How Breaking Went From a Street Dance to an Olympic Sport

This summer, 32 athletes will compete in what’s commonly known as breakdancing, a dance sport that combines athleticism and artistry

A man dancing on the ground in front of an audience
Victor Montalvo will be competing for Team USA in breaking at the Summer Olympics in Paris. Pier Marco Tacca / Getty Images

In the early 1970s, hip-hop dancers at block parties in New York City began adding moves from gymnastics, martial arts and other sources to their repertoire. They called their new improvisational style “b-boying.” Today, it’s commonly referred to as “breakdancing”—though the dancers who specialize in this genre prefer the term “breaking.”

Now, more than 50 years later, breaking is set to appear on its biggest stage yet: the Summer Olympics in Paris.

Breaking will become the first dance sport ever included in the Olympics when it debuts at this year’s Games, which will take place between July 26 and August 11. This summer, 32 athletes from around the world—16 men and 16 women, called B-boys and B-girls—will compete for gold, silver and bronze at the Place de la Concorde in Paris.

While a DJ spins tracks, dancers will improvise a variety of moves, including intricate footwork, twists, spins and “freezes,” a feat that involves balancing on their hands or head. Judges will score them in six categories: creativity, personality, technique, variety, performativity and musicality.

So far, the United States has chosen two athletes: Sunny Choi, a 35-year-old from New York, and Victor Montalvo, a 29-year-old based in Florida. The team still has two spots available, per NBC News’ Rebecca Cohen.

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A post shared by Sunny Choi (@_sunnychoi)

In 2018, the sport debuted at the Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and was an instant hit. More than a million people watched the competition, per NBC News. Now, the Summer Olympics hope to replicate that success.

“Breaking is allowing the [International Olympic Committee] to reconnect with the youth, the generation between 15 and 25 years old,” says Jean-Laurent Bourquin, a former senior manager with the committee and the former CEO of the World DanceSport Federation, breaking’s international governing body, to the Athletic’s Lukas Weese.

Athletes, meanwhile, hope the unprecedented visibility will attract new people to breaking.

“The Olympics are such a big platform for us to share what we do and bring people into the community that otherwise might not have known breaking even existed,” says Vicki Chang, a 33-year-old who hopes to qualify for the U.S. team, to NBC Olympics’ Sam Brief.

Some onlookers have questioned whether breaking deserves to be in the Olympics, while others have argued that it should be considered an art, rather than a sport. On the other hand, breaking “isn’t that different from other judged events at the Olympics, such as figure skating and gymnastics,” that merge artistry and athleticism, as the Washington Post’s Rick Maese wrote in 2021. Additionally, breakers train and prepare just like those participating in other Olympic events.

“Breaking has to be one of the hardest things in the world,” says David “Kid David” Shreibman, a 35-year-old breaker and competition commentator from Los Angeles, to Rolling Stone’s Brandon Sneed. “You need the athleticism of a professional athlete, but you also need to be an artist, and you need to dance. It’s like asking Picasso to mountain climb. That’s what makes breaking so hard—that element of needing someone who’s creative, but also has the highest athletic ability.”

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A post shared by Bboy Victor (@supamontalvo)

Breaking began in the Bronx in the summer of 1973, when a DJ named Kool Herc began experimenting at a party, according to Team USA. At other events, Herc had noticed that people danced more during the percussive instrumental breaks in songs—and he devised a method of extending those breaks using two turntables to keep people moving.

Over time, people began engaging in dance-offs with each other, and a new style was born. Breaking is one of the four core pillars of hip-hop, along with graffiti painting, DJing and rapping.

Interest in breaking has ebbed and flowed over the years, reaching what many consider to be its peak in the mid-1980s when it was featured in movies like Beat Street (1984) and Flashdance (1983). Its popularity waned in the years that followed. Recently, it’s been making a comeback, which the Summer Olympics will undoubtedly help fuel.

If you do decide to tune in during the Games this summer, a word of advice: Don’t call it “breakdancing.” These days, the term is passé—and, to breakers, a bit offensive.

“We’re not 14-year-old kids,” Kevin Gopie, who goes by “DJ Renegade,” tells Time magazine’s Sean Gregory, adding: “If you call it breakdancing, you’re not a breaker.”

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