Popping the Electric Boogaloos

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At the Street Funk Battle in Shanghai, the moment MC Liao Bo announced, "DJ Alone, drop the beat," Li Yue sprang into action. This two-day competition, held during the Dragon Boat Festival holiday on June 9 and 10, was a qualifier for dancers aiming to join the prestigious Electric Boogaloos Family and EB Kids.

When a DJ drops the beat at a street dance competition, the dancer's body responds instantly, captivating the audience with a freestyle performance.

The Electric Boogaloos, founded by Boogaloo Sam in 1977, are iconic in the popping dance style, having appeared on Soul Train and choreographed for Michael Jackson.

Their legacy continues globally through teaching and performances. Its principal members starred in the iconic dance film Breakin'.

They then began traveling overseas to teach in Japan, France, South Korea and China, leading to the rise of many world-renowned street dancers who then developed into the EB family, a group dedicated to carrying on the style and tradition.

Li, a 28-year-old dancer and dance teacher born and raised in Fuzhou, Fujian province, successfully joined the EB family as a result of an epic battle with the well-known Korean dancer Dokyun during the finals of SFB's open age group competition.

Dressed in black, the two young men displayed their command of EB style elements including the twist-o-flex, the master flex, the Old Man, the Puppet and the Scarecrow, as well as their own understanding of body language, music and space. Since a typical popping routine involves quick jumps and the popping of muscles, they demonstrate an extremely precise control of their muscles while dancing freestyle and react quickly to the melody and beat.

Popping dancer and SFB co-founder Hu Hongjun and his team are the organizers behind SFB, while Popin Pete, one of the founding members of the Electric Boogaloos, is a co-founder of the event, which includes a training camp, competitions and lectures.

"SFB emphasizes the passing on of traditions and creation. All dance cultures have historical and cultural roots, and the more cultural elements are absorbed, the greater potential value is gained for further development," Hu says.

Hu's enthusiasm touched his fellow teachers, dancers, students and friends. In addition to Hu, Japan's Tetsu-G, France's Nelson and South Korea's Popping J were slated to join their teacher Popin Pete and another dancer Shi Kuang, whose studio is based in Taipei, to judge the competition. Tetsu-G eventually wasn't able to make the trip, and US dancer Jr. Boogaloo took his place. US dancer Mr Wiggles designed the graffiti that decorated the trophy.

Some 200 dancers competed in the open age group, while more than 80 children participated in the youth group. The event attracted dancers and learners from China and abroad. In addition to competitors from the Chinese mainland and Taiwan, some 20 participants from France, Japan and South Korea registered for the competition.

It is traditional in street dance competitions for seeded dancers to skip the preliminary rounds and start from the elimination round. However, all the battle guests at SFB, including 10 adult and 10 youth dancers, participated in the preliminary rounds along with the other contestants.

Sixteen-year-old youth battle guest Zou Ruixi, a high school student from Changsha, Hunan province, and his friend went to check out the stage.

The venue was a sports club in the basement level of a shopping mall in Shanghai's Jing'an district.

Zou said that by having to participate in the preliminary rounds, there were actually no privileges for battle guests and the format certainly added to the pressure. However, he thought that it made the competition fairer and more just. "Everyone starts from the same line, so nobody has a natural advantage over others just because of good results in previous competitions," he says. "Confidence is a must. A dancer with no confidence will lose at the starting line."

Zou's own confidence is based on his six-plus years of street dancing, which helped him qualify as an EB Kids member. After a two-day competition, seven teenage dancers were qualified to be EB Kids members.

A report on China's street dance sector commissioned by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism and carried out by the School of Cultural Industries Management at the Communication University of China and the China Hip-Hop Union Committee published in January 2023, shows that CHUC has connected nearly 3 million street dancers and almost 10,000 training institutions. Every year, street dance enthusiasts take more than 10 million lessons, and participate in over 200,000 street dance exams.

Zou and his new EB Kids fellows are among the learners and Li is one of the dancers at the exams. Li says that being qualified as an EB family member is a huge encouragement and he will work harder on teaching street dance. He feels that the openness of China's cultural environment will be an advantage for dancers and learners to progress.

Chen Mingtao, a street dance teacher with 22 years of teaching experience and a member of the dancers association of Jiangxi province, believes that the event — especially the lecture by Popin Pete on the developing process of popping and EB style — will help street dance learners to "better understand dancing and the style, not just know what to do but why".

He also says that a deeper love and inspiration from life will help learners have a better understanding of dance.

During his lecture, Popin Pete recalled the day when he first heard about popping and Boogaloo. While popping reveals the character of the dance, meaning that the dancers' muscles jump and pop, Boogaloo, originally an African-American dance style, was developed by Boogaloo Sam as a way of doing body movements.

Popin Pete also showed how the founding members created movements such as the Old Man and the Scarecrow. The Old Man was devised by Boogaloo Sam after watching an old man walk, and the Scarecrow was inspired by the scarecrows in cartoons. "As you can see, much of the inspiration comes from real life." he says.

The lecture was conducted on the morning of the SFB finals, and that afternoon, Li Yue fired the audience up by quickly reacting to the beat and dancing the Scarecrow in a freestyle battle that showed his own understanding and use of the classic movements.

The event also attracted street dance enthusiasts from abroad. Masako Mochizuki and Yuka Mochizuki, a mother and a daughter from Japan who are both learners, traveled to Shanghai to attend the SFB after volunteering in Jinan, Shandong province to accompany young Japanese street dancers to the competition. Yuka Mochizuki says that she watched the 2023 Chinese street dance film One and Only 26 times.

After the event, Hu took a short trip to Zhengzhou, Henan province, to attend the opening ceremony of a new dance studio founded by his friend, popping dancer Shi Jiankai, but could not stop thinking about the further development of street dance.

In a post on his social media accounts, he pondered the characteristics of a new style of street dance, if one should be created.

"It will have roots, technical inheritance and cultural sedimentation; it will have independent technical concepts, features and systems," he wrote.

The new style will also be challenging and fresh, requiring open-minded thinking and appealing to audiences regardless of cultural boundaries or social classes.

"The creators need to have a clear mind and body, truly listening to, observing and feeling (the world of dance)," he wrote.

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