IS IT BREAKABLE ?

A silly question to ask? Is this breakable? Often when I see a surface I instinctively know whether or not my palms will be sandpaper once I’m done, or if I’m lucky and strike gold a spot might even welcome a windmill. I walk around London and am constantly scanning the area to find interesting places to throw down. But perhaps there is more to this question than the texture of the floor? Perhaps you’re asking yourself why a B-boy or B-girl would even ask this. Why not be in the studio with a polished sprung floor, cucumber water and 1000 mirrors surrounding you to bask in all your talent?

When I first took up breaking at 11 I had access all week to a studio at the YMCA. Large mirrors, speakers and even a collection of gymnastics mats provided my crew and I with a great space to train in. I worked for 7 years until something faded away. As if I had hit my ceiling at the time, I felt like my musical style was irrelevant, I lost a spark. But the truth is, I didn’t hit my ceiling, I simply lost touch with the essence of Hip-Hop. My knowledge of the culture was limited, my sense of artistic expression at the time was undeveloped.
Although I had the great privilege of access to a free, clean, comprehensive rehearsal space, something about my opinion on Breaking collapsed my interest, training became flat and repetitive, I lost my voice so to speak. But here I find myself, in 2021, writing this story to share my unusual road back to the break. To tell you all I have fallen back in love and I’ll never be ashamed to admit it again! Since 2019, my best resource has been my wit, like a Hip-Hop nomad I have been roaming, traversing the city of London, discovering new perspectives on the spirit of Hip-Hop what it means to break, embracing the city landscape.

Dragging myself through the trenches of the internet, like a private detective looking for a lead, I searched for places, community projects or a secretly established rendezvous to dance at. A Facebook group: ‘The Royal Festival Hall cloakroom’ which had posted a timetable for rehearsals throughout the month revealed itself and immediately I was intrigued. There were no photos so I had a weird thought that I might be shut away in a wardrobe, headphones in, trying to thread and spin whilst staff gathered peoples belongings. But upon arrival, I was pleasantly relieved. A grand building on the face of the Southbank of the Thames, The Royal Festival Hall is a concert venue where various exhibitions and performances take place week-in week-out. Its cloakroom is located just below the main entrance floor and is far from a foggy closet. It rolls nearly the length of the building with balconies from the main 1st floor overlooking its stretch. A community project that provides this space from 10 AM-5 PM throughout the month, dancers from all walks of style utilise it. I thought there was no need to ask ‘’Is this breakable?’’, my first few steps made me believe I was royalty treading across a smooth marble stone floor. But soon realised that though smooth, the floor is actually extremely dense. It may be an innate consequence of breaking, the fact you are throwing your body around the floor you have to expect it will take a beating from time to time. But I found here, my initial impression that I was royalty was not quite true as the stone floor can be extremely unforgiving. Knee pads; essential, as well as extra layers for working across your back and transitioning, but this could be said about anywhere outside a studio floor. With this another issue arises, my body’s need for perspiration. With two jumpers on (to avoid hammering bones), after a couple of sets, it appears I have been swimming, when in fact all I was trying to do was get from swipe to flare to windmill. I find myself overheating indoors wrapped up this way. Tiring myself out sooner than planned and cutting training short by 30-45 minutes on a bad day. But what can I do? My body no longer has the elasticity of a 15-year-old, fearless who knows no pain (but even back then I had dance mats). I need the padding, I’m only 25 but sometimes I am left feeling 52. I’ve also been out so long from intensive training, if only there was some Limitless style breaking pill to turn my body IQ to 1000. Maybe a studio with a sprung floor is essential? I think… Maybe I do need air conditioning and energy vitamin cucumber boost drink thing! But would I get the same sense of spontaneity?

