What To Expect When Breaking Makes Its Olympic Debut in Paris, According to Australia’s B-boy and B-girl

Australia’s representatives reflect on its singular blend of athleticism, musicality and bombast.

Article by Hannah Tattersall

Jeff DunneJeff Dunne, aka J-Attack, took the top spot at the Oceania Breaking Championships last year, automatically qualifying for the Olympics.

Jeff Dunne was just 16 when he learned he would be competing in the Paris 2024 Olympics, on August 9–10. The then Year 10 student, who’s known in breaking circles as B-boy J-Attack, beat 36 other hopefuls in the B-boy category of the Oceania Breaking Championships last year at Sydney Town Hall. Since discovering breaking, aged seven, when he was dragged along to his sister’s hip-hop dance classes, Dunne has been obsessed, training up to six hours a day, balanced with school on New South Wales’s Tweed Coast. Dunne recognises breaking is as much a mental sport as it is a physical one.

“Before I go into any battle, I’m always super nervous just thinking about what I’m going to do,” he says. “But as soon as I step on the floor, I feel extremely high. I’m just excited. My confidence level just sort of rises as soon as I take one step on the floor.”

It’s an equally exhilarating experience for Australia’s other breaking representative, Rachael Gunn, aka B-girl Raygun, a 36-year-old university professor who spent years researching the theory of breaking — also known as B-boying, B-girling and, among outsiders, breakdancing — and lecturing to students while herself setting new records. “I won the Oceania Breaking Championships [B-girl category] in October, which was a direct qualification to Paris,” she says. “As soon as the results were live on the screen, my crew rushed at me, lifting me up and hugging me. My parents were also in the audience and were crying. It was such a special moment.”

Breaking is thought to have originated in the Bronx, New York, in the 1970s, and is twinned with the emergence of hip-hop. A local DJ known as Kool Herc was playing funk, soul and disco music at neighbourhood parties and noticed how whenever the “break” of the tracks came in — when the vocals and other instruments dropped out, leaving only drums and percussion — young people would go crazy, dancing with more energy and athleticism, incorporating moves from martial arts and gymnastics. He began to play two copies of the same record on two turntables, using a technique he called the “merry-go-round” to extend the break and give dancers more time to showcase their moves.

Jeff Dunne, aka J-Attack
Jeff Dunne, aka J-Attack, took the top spot at the Oceania Breaking Championships last year, automatically qualifying for the Olympics.

Olympic breaking comprises two events (one for men and one for women), where 16 B-boys and 16 B-girls face-off in one-on-one battles. It’s widely regarded by those in the know as a kind of performative game. “It’s a dance, it’s a sport, it’s an art form, it’s a culture, it’s a community, it’s a lifestyle,” Gunn says. Competitors take to the floor to battle, improvising moves to the beat of a DJ’s tracks (in Paris, the competitors won’t know beforehand what the DJ will play). Judges will assess five criteria: vocabulary, technique, execution, originality and musicality.

The standing part of a battle is known as “toprock”. “That’s usually how you start a set,” Gunn says. “You go out there and you show your style, you show your musicality and show how confident you are at the start of a round.”

Next come the power moves, like headspins and “windmills”, when a breaker rolls their body in a circular motion on the floor while twirling their legs in a V-shape, and the “6-step”, which “starts out like a push-up and ends in more of a crab walk,” Dunne says. “You have to do, like, really high-level, intensive moves,” he continues. “But at the same time, you have to make those high-level, intensive moves look cool and artistic and truly effortless.” A “freeze” is when a B-boy or B-girl halts their body in an interesting or intense position and balances as if frozen solid in ice, often to a big beat. “Doing a freeze on a big beat is just like, wow,” Gunn says. “Then you’ve got the more technical footwork, which, you know, looks easy but is actually really, really hard.”

Australia's number one ranked female breakdancer Rachael 'Bgirl Raygun' Gunn
Australia's number one ranked female breakdancer Rachael 'Bgirl Raygun' Gunn poses during a portrait session on December 09, 2020 in Sydney, Australia. Photograph by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images.

There’s also a fair amount of trash-talking, when competitors shout insults at one another to mess with their concentration. And a whole range of “burns”. “A burn is a certain gesture that we use against opponents,” Dunne says. “So you might, like, pretend to be punching someone: ‘I’ve just knocked you out and I’ve won that round.’ Another one is, ‘I’ve just smoked you.’ And some are really, really, really rude,” he says with a laugh. B-boys and B-girls need to be careful, however, in Olympic competition. If they cross a line, judges can deduct points by pushing one of three “misbehaviour buttons” according to the severity of the action, which can range from having an unnecessary bad attitude to making inappropriate gestures and comments.

To qualify for the Olympics, a breaker needs to be an all-rounder: good at all of the above, as well as adept at working the crowd. In Paris, there will be MCs to further hype the spectators gathered at the open arena venue La Concorde, in Place de la Concorde. The square is a popular destination for the hordes of tourists who flock to Paris each summer to soak up culture at the nearby Musée d’Orsay and Palais Royal-Musée du Louvre; breaking’s first foray onto the Olympic stage is expected be equally sought after.

How will it feel to be out there performing for the crowd? Because Gunn is a scholar of the sport, she’s asked many breakers that question. “People have told me they feel free,” she says. “There is this kind of letting go and just expressing yourself. That adrenaline rush, that excitement, that hunger, it’s so much. That’s why I love battling, because the feeling you get when you’re up there, when you step out on the dance floor and show everyone what you’ve got, it’s electrifying.”

This article first appeared in print in our twenty first edition, Page 18 of T Australia with the headline: “Make or Break”
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