In Tel Aviv, a team of breakdancers from disparate backgrounds has achieved unlikely success through a very Israeli blend of solidarity, drive, and chutzpah.
The 10 members of the Breakerholics come from four continents and speak seven languages. Half are immigrants and speak Hebrew as a second or third language. The team, or crew, includes both “b-boys” and “b-girls,” and the oldest members are twice the age of the youngest. They are black, white, and Latino. Despite these differences, they have formed a very strong and improbable bond around the idiosyncratic dance style, becoming “like a family,” says member Daniel Henry, 18. They have also been remarkably successful, both financially and competitively.
The distinctive dance form, which is also known as b-boying or breaking, was born in New York City in the 1970s and 80s and is one of the three pillars of hip-hop culture, along with rap music and graffiti. All were initially expressions of an underprivileged minority youth subculture, but today, hip-hop has gone global.
American rap stars are some of the world’s most recognizable celebrities, and street artists like Banksy and Shepard Fairey have won international acclaim. Breakdancing is similarly widespread. This year, teams from five continents will compete in the international Battle of the Year competition, b-boying’s World Cup. The competition has been dominated in recent years by crews from Europe and East Asia, and no American crew has won since 1998.
Breakdancing in Israel is not yet on par with countries like South Korea, France and Japan, but it has come a long way in recent years.
“The b-boying scene here is pretty new, it’s been alive for five or six years," says Ross Eliyahu, originally from the United States. "The Breakerholics were established around the same time, and were one of the first successful crews in the country, despite starting out “basically on the streets.”
Breakdancing breaks its way into Israeli culture
They recall practicing in places like in Tel Avv's Central Bus Station and Dizengoff Center, before their crew found a home of their own.
Today, they not only have their own studio, but a busy schedule and successful business built around breaking. Eliyahu says. “We do it all. We perform, we teach, we practice, we do battles, we do shows.” They regularly perform at events like Bar Mitzvahs, weddings, birthday parties, and company shows. This month, they are doing a tour of the country involving 106 shows. They have competed around Israel and internationally, in places like France, Germany, Holland, and the United States.
This success is not accidental, but due to their absolute dedication to dancing, which may be the one trait they all share in common. Eliyahu says that “the whole thing is being addicted to breaking, it’s like making it your lifestyle, you wake up and you just breakdance, and you go to sleep breaking, and you’re taking your lunch breaking, and everything is tied into that type of mind frame.”
Michelle Morali-Mezarina, who has been successful in international competition, also cites her work ethic as the reason for her success. “It’s hard, you need to work really hard all the time and practice all the time, everything needs to be really strong," she says.
In addition to performing and competing, most of the team teaches. They teach out of their studio on Bograshov Street and roughly fifteen other locations countrywide, and like the crew itself, their students are a diverse group. They range in age from four to forty-nine, and include doctors, lawyers, and mechanics.
Some want to become part of the crew, others just want the experience and exercise. “It’s the best exercise that you can get, period," Eliyahu says. It’s gonna keep you healthy.”
The crew enjoys teaching and sees it as more than just a job. Morali-Mezarina describes how dancing benefited her when she was younger.
“I grew up and now I have many students, it makes me feel really good, and like dancing helped me, now I have students who need to be helped," she says. "I think dancing is doing amazing things for people who need help.”
The team learns from teaching as well, gaining real-world experience in things like marketing, business management, advertising, and promotion. They also see deeper and more personal benefits to dancing.
Vadim Klasits, of Ukraine, teaches in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, but says that he “doesn’t dance for a job but for the soul. If I feel weak, I can dance.”
The feeling is “like a drug,” he says.
Eliyahu describes a similar experience from his own dancing. "You feel like you’re the center of the world, the energy level you get from being inside of a battle or onstage, it’s so overwhelming, the energy is so high and it’s just something you want all the time," he says.
He stresses the effect it has on people’s self-confidence and self-awareness, saying that it can provide “that extra something to get you to say okay, you are somebody, you can do something.”
The team has also developed strong bonds with each other through the experience, which is evident just watching them in the studio. They almost constantly applaud and help teach each other while practicing.
The Breakerholics find other inspiration in competition. Hip-hop has always been a competitive culture, which is most obvious in rappers’ boastful lyrics, freestyle battles and frequent feuds. Battling is also an essential part of breakdancing.
The crew appreciates the value of competition, and sees all battles as both an individual and a team effort, even a one on one battle, in another demonstration of their solidarity and support for each other.
“I never take examples from anyone, you need to have your own style," Morali-Mezarina says. “I represent myself, I represent my crew, and I represent my country.”
“We take every battle as a group effort, because if one person wins and he’s from Breakerholics, it’s a win for the crew," Eliyahu says. The groups finds motivation from competition, adds Eliyahu. “That’s what keeps the thing alive, because it’s a very competitive industry, you want to stay on top, somebody’s always coming out with new moves, new flavors, new routines, and if you want to stay on top of your game, you got to stay in shape.”
The competition also brings dancers from different crews together. The Breakerholics pays respect to other Israeli crews like the Unstopabulls and Kosher Flava, and describes cross-cultural connections they have made.
"It brings people together on the international level, like they’re just coming together to spin on their heads, and none of them speak the same language and they’re having the best time in the world," Eliyahu says.
Morali-Mezarina met her Venezuelan husband, also a breakdancer, at a competition in Brazil. She only spoke a few words of Spanish at the time, but says that “while breakdancing we don’t really need to talk much, we understand movements and things, so we started like this.” They can now converse in both Spanish and Hebrew.
The crew agrees that there is a world of potential in Israeli breakdancing.
"It’s definitely coming up, definitely becoming more popular," Eliyahu says.
"We really hope it's going to grow because all the students need to be our future, it’s important for us," adds Morali Mezarina They envision themselves and other Israelis winning international competitions, and using dancing to help bring people together. In a country with so many problematic divisions, the possibility is encouraging, if unlikely.
The team does not seem deterred, however. “The start is always hard, but I think if you really want it and you’re going in the right direction, you can make it," says Morali-Mezarina.
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