At the Royal Festival Cloakroom, I crossed paths with so many new styles. I could observe house, ballroom, litefeet, popping… You name it, the styles are there and everyone observes and appreciates the kind of liminal space they are in together. There is a relaxed, thoughtful atmosphere at this spot, good to zone into your own world and quietly feed off others’ energy around you. The Royal Festival Hall is ideal for the periods it’s open, but isn’t always reliable with events taking over unannounced at times, meaning you travel an hour into central only to discover you can’t enter. But it is inside, meaning it’s accessible despite the weather, us goers are thankful for this space. This privilege can not be said for all spaces though.

Exchange House, a commercial tower just off of the bustling Liverpool Street where at its base sits sheltered plaza space. Though undercover it is still somewhat seasonal, the UK has the most unpredictable weather (The joke is that it’s basically all we talk about over here, but perhaps there’s too much truth to that for it to actually be a joke). Winter months get bitter to, especially with skyscraper districts in London that channel the cold winds in. Coming into winter whilst writing this piece my photographs reflect its current abandoned nature. But the periods of the year it is used, Exchange House’s beauty comes in how it sits in the balance of the world. One moment a corner no one would look twice into, an hour later flooded with Breakers from all walks of life. Whereas The Royal Festival Hall cloakroom space was established by the Southbank Centre and advertised through social media channels, Junction House is effectively an enigma in terms of officiality. There is no public information or set schedule of practice times, but the breaking community here in London have somehow claimed it as their own, as if Hip-Hop stumbled by and said ‘’This will be our living room, our cypher zone!’’ You can almost guarantee to find a handful of people here each night throughout the week, an extensive, diverse community. You get the feeling at Exchange House that everyone is welcome, regardless of skill or background. Every time someone arrives or departs they will walk around and knock fists with every single person present, whether they really even know them or not, it became apparent to me that respect should be something simply understood. There is such an open sense of community, whether an individual or crew, everyone is training around each other and together the spot effectively becomes an unofficial jam, but without the pressure. It’s the essence of what we do. I recognised Junction House as a spot where the true essence of Hip-Hop naturally broke through. Is this breakable? There was a time when the plaza at the foot of Exchange House was simply somewhere for accountants and office moguls to pass through, perhaps perch on a wall and eat their supermarket lunch. Now, it’s a place where if you want to cypher, guaranteed there will be a handful of others to meet you there to join the conversation, no matter where you’re from, you are all connected through the need to break. After all, who’s to say it’s a coincidence it’s called Exchange house?

Occasionally utilising said spots throughout the year gave me a good facility to test my body, but it wasn’t until the tail end of 2019 I decided to take up training breaking full time again (I have a gift for timing). The introduction of COVID-19 implemented lockdowns around the world, shutting people apart, meaning these discovered spots were closed and futhermore congregating in groups was prohibited. This meant most trained at home in turned out living rooms. I left London for a few months, stayed at home in the quiet countryside, turning my Mum’s kitchen into Tom’s battleground, you couldn’t enter without being called out. But Hip Hop felt very alive in me, and the more I trained the more I thought about the roots of the culture, how in the 70’s kids just started breaking on street corners to announce themselves. It was born and eventually grew to The Mighty Zulu Kingz and Rock Steady. But think, back then there was no prize money or international competitions, this was pure self-expression and representation of the self. A city as big as London can be oddly isolating at times, even more so during the lockdown, knowing you’re surrounded by so much yet nothing is open, it’s frustrating. But the time came to return to my South London flat and I could not let anything stop me. It rang around my mind, how they would take to the streets and just dance, how strangely captivating that could be! I felt like this was where breaking belonged, the amazing visual irony of throwing down on the street where people just walk or go about their day. To break that rhythm, that social conduct, how exciting that could be. I was still gathering the confidence to own my style, I saw solitude as an opportunity to do just that. One day, I was, as usual, casually pondering my existence and somewhere along the line arrived at the absurd idea of what dancing in itself is. I came up with a kind of mantra :

 

To honestly feel (the music). To enjoy what is unique to you (your body). To express that, how you must (the mind).

That meant even if the environment wasn’t ideal, the ideal I had just established must remain true, regardless of the environment. This was my Hip-Hop. So I asked myself why not try something different, somewhere different?

