From the outside, the nondescript headquarters of Long Island City arts nonprofit Ladies of Hip-Hop might look abandoned. But on most nights, after dance classes wrap up, more than 30 men, women and kids gather to break dance, practicing their flares, head spins and windmills. Grace Choi is one breaker who takes advantage of the space. She’s a Queens-based dancer who sometimes goes by her stage name.
Before she can polish her Olympic gold, Choi will first compete in the international break dancing competition Red Bull BC One World Finals this Saturday at the Hammerstein Ballroom at Manhattan Center. The contest brings breakers from all over the world, who battle it out in multiple rounds in hopes of being crowned the world champion. Breaking wasn’t always the focus for Choi, who grew up in a conservative Korean family in Louisville, Kentucky.
“I was a gymnast for the first 15 years of my life, and when I got to high school I had a couple of knee injuries,” she said. “I had surgery, had some complications, and I ended up quitting. I didn’t know what to do with my life – I was a little lost.”
Choi would soon find refuge in break dancing as a hobby after attending a class that was teaching some moves. Her classmates saw she was strong and had rhythm, but needed to build confidence.
“My parents immigrated from Korea, so it's a pretty reserved culture,” she said. “Expressing myself creatively was never really a big part of my life – it was always about being quiet and not being seen. This dance is about everything but that, so I really kind of found myself through this dance.”
Breaking isn’t Choi's full-time career. She works a 9-to-5 corporate job. But the creative spirit of the sport keeps her plugged in, even if she doesn’t make a lot of money from competing.
“What drew me into the dance initially was kind of like being upside down, and that adrenaline rush of doing something that's so physically challenging,” she said. “What ended up really keeping me was the community and the energy.”
Known to the mainstream as break dancing, breaking is a high-energy sport that draws upon kung fu, gymnastics and even tap dancing to create movement that seamlessly aligns with the hard percussion of loud hip-hop music. Dancers call themselves B-boys and B-girls.
Ana Garcia, the pioneering B-girl known as Rokafella, says she fell in love with breaking as a child in Spanish Harlem, when fires raged in the Bronx and hip-hop culture was just emerging as escape for the youth.
“Every time I would go outside, I would be listening to some music, watching people do some steps,” Garcia said. “People were in the staircases, kicking rhymes. It was a beautiful consciousness, you know, where people were being creative all around me.”
Breakers say that while the activity has waned in popularity recently, it continues to evolve internationally and attract diverse participants. In 2020, the International Olympic Committee announced that breaking will be an official sport in the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.
Victor Montalvo, who performs as B-Boy Victor, is competing this weekend for his second title. He also says he’s more than ready to compete for Olympic gold.
“I'm ready to hopefully be, like, the first-ever B-boy to win the Olympics,” Montalvo said. “I'm happy that people get to see what breaking is all about. They think we still spin on our heads on cardboard, which is not true. I have a career just off of breaking, you know – I can make a living off of breaking, travel all around the world. It’s artistic and it's self-expression.”
Since the competitions are run by separate entities, winning Red Bull won’t accrue any needed points for the Olympic trials. Choi says she’s focused either way.
“I think a lot of people get into breaking with the dream of being in Red Bull BC one day,” she said. “It's just like one of those aspirational events that everybody has from their beginning days. So it's a different track, but it's still pretty important for a lot of the community.”
The Red Bull BC One World Final will be streaming on Facebook and YouTube on Saturday at 7 p.m.