9th Annual Breakin' the Law B-Boy &
Breakin' with the Best
|UW graduate student Katrina Flores (top
middle photo) organizes Breakin’ the Law
each year with UW graduate Jarius King
By Jonathan Gramling
When he organized the first Breakin’ the Law hip hop breaking jam or competition nine years
ago, partially in protest of the use of Madison’s cabaret licensing ordinance to crack down
on hip hop activities at Madison clubs, former UW-Madison students Jarius King and Henry
Gomez probably didn’t fathom what the competition would evolve into. Especially after
hooking up with Katrina Flores in its third year through Hip Hop as a Movement Week,
Breakin’ the Law has become an international jam attended by the top talent from around the
world. King and Flores are still organizing the event.
“This year, we had folks from Hong Kong, Macao, South Africa, Panama and all over the U.
S.,” Flores said. “It was really awesome. In the past, we’ve also had people from Cambodia,
France, Japan, Bulgaria, Brazil and a lot of other places. Since year three, it’s been an
incredible, international event.”
It was symbolic that Breakin’ the Law was held at the UW Institutes for Discovery over
several days in May. The Institutes, a place that uses math and the sciences to make
discoveries, was host to a jam whose b-boy participants seemed to defy the laws of
physics as they made geometric designs with their bodies and movements. It is a
competition where there is little distance between observer and b-boy. It’s as if the streets
were brought indoors, a spontaneous gathering in which b-boys and b-girls met the
challenge of each other’s movements. It is the spontaneous combustion of planned routines
steeped deep in African culture.
“It has African roots and part of hip hop is that call and response culture,” Flores said. “You
can hear that with the drum and the dancers. You can hear that with the griot. You can hear
that in spoken word. It’s call and response. I’m going to put this out there and then you are
going to respond. Actually the genre itself is a conversation.”
While the participants have put in endless hours creating and practicing their routines, they
really don’t know what they are going to do until they start engaging the other crews. It is a
dialogue of motion that goes on and in order for it to be real, neither side can just spew a
sequence of memorized lines.
“I think that what is so powerful about the art form of b-boying and b-girling and the culture is
that it really teaches us to be in the moment,” Flores said. “You have to be aware of
everything that is going on around you: the music, what the audience is saying, what the
other crew is saying at that moment, where your crewmates are behind you, what the energy is like. You have to deal with all of these
things, even your physical surroundings because the physical surroundings are fair game. I’ve seen b-boys and b-girls know there is a
wall over there and they are in the middle of their thing. They go over to the wall and do a flip and then come back and do their routine. It is
totally fair game. It’s all about knowing your surroundings and being truly able to respond the way that you need to in the moment. And I
think that is such a valuable lesson for life.”
Breaking or b-boying has been around since the late 1970s and was a part of the hip hop culture that grew out of the streets of New York.
And while b-boying went mainstream for a while and was referred to as break dancing, it never became totally commercialized in
mainstream culture like rap and other elements of the culture. And as it sank below the radar of commercialism, b-boying and b-girling
continued to grow as a form of international hip hop culture.
“B-boying and b-girling culture is a global phenomenon,” Flores said. “You can go to almost any city and you can link up with b-boys and b-
girls. The interesting part about that is, like I told you, it is like a language. We don’t have to speak the actual same language in order to
communicate because we share a culture. And I think that is really powerful. And it can be a very powerful tool for cross-cultural dialogue
and sharing of information.”
And it is also a phenomenon that attracts a very diverse audience.
“We’re talking about kids from age four to adults to people 60-70,” Flores said. “We have people who come with their kids and bring their
kids. We have 30 year-olds. We have the middle school and high school kids there. The reach is just so far and wide. I think that is a really
powerful piece about it too, the idea of wanting to better the community in a cross-demographic way. A lot of times, you have an event and
it really appeals to a very particular demographic or people with particular identities. This event has been able to knock down all of those
boundaries and barriers. You’ll have folks from every walk of life, every age group, religion, sexual orientation, gender, everything.”
Flores is currently working on her Master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from the UW School of Education. And she sees the value
of b-boying and b-girling to reaching today’s youth in an educational setting because it incorporates, in essence, so many academic
subjects if you peel away the surface.
“This year, we actually had a partnership with the physics department. We worked with them to put a performance piece together so that
they relate physics to break dancing. A lot of these youth don’t even understand that they are masters of physics in their own body. So we
are trying to look at curriculum so the physics department really starts to get at what these youth are doing in their own bodies so that they
understand it better, which helps their art form, but also opens up a whole world of what they are good at. It can be related to math. It can
be related to interpersonal skills. It can be related to so many things. Even the idea now — next year we are looking at partnering with a
group to talk about food consumption and what we are putting in our bodies as fuel. How are we taking care of our bodies? Youth have
been inundated with commercials and consumerism telling them what the options are of food that they should be putting in their bodies. We
want to look at what it means to eat in a healthy way and how that improves someone as a b-boy or b-girl. These are ways that we can
reach our youth on a lot of important conversations and topics.”
Flores’ b-girl name is El Katrina, which reflects her cultural heritage, her role as an organizer and her determination to make b-boying and b-
girling a gender-neutral cultural phenomenon.
“Young women need this so much because it is a way to find voice and it is a way to build your confidence and identity,” Flores
emphasized. “I wish I would have started b-girling when I was young, I really do. And I see a lot of growth, a lot of youth, girls I have
worked with, and I see sometimes the choices that they make in terms of what they wear. And I see the choices they make in terms of
music they dance to and how they dance to it. Again, young women, particularly, are definitely being told how they are supposed to be and
act, especially within hip hop culture. When you become a b-girl, you take on a lot of persona of what that means and the identity. And it
really does, for young girls, have the potential to have your choices about who they are and build their confidence so that it’s not playing up
to these stereotypes and giving young women an alternative to create their own voice. And part of being a b-boy or b-girl is creating who
you want to be. A lot of girls out there could really benefit from that.”
It is perhaps tragic that a cultural phenomenon that is looked at as criminal by so many in the mainstream may actually be an excellent way
to reach young people and help them grow. Flores is determined to help them see the light.