Breakdancing: The Anarchic Game Paradox

Can a battle be considered a game? Can an all-out war be confined to a specific time and space? Can two parties with competing interests agree to play by the rules? Most people consider games to exist only in controlled, structured environments. However, I would argue that games can even be found in the most anarchic settings.

Credit to Seis Del Sur at the Bronx Documentary Center.

Credit to Seis Del Sur Company.

One game that most people do not know about in modern-day society is b-boy, or breakdance, battles. The term “b-boy” stands for “break-boy”, meaning dancers would dance to specific breaks in the beats and match his/her movements to the up-tempo tracks. B-boying is a very dynamic, acrobatic style of dance that was created from the ground up in the Bronx, New York. In the late 1970s and early 1980s it was a movement that spawned itself in areas of low socioeconomic status. Our nation suffered from a severe recession in 1982. The poor state of the economy made hopelessness spread like an infection, especially in lower income neighborhoods. Out of that despondency, an unexpected art form was birthed. There was so much energy in the young generation that needed to be expressed and thus b-boying was established. The dance is competitive in nature because it finds its origins in gang violence. Gang membership and criminal activity were at an all-time high in the 80s, and b-boying actually played a large role in stopping unnecessary bloodshed. Some say that the dance was a miracle because it took the kids off the streets and gave them hope for the future. The breaking culture was a positive influence because it promoted peace, unity, love and having fun.

Credit goes to Super Breakers Blogspot.

Credit goes to Super Breakers Blogspot.

If I were to describe in words what b-boying is like, I would say that it is a dance that requires the participation of the entire body. There are many elements of the dance including footwork steps, spins known as “powermoves”, and difficult poses called “freezes”. The battle aspect of b-boying represents the intensity of gang fights, but the golden rule is that you must never touch your opponent. The main objective of a b-boy battle is to outdo your opponent(s) peacefully and make it clear that you surpass them in musicality, originality, and technicality. In order words, these are the standards that participants must adhere to be successful. All games require a standard of excellence or achievement. Without any such criteria, the activity would no longer be considered a game. This concept is covered in the book, “Games Climbers Play” by Ken Wilson in a section written by Lito Tejada-Flores. In the section, Tejada-Flores talks about the sport of climbing, and how ethicality in sport or game is defined by how well a set of rules or guidelines are followed. He says, “Ethical climbing merely means respecting the set of rules of the climbing-game that one is playing. ~ The central problem of climbing ethics is really the question: who makes the rules for these games? And secondarily: how do they change with time?” The inquiry that is brought up in the chapter directly relates to b-boying. With such a free form of dance, how are the rules made for the game? The answer is simple: the community makes them.

The winner of the battle is decided by a panel of renowned judges (usually three or five individuals) that are acknowledged and respected by the breaking community as a whole. The tricky part for judges is that the criteria for who wins the battle is discretionary; this is because the dance itself is unrestricted. Unlike traditional dance styles such as ballet, b-boying has no boundaries for what kind of movements you can make. As long as you stay true to the legitimate foundation of the dance, you are given the freedom to alter standard movements and even add new movements. This gives participants the ability to quench their thirst for creativity. However, judges will respect originality as long as it does not deviate too far from the rudiments of breaking. This supports my argument that games can be found even in uncontrolled environments. Breaking offers a space where the criteria for success in the game is not dependent on a specific format, but rather the creative endeavors of the individual.


A single blog post cannot do justice to the profound history and culture of breakdancing. For more information, click here to go to a “HowcastArtsRec” special on b-boying, or click here to see the trailer of a breakdancing documentary directed and produced by Benson Lee in association with Elephant Eye Films.

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