The United States gets a certain amount of flack from the rest of the world ” and rightly so ” for some of its cultural exports. McDonalds, KFCs, and Taco Bells are in every available international nook and cranny, and Hollywood now counts a major portion of its box-office take from international markets. Throw in evangelical missionaries, the Bush years and EuroDisney, and it’s easy to understand why many across the ponds are a bit tired of our crap.
But while many of our cultural exports are the result of aggressive persuasion through marketing and other means, there are some things that cross borders and spontaneously spread more through a shared spirit of goodwill and common interest than a desire to funnel foreign currency back to the Land of Mickey Mouse.
“Planet B-Boy,” a documentary about the evolution of break dancing, tells the story of one such grassroots adoption of a distinctly American art form, and how it has come to belong more to the world than the country that created it. The film screens Friday through Sunday at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.
The story centers on the Battle of the Year, an annual break dancing competition held in Austria, of all places. It seems odd, given the capsulated history of break dancing, at the front of the film. In the mid- to late 1970s, disco, James Brown and boredom came together in Brooklyn, N.Y., and, in one of those moments of cultural mutation that gave us the blues, rock ‘n’ roll and Christina Aguilera, produced hip-hop. One arm of the hip-hop movement ” which also included graffiti, rap, and DJing ” was break dancing, the practitioners of which were known as b-boys.
CORPORATE BRANDING EXPLOITATION
As often happens with anything remotely new or unique in America, break dancing went through a short period of corporate branding exploitation that included movies, books, magazines, records, posters, shoes, T-shirts, socks, tea cozies, hats, mugs, pencil erasers, underpants, Happy Meals and practically anything else you can think of. The fad reached apex around 1984, after which the school kids who drove it moved on to Nintendo, skateboarding and puberty.
After the hype around break dancing died down, rap became the real rainmaking force in hip-hop culture, a state of affairs that continues to this day. The b-boys old and young interviewed for “Planet B-Boy” seem relieved to be out of the glaring spotlight their passion was under back in the day, but still a bit resentful of rap and the image it has propagated over the years.
While rap is about swagger, respect and self-expression, b-boying seems to be more about gymnastics, choreography and self-expression. In other words, the two overlap, but it’s made clear that the images don’t line up with each other.
This is perhaps why b-boying, as they call it, has spread over the entire world ” literally. While rap’s subject matter tends to translate poorly to other cultures (have you ever heard French or Chinese rap?), dance translates well almost everywhere.
2005 BATTLE OF THE YEAR
“Planet B-Boy” documents the teams competing for the 2005 Battle of the Year break dancing championship, focusing on two teams from South Korea ” one of which is the reigning champion ” a team from France, one from Japan and one lone U.S. team, from Las Vegas. In the film’s periphery are teams from South Africa, China, Taiwan, Belgium, Italy and all points between.
For the young men who make up the vast majority of break dance crews (there’s one young woman interviewed in the entire movie), this is super-important stuff. Most of them come from repressive, conformist societies and almost all of them come from poor socioeconomic backgrounds. The Asian dancers have cultural and familial pressures to deal with, while the French dancers ” most of whom are African immigrants ” have to deal with the prospect of going back to nothing if they lose.
Only the Americans have the luxury of wanting to win solely for the prestige of bringing the championship back to its roots.
While the dancing itself is amazing to watch, the real story here is how reverence for break dancing’s freedom of form and aesthetic crosses geographic and cultural borders. Most of the dancers don’t speak the same language, but communication is always clear.
At times, the group dancing reminds one of choreographed cheerleading competitions, but whatever “Let’s put on a show!” goofiness attached to the proceedings is eclipsed by real human drama. “Mike Robertson