Simran Ranga overcame stage fright pretty early in her breaking journey. When she first signed up for a local jam in her hometown Jaipur, in 2017, she was the only B-Girl in the competition and had to battle it out with the B-Boys. Thrown straight into the deep end, she learnt to survive.
On Sunday, Ranga, also known as B-Girl Glib, was the last woman standing. The 20-year-old with slippery moves – and a sense of humour built into her art – ruled over a star-studded field, including former champions B-Girl Jo, Johanna Rodrigues, and B-Girl BarB, Siddhi Tambe, in the biggest breaking competition in the country, the Red Bull BC One Cypher India 2023. There was a surprise in store at the men’s event as well, as Goutam Kaulsee, who goes by the name B-Boy Ginni, of Kurukshetra, Haryana, clinched the title.
It is the first time that breakers from outside the sport’s metropolitan urban strongholds had won the pan-India event. Since Red Bull BC One Cypher was introduced in India, in 2015 for B-Boys and 2019 for B-Girls, only breakers from Mumbai (including Navi Mumbai) and Bengaluru had won titles.
“Mumbai is the main centre, most of the breakers are from here,” said Ranga. “It feels nice to be the first one from outside to do it.” While she won the final battle against defending champion Tambe, of Mumbai, Kaulsee beat Nasruddin Mehdihassan Chaudhary, aka Flexagon, also of Mumbai, in the final to claim the title.
Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru still remain the epicenters of breaking in India. In fact, Ranga has to travel regularly to Delhi or Mumbai to train while Kaulsee shifted base to the capital for training. But this year’s edition of Red Bull BC One Cypher India saw participants from smaller cities like Surat (Sunar Arjun), Shillong (Casper Kharmuti) and Jaigaon (Shyam Seba), a town that sits near the Indo-Bhutan border.
Breaking, which is the correct terminology for the sport than breakdancing, is still a niche sport in India. But it has come a long way since it took root in the country in the mid-2000s.
“When we started in 2006, there were only three or four of us breaking,” said Paritosh Parmar, one of the first-generation breakers in the country. “We had seen western dance, or break dance in Bollywood. Everyone from Mithun (Chakraborty) to Govinda to Jaaved Jaaferi was a break dancer. Jaaved Jaaferi, in fact, was the first one to bring some authenticity during the Boogie Woogie days.”
Parmar and his breaking peers made it their mission to learn about the new dance form, be it through Bollywood, or copied DVDs of foreign movies exploring the art, or PlayStation’s breaking game or Google’s first-draft social media platform, Orkut. “At that time, we didn’t know much about technique or what all breaking comprised,” Parmar said. “But one of us would learn a move and then teach the rest. That’s how breaking slowly grew.”
It exploded once social media and YouTube became more accessible. A tutorial on every move is now available on the Internet, helping breakers to expand their knowledge bank.
Breaking, considered one of the four components of hip-hop, along with MCing (rapping), DJing and Writing, commonly known as Graffiti, was born in the early 1970s on the streets of Bronx, New York within the African-American and Latin communities. The acrobatic dance form, which usually pits breakers in impromptu one-on-one battles, began as an underground movement before it trickled into mainstream, popular media.
In essence, hip-hop was a form of expression for the socially and economically oppressed members of society. It belonged to the young and the rebellious.
Breaking in India has also seen its fair share of these stories of struggle and empowerment. B-Girl BarB was born in the working-class tenements of Bandra, Mumbai. Her mother, Sneha, is an Anganwadi teacher and her father, Sumedh, works in the labour office.
“My mother was always fond of dance, and enrolled me in a dance class near our house,” said 19-year-old Tambe. “My mom wanted me to do something different. She knew I could do something big in my life.” The second year bachelor of science student said she is an introvert, but being on stage gives her confidence.
One of the better-known practitioners of the sport in India, B-Boy Tornado, or Ramesh Yadav, was born in a slum in Mankhurd, Mumbai. He said breaking saved him from a life of crime and violence. “I was already getting into trouble and fighting at the age of 6,” Yadav said. “If it wasn’t for breaking, I would be in jail.”
Yadav fell in love with the art form when he saw a few breakers perform at a birthday party in the slum. When the breakers refused to teach him, he would watch them from afar, go home and try to recreate the moves.
“The one thing that helped me really grow in the sport was travelling,” he said. “In 2017, I attended almost every breaking competition that happened in India. I would buy a general (unreserved) ticket and go for jams, as far as Delhi or Guwahati. If I reached early, I would sleep at the train station, then go for the competition... Sometimes I would have 24 hours to kill on the train. All that I would think about is why did I lose? I would go over every move in my mind and try to improve.”
On a shoe-string budget of ₹2000, which he would save from his catering job, Yadav toured the entire country and built his repertoire. In 2019, he became the first Indian B-Boy to make it to the Top 16 of the Red Bull BC One Last Chance Cypher, an international event.
Breaking received a shot in the arm after being included in the Olympic charter. The sport will make its Olympic debut at Paris 2024, and is also part of the upcoming Asian Games, in Hangzhou, China.
“Breaking is as difficult as any other sport; a lot of science is involved,” said Parmar “Firstly, you are going against gravity. There are times where your body weight is entirely on your hands. If you falter technically even a little bit, it can lead to major injuries. Training is at another level and at the end of the day you can’t do it on the mat, because you are going to perform on the stage.”
Despite it now being an Olympic sport, it has very little support from the Indian government. The All India DanceSport Federation, which was supposed to oversee the Olympic qualifying process in India, is not even affiliated with the Indian Olympic Association yet.
When Yadav represented India at an international event in Japan recently, he remembered feeling distinctly out of place. “All the other athletes had come there with nutritionists and masseurs; I didn’t even have an Indian jersey.”
In the absence of institutional support, the breaking community has been fundraising so athletes can go to events they qualify for or are invited to.
Meanwhile, Red Bull BC One, which has a global presence, is the only platform available to the Indian breakers. It is also a stepping stone to their international events – the India winners get a spot in the world finals.
Before the Red Bull India national finals, which are usually held in Mumbai, they have regional competitions, which funnel talent from far and wide into the national pool. Ranga and Kaulsee, who shifted base from Kurukshetra to Delhi for training, are only the first winners from outside breaking’s metropolitan strongholds of India to make a splash.
Deepti Patwardhan is a Mumbai-based sportswriter