Pop Culture
Mar 21, 2008, 05:19AM


Benson Lee, director of the new documentary Planet B-Boy, busts out his patch of cardboard to try and change the world. From The Daily Californian.

We all knew how cool they were, swinging their legs like levitating cartwheels atop a cardboard slab to a hip-hop rhythm that could arouse envy among professional gymnasts. But the dance most of us know as "breakdancing" was not just a fleeting cultural fad that faded with the conclusion of the '80s. For director Benson Lee, the dance continues to thrive under the title that best captures its form as a mode of cultural and political expression: b-boying. "Breakdancing is a derogatory term," Lee claims. "It was something that was contrived by the media because they didn't want to call it b-boying. People wouldn't understand." Lee's documentary film, "Planet B-Boy," aims to promote understanding that b-boying has a culturally diverse and artistically expressive history that is often overlooked. Set to release on March 21, the film explores the historical roots and development of b-boying, up through its contemporary resurgence at the worldwide competitive level, culminating with the annual "Battle of the Year" competition that crowns the top international crew.

Lee is no stranger to the b-boy movement. He grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia in the early '80s when b-boying emerged out of the nascent hip-hop scene of the Bronx. Much like hip-hop music, b-boying, for Lee "captured an angst that needed to be let out." B-boying provided a social outlet for youth to express themselves against an urban backdrop that offered few avenues. The dance form is loaded with aggression that reflects youth's under-representation. While reactionary criticisms frequently target this aggressive dimension, Lee suggests, "People need to understand that this is really healthy for people who come from a particular environment. B-boying allows angst to get out in a healthy way that's natural rather than repressed." Above all, Lee is interested in illuminating the cultural context out of which b-boys emerged.

After watching "Battle of the Year" on T.V. in the '90s, Lee decided to investigate the international revival of b-boying. His documentary depicts the complexities of a dance that incorporates elements of acrobatics, gymnastics and karate. That's not to say, however, that b-boying is a mere copy of other competitive art forms. "When you bring something from the outside, you have to mold it to a b-boy form," Lee explained, "That means you have to have b-boy attitude, which is a warrior attitude when you dance." When b-boys battle, they exchange moves developed over years of workout regimens with an intensity that rivals mortar explosions. If only the UN could orchestrate b-boy battles in place of conventional warfare.

While not yet established as a conflict resolution forum, Lee stresses that b-boying can mend divisions between cultures and generations, especially given the pervasive familiarity with breakdancing. "Everyone knows what breakdancing is. My grandma knows what breakdancing is. I want people to know what's behind it." That means reviving b-boying as a tool to connect people by disseminating its message and revealing its tradition. "As hip-hop is more pervasive in our culture, it chips away at people. I'm trying to chip away at a bigger chunk through this film."

"Planet B-Boy," both visually spectacular and culturally informative, will surely galvanize the international b-boy movement. A new generation of b-boying babies has already appeared, spinning on their head and hands at the age of 3 or 4. Until March 21, it's worth checking them out on YouTube.


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