Breaking was recently added to the list of sporting events for the Olympics and the Southeast Asian Games. Photograph by Ares Vasquez, courtesy of Pawi Bitanga and Manila Soul.
Drive Sports and Fitness

Filipino breakdancers are on the lookout for a resurgence—and an Olympic medal

With the recent inclusion of breaking in the Olympics and SEA Games, the once-underground art form gives renewed hope to its loyal community. ANCX talks to some of the country’s homegrown athlete-performers on the sport that was born, raised, and celebrated in the streets.
Gelo Dionora | Nov 28 2019

Charles “Rocsmith” Vergara had a few things working against his favor coming into Hip-Fest Philippines. On the day of the competition, which is the qualifier for the prestigious Hip-Fest in Vietnam, he was juggling a busy schedule as well as nursing a mild wrist injury.

Tense moments and breathtaking moves after, Rocsmith emerged victorious in the 1v1 category, besting more than 15 b-boys, which is slang for those involved in hip-hop culture and a competitor in these events. “I didn’t expect to win. I just wanted to enjoy the battles and do my best,” he admits. On top of winning the main event, Rocsmith is all set to represent the Philippines in Hip-Fest Vietnam, an annual government-sponsored festival that draws in thousands of street dancers and artists globally.

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Rocsmith’s preparations for competitions are simple: conditioning in the morning, practicing sets and move combos in the evening, and adequate rest. He abstains from pork and beef, preferring lean white meat and vegetables instead. “For me, breaking is a lifestyle,” he reiterates. “You don’t just become a b-boy when needed. Breaking requires you to be dedicated, because it entails years of practice.”

 

Athlete and artist

A more nuanced case can be made for the distinct circumstances of b-boys & b-girls. “We’re unique in the sense that we train like athletes but live like artists,” Hip-Fest judge & Southeast Asian Games breaking judge Karl “Dyzee” Alba says. “While other sports have specific methods, breaking is an art form where one must find his or her own style and technique, since no two body types and personalities are exactly the same.”

There are many challenges that face local b-boys and girls, not the least of which is the time and means to actually train. Photograph by Michael Perfecto, courtesy of Pawi Bitanga and Manila Soul.

According to Alba, some dancers have either a musical, artistic, or athletic approach. “While each dancer has their own style and technique, they need to create responses and rebuttals for other moves as well. In a sense, nobody can master all of breaking. They can only hone their own approach and see how well it stacks up to the competition. This type of mentality is a street culture perspective—it isn't about performance, but instead about seeking out the ultimate battle.”

Paolo “Pawi” Bitanga, Hip-Fest co-organizer and manager of Manila Soul, notes that the breaking community is still far from developing the ideal professional Filipino b-boy” “On top of the artistic and athletic demands of the dance, most of us have to make do with the spare time we can afford,” he says, noting how some b-boys and b-girls maintain day jobs to support their training. “Our crew members live in different cities in the Metro, too. Pair this with the overall transport situation we have, and you’re faced with difficulties in coordination. We have to make do with fluid training schedules that are often goal-oriented,”

Proper venues for training are also a challenge for our homegrown talents. Even if Manila Soul has their own studio in Quezon City, care of their leader Reflex Gotangco, they still have members who live down south. “I personally host on open training session in BGC at Terra 28th Park, one of the few public spots that tolerates dancing to amplified music. However, during the rainy season, this is almost completely compromised. I do hope to see more public spaces in general, especially ones open for dancing,” Bitanga says.

However, success stories like Rocsmith’s paint an optimistic picture for breaking and its community of dedicated professionals. “Breaking was born in the streets. A vast majority of its participants come from underprivileged households, which influences how raw and aggressive the moves are. Breaking’s origins make it difficult for many to take the sport and its practitioners seriously,” Alba explains. “Making a living out of breaking has been next to non-existent until recently. The growth of the professional b-boy industry has been sparked by movements such as its recent inclusion in the 2018 Youth Olympics in Argentina.”

A few months back, news about breaking’s inclusion in the 2019 SEA Games and the 2024 Paris Olympics made the rounds. “The breaking community looks forward to a future where our art form and culture will be recognized and understood globally. We know that the SEA Games and Olympics are big steps toward that dream,” Alba says.
He continues that events like Hip-Fest Philippines, which is co-produced by Manila Soul & Boombap PHL, give their sport a level of professional legitimacy, and provide avenues for athlete-performers to travel and make a name for themselves.

Ilyvm “Dudut” Gabriel, a Manila Soul member and SEA Games Philippine Breaking Team delegate, echoes the same sentiments. “I now see a better future for breaking because of the recent recognitions our chosen sport has received,” he says. He thinks that members of their community will now have more opportunities to earn and support their lives through breaking. "I hope that more people will get inspired to learn about our culture,” he says.

 

Grassroots evolution

Bitanga also observes that Filipino breaking is entering a promising and self-sustainable era. “It took us a while to get to this point,” he admits. “We had reached a Golden Age somewhere between 2010 and 2015, when international organizations such as USA's All the Way Live Foundation and R16 Korea were investing in our growth, as well as our world-champion 'balikbayan b-boys,' who are international heavyweights of Filipino descent." Among them are established names were Reveal, Naytron, Profo Won, and Hip-Fest judges Mouse, and Dyzee. But he says that when international support declined, mostly due to R16 losing its own government backing, they had to fend for our own.

In response, Filipino breaking crews nationwide had to evolve into grassroots enterprises, using the art form to provide more opportunities for dancers in the country. “Baclaran-based champions SAS Crew formed the Kapayapaan Project, a local NGO that uses hip-hop to engage, educate, and inspire the youth. This project has garnered support from Singapore and Japan. Bacolod's own Critical Breakdown Crew has gotten more involved in bringing dancers to and from Visayas,” Bitanga enumerates. “We as Manila Soul wish to do our part and develop more professional opportunities for the next generation to thrive.”

With the decline of funding in the last few years, many looked to grassroots programs to find and train budding athlete-artists. Photograph courtesy of Pawi Bitanga and Manila Soul.

Bitanga considers Hip-Fest as an integral puzzle piece within the bigger picture of breaking in the Philippines. “It was actually Chanel Padilla of Boombap PHL who received the proposal of Hip-Fest from Phạm Duy Linh of Hip-Fest Vietnam,” he recounts. “Since the main draw of Hip-Fest Philippines was a chance to compete in Vietnam, Chanel and I promised ourselves that we would not be throwing any ordinary ‘b-boy jam,’” he says. Whereas the dance community has long established regular venues and grassroots sponsors for events, he says they wanted Hip-Fest to be an occasion for the nationwide dance scene to shine in a more public setting.

Given the success of the event, Bitanga looks forward to rolling out plans for next year. “I have spoken with several international organizers and can already say that 2020 already has more opportunities in store for the local breaking community,” he quips. “We hope to organize more bilateral events with the various groups within our community. The success of Hip-Fest proves how much we can accomplish when we work together.”

For more information, visit Manila Soul on Facebook.