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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See This: “Horizon”, the First Cross-Cultural Production by Bangarra Dance Theatre

Australia’s premier Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander performing arts company presents a compelling story of resilience and cultural heritage, led by Indigenous choreographers from the Oceania region.

Article by Hollie Wornes

The dancers Daniel Mateo and Lillian Banks out the front of the Sydney Opera House, where "Horizon's" premier took place. Photograph by (c) Daniel Boud.

When the curtains rise on “Horizon”, the new cross-cultural work from Bangarra Dance Theatre, it might take you a moment to process what you’re looking at. A dancer curled into a ball held aloft by the group, while a ceiling mirror creates the illusion of additional dancers or upside-down performers. This mirror proves crucial in narrating parts of the production, and in bringing to life the stories of the First Peoples of the Oceania region (the set design is by Elizabeth Gadsby).

The first act in "Horizon"
The first act in "Horizon" the set design by Elizabeth Gadsby. Photograph by (c) Daniel Boud.

“Horizon” explores the different meanings of “home” through the voices of three choreographers: Sani Townson, a descendant of the Samu, Koedal and Dhoeybaw clans of Saibai Island; Deborah Brown, an alumna of Bangarra and a descendant of the Wakaid Clan of Badu Island and the Meriam people of Murray Island; and Moss Te Ururangi Patterson, whose roots stretch from Turangi, near Lake Taupō, Aotearoa (New Zealand). Together, they lead an ensemble of 16 First Nations dancers who tell a story of resilience and the cultural forces that bind First Peoples together.

The choreographers Moss Patterson and Deborah Brown.
The choreographers (from left) Moss Te Ururangi Patterson, whose roots stretch from Turangi, near Lake Taupō, Aotearoa (New Zealand); Deborah Brown, an alumna of Bangarra and a descendant of the Wakaid Clan of Badu Island and the Meriam people of Murray Island. Photograph by (c) Daniel Boud.

The production opens with an expanded iteration of Townson’s acclaimed work “Kulka”, which debuted as part of “Dance Clan” in 2023. Townson vividly portrays his deep respect for ancestral lineage in the dance “Koedalaw Awgadh” (Crocodile God). It is represented on stage through the “ancestral” crocodile in its predatory mode, which is projected atop the dancers, creating a powerful and evocative illusion.

This is followed by “Danalayg” (Life), concluding act one. It nods to the belief that the universe is the ultimate mother, guiding people to their heritage and clan. Strategic lighting (designed by Karen Norris), when amplified through the mirror’s reflection, creates a scene in which the dancers appear to be in a twinkling universe. The act concludes dramatically with the dancers lying on top of one another, a symbol of interconnectedness.

When the curtain rises for act two, “The Light Inside, the mirror has been replaced by a mountainous backdrop. The first section, titled “Salt Water, pays homage to Deborah Brown’s motherland, the Zenadth Kes (Torres Strait), which she describes as an “amazing archipelago united by its water currents”. Brown explores the idea that in contemporary society, culture is never completely lost, but is continuously shared through song, dance and cooking — symbolically represented on stage by dancers adorned in traditional pieces, offering leaves and seeds to one another.

In the section “Fresh Water” of act two, Moss Te Ururangi Patterson delves into his cultural roots, emphasising the importance of upholding cultural connections and stories across generations. He achieves this through the retelling of traditional stories through a modern lens. In “Makawe Tapu” (Sacred Hair), Patterson references two traditional tales: the attainment of the three baskets of sacred knowledge; and the story of Maui’s attempt to tame the sun, Tama-nui-te-rā. Maui’s task was only successful when his sister gifted him sacred strands of her hair, providing him with the knowledge, strength and courage to complete his mission.

On stage, the interaction between Maui and his sister is depicted through the dancer harnessing the woman’s hair, pulling her back and forth. The dance transitions into the next tale, the attainment of the three baskets of knowledge, where three dancers braid their hair together, underscoring themes of strength, wisdom and the divine feminine.

A scene from “The Light Inside” featuring the dancers Emily Flannery, Jye Uren, Chantelle Lee Lockhart.
A scene from “The Light Inside” featuring the dancers Emily Flannery, Jye Uren, Chantelle Lee Lockhart. Photograph by (c) Daniel Boud.

The final moments of “Horizon” showcase Hokioi, a spiritual warrior leading the ensemble into a future of love and resilience, complemented by a soothing sound of trickling water, reinforcing the interconnections that run through the entire production.

Bangarra’s decision to showcase this cross-cultural production not only helps to preserve the stories of First Peoples, but also highlights their pivotal role in shaping the present and future of the Oceania region.

“Horizon represents a fresh and dynamic new chapter in Bangarra’s artistic and cultural Songline by building relationships with international First Nations artists to share story, song and dance,” says Bangarra Dance Theatre’s artistic director, Frances Rings. “I believe that opportunities like this open us to a broader global First Nations perspective on issues that impact our People and Country, and the responsibility we carry to give a platform to the uniqueness of our stories through contemporary and cultural expressions.”

Tickets for “Horizon” are on sale now

Sydney Opera House, until July 13
Canberra Theatre Centre, July 18–20
Queensland Performing Arts Centre, August 7–17
Arts Centre Melbourne, August 28–September 7