At 17, Johanna Rodrigues had the best year of her life. She had passed 12th grade with 92 per cent. For most kids in Bengaluru, the IT capital of India, it would have been the ideal stepping stone for a more conventional, academic path. But convention never appealed to Rodrigues. Earlier that year she had already discovered something that would eventually see her drop out of the rat race and carve her own path.
“I stumbled into a neighbourhood jam, known as Freeze and it was run by Black Ice Crew. That’s the first time I saw breaking live,” Rodrigues, now 25, says over the phone. “I had seen all these movies. At that age, Step Up and all was very attractive to me. I just loved the idea of a group of kids having fun on their own. A lot of other sports and arts you have to comply to your teacher, you have to do it the way they say. But as a teenager I really didn’t want to do anything like that. I think breaking was one of those things that gave me the freedom to do it the way I want to do it.”
What started as rebellious fun, soon became her purpose. Rodrigues, who goes by the name B-Girl Jo, is currently one of the best breakers in the country. She won her second Red Bull BC One India championship in September and represented India at the World Final in Gdansk, Poland earlier this month.
Born in the streets of the Bronx in New York City in the 1970s, breaking is now a global phenomenon. The International Olympic Committee, looking to find new ways to engage a younger audience, first introduced the sport in the Youth Olympic Games at the 2018 Buenos Aires edition. Impressed by the response, they decided to instate it as a sport at the Summer Olympics, starting with Paris 2024. “Initially I wasn’t sure how it will change, but I am already seeing that dancers’ families are taking it a lot more seriously and that’s really helpful for them to grow,” says Rodrigues. “People are more willing to fund it now that they know that it is recognized as an Olympic sport. I also know that schools are going to be more open to it being taught. That opens up a whole space for breakers to teach,” she adds.
It is still a growing sport in India while nations like the US, France, Russia and Japan are much ahead of the curve. While it is popular in the Indian media and a staple on reality TV shows, it is still largely perceived as dance. Worse still, as ‘breakdance.’ “We prefer calling it breaking,” Rodrigues corrects politely. “Breakdance is a term wrongly used by the media in the 1970s and 80s for commercial reasons.”
“I think it lies somewhere in between performance arts and sports. It’s definitely an art, every performer brings something unique to the art, but it is also very athletic,”she adds. “Breaking is part of culture of hip-hop and I think wherever hip-hop resonates strongly is going to be a good support for the breakers. Our social and economic situation is quite relevant to hip-hop. A lot of the breakers come from very modest backgrounds.”
Like a lot of its practitioners, breaking is edgy and defiant. The signature swagger and freezes are built on a foundation of incredible athleticism and bursting creativity. For Rodrigues, who has been practicing yoga since the age of 11 and dabbled in Bharatnatyam and Indian martial art Kalaripayattu, breaking is her vehicle of expression. It not only gave her the freedom to be herself once on the stage, but also helped her cope. Her father passed away in a hit-and-run accident when she was only six.
“Being raised by a single woman is quite challenging anywhere, but especially in a male dominated country like ours,” Rodrigues says. “There were several challenges. We faced a lot of difficulty, even when we would travel alone, it was unsafe for us. All the little things influenced me and made me feel I had to be a very strong in order to survive and thrive in this society. That’s what pushed me to prove myself.”
It is the same attitude that she brought to her craft. Rodrigues would practice moves for hours on end, alone in her house. She won her first solo competition in 2018, at Project Street Art in New Delhi. While breaking is dynamic, it is also deeply personal. Most breakers choreograph their own routines and spend years developing a style. Rodrigues says that she recently discovered that her mother’s passion was playing the guitar while her father loved to box. She now pursues a discipline that combines her mother’s musicality and her father’s strength.
Even though she is a primary school teacher, her mother allowed Rodrigues to drop out of college. “After my 12th, I started to do my degree at Mount Carmel College, but I didn’t like it because I didn’t think there was enough freedom. I was too rebellious at that point. My mother allowed me to drop out because she saw how unhappy I was,” she says. They were doing okay financially, but leaving college early also helped Rodrigues to contribute to the family income.
“I am a certified yoga teacher and have been working since the age of 19,” she says. “Earlier I was driven by the feeling that I had to fight; that if I ever needed to, I should be ready to fight. Now that I have grown up those things are calming down as I beginning to find new motivations and new desire to continue on this path.” When asked if it is a viable career path for Indian youngsters, the 25-year-old, as expected has a unique take on it.
“Very few professions are financially viable in our country,” she says. “You might get paid, but that’s probably at the cost of your entire lifestyle and well-being. Considering that, being an artist or dancer is on par with being a breaker now. There are as many opportunities.”
Being a part of the Olympic charter has just opened a whole new world of opportunities for breakers. At the 2024 Paris Games, the top-16 B-Girls and top-16 B-Boys in the world will compete in one-on-one battles. The qualification events will begin next year. “Very little official work has happened due to the pandemic. We do have a dance sports federation that is now trying to take up the process that our country will need to try and send breakers to the Olympics,” she says. Even though the country does not have a proper federation or structure in place yet, there has been some progress since the sport received IOC’s stamp of approval.
The very first national breaking competition was held in Mumbai this October. “There were 30 B-boys and maybe 20 B-girls, which is the largest number of B-girls who have ever come together, from all over the country, including places like Chhattisgarh. So there are some steps being taken in the right direction.”
To make it to Paris, Rodrigues will first have to make sure she is remains among the top two B-Girls in India. While she still owns the creative rights to her routines, she now works with a physiotherapist and strength and conditioning coach to make sure she gets in the best shape for the biggest stage in her journey so far.
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.