Home Olympics From a Gang Truce to an Olympic Sport: The Surprising Story of How New York Sparked a Global Movement

From a Gang Truce to an Olympic Sport: The Surprising Story of How New York Sparked a Global Movement

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Back in 1983, Michael Holman, a writer, producer, artist, and entrepreneur, started managing the Rock Steady Crew who performed in New York. His dream has now come true with breaking being officially included as an Olympic sport for Paris 2024. Instead of waiting their turn like ice dancers or gymnasts and performing one-by-one to be judged by experts, breaking athletes perform all together at the same time.

In Paris, two breakers will face-off against each other and perform their best moves in order to win a medal. Back in the 1980s, Holman hosted a show every week which included rapping and graffiti art with a new type of street dancing. Initially, it was just about performing the dance routine on stage and afterwards the audience would clap before the next performance began.

Holman wanted to make his club night even more exciting, so he decided to add something new – competition. He wanted people to witness the real battle of dance moves like he had seen in the Bronx. Several decades ago, breaking had grown as a way to release tension between gangs in New York.

“For many years, there were several dangerous gangs around: the Ghetto Brothers, Black Spades, Savage Nomads and Savage Skulls. These gangs usually fought and hurt each other seriously; sometimes even people got killed.

In 1971 though, Yellow Benjy – the leader of the Ghetto Brothers – made a decision to change all that. He made it so members from different gangs could come together and have fun without hurting each other.”

At these gatherings, people began to enjoy dancing instead of being aggressive. This gave them a chance to express their creativity in different ways that represented all the different cultures of the city.

Holman described b-boy dance like this – people would watch the dancers and be amazed by the different moves they incorporated from Chinese Kung Fu, African Cakewalk, Puerto Rican gymnastics and old James Brown records mixed with Jamaican style sound systems.

Holman managed a group called the ‘Rock Steady Crew’ who didn’t want to share the stage with another team. But, after Holman asked them, they agreed. Holman then also brought down another crew called the ‘Floor Masters’, and he stopped paying attention to the ‘Rock Steady Crew’. He said that the ‘Floor Masters’ were really good at doing stunts fast and powerfully so it was like a big, exciting moment.

Holman started a group of dancers focused on ‘power’ moves that he had seen from the Floor Masters. He gathered some of the best dancers across five boroughs, called it the New York City Breakers, and formed it with people like Noel ‘Kid Nice’ Manguel, Matthew ‘Glide Master’ Caban, and Tony ‘Powerful Pexster’ Lopez. This team pushed their skills to a new high level!

Holman said, “I got rid of the not-so-good dancers and brought in a bunch of other city crews. Put together, we made an awesome ‘power breaking’ crew. They were doing special spinning moves that looked like they used their own inner force, combining it with how their body was stretched out or curled up on the ground.”

“They could dance and perform cool moves which had never been done before. It was like a type of art.”

Holman gave up his job as a young banker in Wall Street to join the exciting culture in New York in the 1980s.

Holman moved from San Francisco to New York back in 1978, although he had to wear suits from Brook Brothers every day working as a banker on Wall Street, he still fell head over heels with the city’s energetic atmosphere.

He said that he was living in a very tall apartment right by Hudson Street and Chambers Street. Every morning, when he got into the elevator, he would see Joey Ramone, who is the lead singer of an iconic punk band called The Ramones, coming back from a night out with two girls! It was very wild.

Holman soon made lots of friends with graffiti artists like Fab Five Freddy, and would go out to night clubs called Max’s Kansas City, Mudd Club and CBGBs. He had the chance to hang out with musicians, poets, and other up-and-coming artists.

“I was living in New York like it was no tomorrow,” he recalled. On his way back from a party one night, Holman noticed that there were signs showing a new street culture coming up!

I was almost sleeping at a train station when a train arrived. It had loud and colorful designs splattered all over the windows! I had never seen anything like it before – It looked like both vandalism and art combined together!

“Kids from the Bronx want to be noticed, too. They feel just as important as people living in cities known for big events and powerful industries. And they use hip-hop music and dancing to express themselves.”

“I can do all sorts of cool things on my own,” he said. “I can use a microphone to rap, cut and scratch the turntable like a DJ and showoff some smooth breakdancing moves.

“That’s how kids had fun without any high-end technology – they used two turntables, a mic and linoleum tile.”

Holman was making music, filming movies, and enjoying New York’s vibes. He wondered if hip-hop and breaking could become a big trend in the same way that punk had become popular in London and New York a few years ago. Holman mentioned that one of his friends went to school with Malcolm McLaren in the 1960s.

When McLaren visited New York, I had invited him to a block party in the Bronx with two popular DJs – Afrika Bambaataa and Jazzy Jay. I also took him to a park jam where people would dance and DJs had set up their music systems. Malcolm was super impressed and asked me to write a review about the experience. So I did!

McLaren was good at noticing new trends in culture. He knew the Sex Pistols, whose popularity grew after they released a song called ‘God Save the Queen’, that opposed the rule of the British monarchy in 1977.

He then brought Holman together with Ruza ‘Kool Lady’ Blue, a promoter in America who worked at a night club owned by people from Jamaica, called Negril.

In November 1981, Holman’s friends started to play music at his nightspot and you could see The Rock Steady Crew breakers dancing. People were talking about the amazing breaking moves that were going on there, and even the American media noticed. As a result, the New York City Breakers became famous around America since they were appearing on TV shows like Soul Train.

“Basically, what we did became popular with international broadcasting companies,” he said. “Television crews from all over the world came to New York to film the Breakers and sent their footage back home to places like London, Tokyo, Paris and more. That night, these countries could already watch hip-hop on their news before kids in Pittsburgh knew about it!”

Holman made a TV show called Graffiti Rock in 1984. This was the first hip-hop music show like Soul Train. It featured super popular artists such as Run-DMC, Kool Moe Dee and Special K, plus the New York City Breakers. Holman said this is the very first hip-hop TV show ever made in the world!

The New York City Breakers became super famous and even appeared on popular shows like the Merv Griffin Show and Good Morning America, as well as a music video with famous singer Gladys Knight. The Breakers’ last event was at the London Contemporary Dance Trust in 1987.

The breakdance gigs were fading away, because people thought it was just a trend that would soon be forgotten. Meanwhile, in other places the fun continued. Just like how jazz, rock ‘n’ roll and blues music grew more popular outside of America after they faded here, the same happened with breakdancing too.

In the late 1990s, Holman was invited to attend hip-hop conventions in different countries, like Australia, Asia, Europe and South America. He would host discussions about breaking (which is a type of dance), watch movies about it and take part in actual workshops where old breakers were present. There was even a Polish dance crew that showed him they learned an exact routine from Graffiti Rock! However, not everyone was friendly towards him.

Holman said that when he showed up, some of the breakers didn’t seem too sure about him. France had suggested Breaking to be included as a sport in the Paris 2024 Olympics back in 2019, but the breakers thought Holman was trying to ‘destroy’ their art form.

I always felt that Hip-hop had a will of its own. It’s now grown into a massive multi-billion dollar industry that has changed the lives of many people all over the world. Just like how when skateboarding and extreme sports first came out, there were debates about whether these activities should be judged by points or not. This was even true back in the 1930s with figure skating.

“Breaking started in New York City–one of the biggest cities known for its businesses and capitalism. It’s a bit surprising that a movement like Breaking has made it all the way from the Bronx sidewalks to the international Olympics. Holman was one of the few people who saw how amazing Breaking would become back when it first began more than 40 years ago”.

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