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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hip-Hop Headspinners

For MT
Young crowds in sportswear and oversized sunglasses were a perplexing sight to the immigrant workers squatting around the grounds of a dilapidated Moscow sugar factory on a recent Saturday afternoon. This unlikely meeting of cultures came about thanks to an energy drink giant holding a break-dancing competition in one of the pavilions, where 16 competitors stretched their limbs like nonchalant ballerinas as the deejay narrated introductions.

Some dancers said they considered the competition, BC One, to be too commercial, lacking the right atmosphere and valuing attitude and stage presence over the creativity of their moves. Events sponsored by large companies are now one of the things that keep the break-dancing scene alive -- but while this competition was created in 2004, a break-dancing subculture has existed in Russia since before perestroika.

Andrei, aka B-Boy Kolyuchy, has been dancing since the mid-1980s. Back then hip-hop music and break dancing videos were accessible only to two types of people: diplomats returning from abroad and Ulitsa Arbat souvenir or currency peddlers who were in direct contact with foreign tourists.

"There were events three to four times a year back then, mostly in the Baltic states," Andrei said. Enthusiastic Soviet teens practiced in front of lacquered wardrobes in their parents' bedrooms and went to events that were sponsored by Pioneer organizations.

Grigory Tambulov / For MT
A competitor performing in Moscow's recent BC One break-dancing contest.
"Most people don't think of those days positively, but for teenagers they were great," said one break-dancer, Lena, aka Motya, of the crew BPeople. "Kids could travel for free all over the country. On the way to competitions in Riga they would hide from the ticket inspector in the luggage compartment."

BPeople has since opened its own dancing school, and most members have day jobs: Lena is a doctor and mother of three children. Most dancers recognize that making a living on break dancing alone is not possible in Russia.

The central hangout spot was, and still is, Ulitsa Arbat.

As Pioneer organizations fizzled after perestroika, some people thought it was time to say goodbye to break dancing. "After the putsch, people got together on Arbat, had a drink in remembrance of break dancing, and buried a white glove somewhere in the neighborhood," Lena said.

Although Lena said only about a dozen people were break dancing in Moscow and St. Petersburg in the mid-'90s, they continued to get together on the Arbat and mingled with other Old Arbat regulars. Until a local resident allowed dancers to hook up their boombox to the electrical outlet in her ground-floor apartment, one breaker would wrap his fingers with electrical tape and cut into the building's exterior electric wires to get the music going, Lena said.

The hospitable Arbat resident was eventually featured in a 1996 break-dancing music video "Vy khoteli party? Ne vopros, nate!" (You wanted a party? No problem, here it is!) that boosted interest in the dance to a new level. Most Russian break-dancers started after they were awed by the jerky clip that featured dancers from both capitals showing off their moves to the approval of bespectacled Zora Mikhailovna. Mark of the crew AlltheMost is one of them.

"Break dancing, especially the footwork, is based on Russian folk dance," he said, "in terms of energy and character, some of the dance's roots are in Russia."

Other dancers disagree: "There is a break dancing move called 'Crazy Cossack,' but it's just one of the influences that the dance absorbed after it was already developed," said Andrei. Either way, how the dancer moves is completely individual, and Russians don't have their own way of break dancing, he added.

Many of the best dancers in Russia today are in the provinces, rather than Moscow. They keep track of break dancing through the Internet and enter competitions by uploading performance clips through web sites like YouTube.

"Break dancing lives when there are events, and it's getting hard to hold them in Moscow, which has many 'owners' and bureaucratic hoops," Lena said, adding that the past year has been especially hard since old-style Houses of Culture that served as frequent dancing venues have lost their subsidies and are now charging market rental rates. Regional support for break dancing is much better, and some provincial towns sponsor dancers to go to competitions, she added.

At BC One, competitors included b-boys from Chelyabinsk, Yekaterinburg and Krasnodar, as well as Belarus and Ukraine. Bootuz, the winner who goes on to compete in South Africa, is from a small town in Kabardino-Balkaria. "Our crew, Predatorz, was the only one dancing in Baksan in 1999, when we started," he said.

Dancers who are not into competitions will always have the Arbat, with its melting pot of subcultures. "One time there was a group of drunk skinheads on the Arbat who watched a couple of our performances," said Lena. "And after a while one of them came up and said, 'You guys are awesome, but could you please dance to white rap?'"