Breakdancing currently has the South Korean capital of Seoul spinning on its head. Words: AMY ADAMS
The breakdancers on stage are pulling moves that wouldn’t look out of place in the Bronx. Agile and acrobatic, they mix slick footwork with body-popping, and spins with freezes. The difference is the moves are in slow motion, set to a Parisian accordion and orchestrated by a suited man acting as a puppeteer. This is the Expression crew’s B-boy Marionette show, currently wowing audiences across the South Korean capital of Seoul.
“It’s a modern day fairytale for kids and grown-ups,” choreographer and Expression crew leader Lee Woo-Sung tells us before the performance. “Grown-ups used to read fairytales but now kids have the internet. It’s about the connection between the old and new generation.” A veteran of the B-boy scene at 32 years old, Woo-Sung has seen the genre transform over his 20-year career from niche hobby to mainstream craze and this transformation is in part thanks to him.
In 2002 the Expression crew won Germany’s annual Battle of the Year, one of many international titles won by Korean B-boys. They have so much respect that their performances are used as textbooks for B-boys across the globe.
Their achievements worldwide, coupled with their unique take on breakdancing have made the audience at home sit up and take note. And not just a young audience either. Just like the B-boy Marionette show, breakdancing has forged a connection between the old and new generation. KB Bank, the largest bank in South Korea, recently used B-boys in their adverts, raising their status across the country. Breakdancers feature in the latest Korea Tourism promotional video and last December, the world’s first-ever theatre exclusively for B-boy performances opened in Seoul.
At Seoul’s flash Windmill hotel we saw Subway, a musical that travelled across the globe, stopping at various destinations to deliver local song and dance. After torturous renditions of We Will Rock You in London and Evita’s Don’t Cry for me Argentina it was a relief when a Korean B-boy group took to the stage, showing up the other performers with a display of pure talent.
Even the Mayor of Seoul is a fan, singing the praises of hit show The Ballerina who Loved a B-Boy. “B-boy is a new trend,” he explains. “A year ago at a meeting of high-ranking officials, no one knew about it. Now everyone does. Lots of young Koreans and also a crazy number of middle-aged people enjoy it.
“Our B-boys are famous around the world and people are very proud of them – they’re an important part of our culture,” he continues enthusiastically. “They have become one of the major attractions of Korea. B-boys are invited to festivals and events and Seoul is now hosting an international B-boy competition.”
Ask him to explain the phenomenon and the answer is simple: “We love drinking, dancing and singing in Korea.”
They also love technology, with broadband in one in three households. Many attribute the rapid surge of B-boy popularity to widespread internet access – kids can research moves and share ideas quickly and easily. It’s all a far cry from the street dance scene of the Bronx in the ’70s, where breakdancing is believed to have started. Koreans have made B-boy their own, entwining the original moves with their own cultural influences – spreading the word over the internet, and mixing breakdancing with traditions like puppetry and martial arts.
The youthful energy of B-boy hasn’t been lost in the process: The student district of Seoul, Hongdae, is packed with hip-hop clubs that feature regular dance-offs and in Dongdaemun Tower fashion town you’ll see kids trawling the stores for the latest hip-hop fashions. But there’s no doubt the Western craze has been put through a Korean filter.
At a stall in Dongdaemun two young, female assistants dressed like Gwen Stafani but with a glare that suggests they could take Missy Elliott, melt into a heap of shy giggles when I ask to take their photo. Outside the shopping centre, at one of the many talent contests held across the city, a lone MC takes to the stage after an all-girl dance troupe. He finishes his rhyming with the usual shout-outs and ‘yo’s, before bringing his hands together with a polite nod of thanks.
• Amy Adams travelled to South Korea with the Korea Tourism Organisation (020-7321 2535; www.tour2korea.com)