What’s Happening”) but mostly I saw hybrid mixes of popping, locking, uprocking, Michael Jackson, MC Hammer, Kid’n’Play, Rosie Perez, and an occasional touch of Madonna. The term I heard at the event was “Newstyle” but I’m not really sure what that means. Like Hyphy and Crunk (two other genres of which I have little knowledge) Newstyle seems to be a mix of styles manifesting themselves in chaotic explosions of creative physical movement coordinated with music (and perhaps other dancers) and exuding an attitude of battling.

In this circle there was one individual who had captured everyone’s attention. He combined uncanny physical control over his own body, sometimes to the extent of contortionism, with an amazing sense of showmanship. Whatever he did, he did it both gracefully and playfully; part ballet dancer part clown. He smiled and giggled as he knowingly danced better than anyone else in the club. Kapi explained to me that this was Salah, a French demi-god of bboying who had come to the competition as a judge and to present an individual show. My words do not do him justice, so I turn to YouTube. This first clip is the only one I’ve been able to find so far from last Sunday. It’s a taste of what I observed in this third circle.

This second clip is from a battle a couple years ago. There’s something oxymoronic about the idea of battling Salah. How do you “battle” against someone that makes you smile? Based on what I’ve seen so far, I think you lose.

The show he did later was somewhat similar to his performance in this next clip. It seems to come from a French, Star-Search-like television show.

When the battle did finally start around 7pm, it was quite similar to other battles I’d seen in Barcelona, with just a couple noticeable differences. There seemed to be relatively little focus on individual stunts where entire routines existed only to showcase the one big move that a particular bboy is capable of. The performances seemed to be more about fluidity and innovation through combination. The routines were faster, and while these clips reveal the truth, from my perspective on the balcony, it seemed as if there were almost no falls, no broken routines, no pauses. Because much of the dancing was about fluid transitions from one stunt to the next, even failed stunts were quickly transformed into different ones. So far I’ve only been able to find three battles online, all involving the same crew. I’ve included two. In the first one there is an amazing combination of big-time strength moves about 3 minutes and 45 seconds in.

I dig this second one because of the synchronized dancing.

The other noticeable difference was the presence of bgirls in the battle. There was no bgirl battle, and no bgirl intermission show. Instead about half the crews included at least one bgirl; and this was no gimmick. These girls held their own, going toe-to-toe and face-to-face with both the men and the women the battled against. Here’s a highlight clip from one bgirl at this event. Pretty cool how this bgirl’s skills also seem to include video production and distribution.

In addition to the breaking battle, there was also a two-on-two Newstyle battle. I had never heard of or seen anything like this before. The style of dance was similar to what I had observed in the third, pre-battle circle, but the battle aspect changed things. Some teams were male, others female, and some mixed. Some danced as if they were two individuals who happened to be on the same team, simply taking turns in battle. Others performed synchronized routines that had clearly been rehearsed. Some danced as if they were challenging their opponents, getting in their faces, dissing and taunting. Some danced facing the judges, as if more concerned with being evaluated than beating another team. By far my favorite battle pitted two tall bboys of African descent against small Spanish bgirl and an even smaller Japanese bgirl. In a wild flurry of grace and attitude, this small Japanese woman attacked these boys, leaving them dumbfounded. She ran at them, dancing just centimeters from them, wildly shaking her body, pointing fingers, and grabbing her crouch. Newstyle seems to break many of the traditional gender roles of hip hop as the two bgirls moved on to the semi-finals while the two bboys went home. Unfortunately I haven’t found any clips of this newstyle competition yet, but here’s a video that will at least give you some idea of what I saw.

As I reflect on what I witnessed last Sunday, and on the many related videos I’ve viewed during the last few days, I’m struck by the contrast between the values displayed in this underground Barcelona scene and those of hip hop that makes it to the mainstream. Mainstream hip hop is generally only represented by rap music and its accompanying videos, rap music that is frequently both misogynist and violent. What I saw on Sunday was neither. What I saw seemed more like pure art and athleticism. Gender was not an issue, and despite the very occasional pushing and shoving, peace, respect, and love of the artistic form seemed to rule. There is not one battle that does not start and end with handshakes and hugs, regardless of what happens in between. These battles are not reminiscent of Eminem and 50 Cent, Biggie and Tupac, or even MC Shan and KRS-One. They are more reminiscent of Magic and Bird: two competitors that would do what ever it took to beat the other, but loved and respected each other both before and after each bout. I wonder if this egalitarian spirit is a reflection of breakdancing in Barcelona, or a reflection of hip hop culture when all of its elements (rapping, djing, producing, graffiti writing, and bboying and bgirling) remain intimately linked as opposed to severed by capitalistic influences. Anyway, think about that as you watch these three Japanese bgirls take on these three Korean bboys.

Adam Mendelson
June 28, 2007
Barcelona, Spain