SEOUL, April 24 (Reuters Life!) - Break dancing, the athletic high-energy street dance, is a uniquely U.S. phenomenon and the best break dancers or B-boys and B-girls are American, right?
Young South Koreans have taken to break dancing with the same sort of passion that their parents devoted to building Asia’s third largest economy and now regularly win B-boy dance competitions, beating U.S. and European rivals at their own game.
Break dancing sprang from the streets of urban America in the late 1970s building over the years into an international youth movement with a number of strands including dance, rapping, graffiti and music sets played by DJs.
Affluent Seoul is a long way from the mean streets of the Bronx, but the urban style of dancing started to take off in South Korea’s biggest city due to girl and boy bands who imitated the dance moves of top artists in the United States.
South Korea’s vibrant club scene fed the frenzy as dancers tried to outdo each other. What had once been a subculture in South Korea quickly became mainstream with B-boys and B-girls appearing on prime time TV shows and commercials for banks.
People involved in Korean B-boying say the dance part of the culture has had such an impact in South Korea because it appeals to a long-standing and widely acknowledged element of the national identity — the love of a party.
“Korean people love singing and dancing. We have a long culture of dancing. Koreans are born with a dancing rhythm. It makes the B-boy culture very attractive to us,” says Dean Kim, Managing Director of B-boy events organizing company G-Corp.
Kim Byung-ik General Manager of entertainment company PMC Production sees similarities between the spirit of B-boying and traditional farmers’ music which involves complex gong and drum rhythms coupled with lively, sometimes acrobatic, dance steps.
“After a day’s hard work out in the fields farmers relieved their stress with drumming and drinking and singing and dancing. That’s a tradition from the Korean people that continues with the younger generation but in a different form,” says Kim.
The drive to put everything into winning is a key part of Korean life and partly explains why a country with few natural resources other than its people rose from a ruinous war some 50 years ago into a major economic power.
“The biggest thing is the amount of practice the B-boys here put in. Korean people when they love something they focus on it. American B-boys do it because they love it and enjoy it but Korean B-boys keep practicing and practicing,” says Jin, a G-Corp director who prefers to be known by one syllable of his name.
South Korea’s famed IT infrastructure — it has the highest penetration of broad band Internet in the world — has also played its part in spreading B-boy culture.
“People get to collect more resources via the Internet. They study other B-boys’ moves and download them from the internet and practice. It’s easier to do it here than in other countries because the Internet access is much faster,” says Jin.
That approach has scored big returns, with South Korean B-boy crews such as Last For One, Gambler and Expression either winning or placing high up at the top-ranking “Battle of the Year” B-boy competition in Germany since 2001.
Kim at PMC Production is putting together a show called “B-boy Korea” which he hopes will be as big a success as his world-touring “Nanta” production - a high energy percussion and dance performance in which cooks struggle to prepare a banquet.
And G-Corp, for all its ex-dancer directors sporting black hooded sweatshirts, beanies and goatee beards, is run by businessmen with a keen eye for a commercial opportunity.
“Winning crews have been interviewed on TV and they’ve showed how good Korean B-boys are. That’s why people are excited. A lot of people think these B-boys can be a way of expressing Korean culture and Korea itself,” says G-Corp CEO Michael Park.
“Big sports brand companies have started investing here and that’s another reason why B-boying is getting bigger,” he adds.
Seoul’s annual festival “Hi Seoul” in late April is showcasing B-boy events as it promotes the capital.
“The tourist agency and Seoul City have supported B-boys to take Korean culture abroad. It’s an American idea that’s been absorbed into Korea and turned around and presented to the world as a representation of modern Korea,” Park said.
Additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz and Seo Myung-jung