Brockwell Park, a vast circular recreation ground with winding paths leading up to a cafe and seating areas on top of a hill. For a whole year, It was effectively my back garden. At random times, throughout a 6-month stretch, you could catch me, Cinnamonstickz, throwing down some funk, all from up top. To ask if this surface was breakable is to ask

whether cheese grates against a waxed surfboard, (come to think of it, cheese actually would grate well against this surface) it’s pure tarmac. So unless you have some kind of thick reptilian skin this is not the place to go on your back. I had a concept of approach and decided I was going to strictly toprock. This meant to ask something new when saying Is this breakable? Concerned about my quality of movement in the upper half of my body, asking how that related to what my feet were doing simultaneously, toprock is the introduction to your style and for me personally it became the most important factor in my dance. I wanted to reflect my sense of play and imagination, I wanted my toprock to be captivating, inventive, original. I started searching for theatrical elements to tell a story almost Shakespearean, to truly cultivate my own original style.

A bench in the park – sounds standard perhaps, but this spot was home to the Brockwell clock tower, my beautiful green friend whose arms constantly malfunctioned for days on end, making my sessions timeless. I didn’t take much notice of this detail to begin with.
But as the residents of south London would go about their daily strolls, they would stop and observe me. I began to notice the flow of daily life made the space ever-changing. I remember always wondering as I walked over, who might be sitting there? Would music already be playing, louder than I could play mine? Is the sun breaking through that perfect gap in the tree line? The green clock tower became more than a temporary place to sit, in my world, it was glorious ground to play and create. I enjoyed the enigmatic energy I put out, was I truly insane or simply free? Though at times some did not care for my presence, in fact, I’m sure they made it their mission to disrupt my flow by walking directly through my space whilst I was in the middle of a set (a problem you don’t get at more established spots). But even this would not deter me, I’d use it as an opportunity to clown on them as if they called me out in the cypher, throw a burn their way. On the weekend, groups would sit close by and Jam with instruments. From Jazz to Latin they’d provide me with new musical accents and rhythms, which of course became more ingredients of spontaneity to experiment with.

As you can tell by my statement, dancing is largely a spiritual practice for me. So most of the time whatever was going on in the park around me only mattered when I stopped in intervals to observe it. But these moments of reflection created a type of catharsis in me that then translated into my movement. This leads me back to my Shakespearian self,

‘’To honestly feel (the music). Enjoy what is unique to you (your body), then to express that, how you must (the mind).’’

Perhaps it’s what I think Hip-Hop is all about. Although this spot would not be where most people would choose to train, it became where I felt like I progressed the most. Not because I was pulling off crazy new combos, but because I found true comfort in my style, I was having fun, I was inspired! This was where I found my voice, despite the ground, I discovered it was in fact breakable.

And so I discovered a new angle on my question Is this breakable? Before it related only on a physical level, is the ground beneath me accommodating to breaking? I slowly realised the true nature of my idea was in fact asking ‘’Can I break through? Is there a breakthrough here?’’ Instead of looking at the space in front of me and asking what it can do for me, I started asking what I can do with it, how I can breakthrough. Just as those before us have done with every aspect of this culture. What must I adapt about my style, my approach, my physicality, my mentality? Accessibility for artists is a common struggle, whether it’s location, time, financial etc. But often some of the best work is produced under limited circumstances and this is exactly what my question poses. Is this breakable? Is a challenge to overcome, to explore and not be defined by the perceived limits. Doing what Hip-Hop does best by taking what is established and flipping it. There is no one way to break and I believe finding your own style brings true fulfilment to your artistry. The question asks you to own the feeling inside of you, allowing that to respond to the world outside of you and using that intuition to cultivate your creativity. This is what I believe Hip-Hop is at its core.

So take the phrase, go out in the world and explore, there is somewhere for you just waiting to be claimed. Heck, instead of a lino mat, why not see who else owns a copy of Breakers, glue together 15-20 copies and ask yourself, is this breakable?