Keeping step with hip-hop

Oct 13, 2018, 09:58 IST | Shunashir Sen

As the city gears up to host the national finals of a hip-hop dance competition, it's time to ask whether music has overshadowed dance when it comes to this emerging sub-culture

Keeping step with hip-hop
Auditions being held for Shuffle

One Man Army House is a nondescript building that is located at the far end of a bylane close to Fun Republic in Andheri West. That's where we headed three Sundays ago to check out the Mumbai auditions of Shuffle, a national platform that gives hip-hop dancers a chance to showcase their moves. It was a snap locating the venue once we entered the bylane.

A group of youngsters with turned-around caps and baggy clothes were milling about outside the main gate. Another bunch was lost in serious concentration in a balcony visible from the road, practising their steps before their names were called out. "This is it," we told ourselves after noticing these telltale signs. And so we registered as an audience member and shoved open a large wooden door to enter the performance area.

Johanna Rodrigues aka B-Girl Jo
Johanna Rodrigues aka B-Girl Jo

Once inside, we found ourselves in a totally different world. Over 150 people had formed a circle in the room, leaving space in the middle empty for the dancers. Three judges were seated at a table lined against a wall. And an MC read out two names at a time, with both people starting a dance-off that lasted roughly five minutes, and which involved typical hip-hop moves such as twerks, handstands, freezes and spins. It was a scene that could have been straight out of a movie like the 2006 Channing Tatum-starrer Step Up. Except, this was Andheri, and all the performers were 20-something desis from Mumbai.

Moves in the city
The same scene was also playing out in another room on the first floor, and the level of proficiency on display left us, at least, gob-smacked. These were no amateurs. Instead, they had evidently trained hard at their craft, because it wouldn't be possible otherwise to pull off the incredibly tricky moves, like headspins for example. So it made us think. It's fair game to say that hip-hop music has found a degree of mainstream credence in India, after DIVINE and Naezy broke through in 2014. It led to gully gangs and other regional rap crews emerging from the shadows across the nation. But hip-hop culture is not restricted to music alone. In fact, it's incomplete without break-dancing, which was an intrinsic part of the culture in New York's Bronx in the 1970s, which is where the hip-hop movement took birth and spread globally, thereafter. So, if we are to co-opt that same culture in an Indian context, what sort of a push are we giving these dancers compared to the corporate support that musicians have received? Are we doing enough to ensure that they, too, have the confidence to pursue break-dance as a career? Or are they being left by the wayside even as the mighty Bollywood industry gets ready to screen Gully Boy, a movie on hip-hop music in Mumbai?

Breaking out
It's a thought we put before Rohit Gaikwad aka Lil Rohn, one of the judges for Shuffle's regional auditions, who's been a professional dancer for a decade now. And he tells us that, firstly, the roots of B-boying — as hip-hop break-dancing is called — grew simultaneously in the late noughties with the underground rap movement. "Back in 2009, we had only about 150 to 200 break dancers in Mumbai. But then in 2010, an energy drink brand brought down four of the finest international B-boys to Mumbai, and suddenly the number grew to over thousand. The scene got a further fillip when a group of dancers from the UK came down a year later. But by 2012-13, the realisation dawned that it wasn't possible for us to make a viable career out of our passion. So, many people dropped out," Gaikwad rues.

Rohit Gaikwad aka Lil Rohn
Rohit Gaikwad aka Lil Rohn

The 26-year-old adds, though, that the mainstream acceptance of hip-hop music did give dancers renewed hope after 2015. "We could now work in commercials, and mainstream dance crews also started looking out for B-boys since it's an incredibly difficult art," he says, making a point that Johanna Rodrigues, one of his fellow judges, corroborates when we speak to her later.

"The thing is that breaking is such a difficult art form that it takes at least two years before you can even inculcate the movement into your body, so that you express yourself. And the people who are pioneering the dance form in Mumbai, I feel, are at an international level already," says Rodrigues, who goes by the moniker B-Girl Jo.

Show them the money
At the same time, however, both she and Gaikwad are of the opinion that there is still a discernible lack of support for hip-hop dance in India. "Brands usually pay the performers in kind, say a really expensive watch or a shoe. But that's not going to pay your bills. And sadly, even the best dancers in the entire country still make '10-15,000 a month. Now you tell me, is that enough?" he asks.

The solution he thus offers is to make B-boying financially viable, so that youngsters have the courage to tell their parents that this is what they want to do with their lives. And another one that Rodrigues offers is to generate an interest in the dance form at the school and college level. "It should be as acknowledged as other forms of art and movement. Most schools have different kinds of sports and sometimes even other dance forms like Bharatanatyam. But breaking should also be introduced since it's such a complete art — there's creativity, there's fitness and it has so much to do with building your self-confidence. So, it's as powerful as, say, theatre," the 22-year-old says, voicing the hope that one day this art form will find its place in campuses, without being restricted to nondescript buildings in the suburbs.

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