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Breakdance as Tai Chi: How One Man Built a Hip Hop Empire

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RADII Voices is a series of short documentaries looking at the unique characters, scenes, and phenomena that define modern China.

In the early ’90s, China’s hip hop scene was just starting to take shape. People were pulling together disparate elements they could gather from overseas — bootleg beat-tapes from Hong Kong, imported Hollywood movies like Beat Street and Flashdance, and a host of other influences made up the miasmic pool that would eventually yield the first true wave of Chinese hip hop.

It was in this era that Bboy Danny entered the picture — the figure who would become the godfather of China’s breaking scene.

The pioneering bboy (that is, “breakdancer”, to the layman) and founder of Caster Studio first honed his athletic prowess as a member of the Shanghai city gymnastics team. He trained throughout his childhood, until a sudden wrist injury cut his career short. With an uncertain future ahead of him, Danny left his life as an athlete behind until he entered university, where an unexpected encounter with the Running Man changed him forever.

Danny breaking b-boy RADII Voices

“The first time I saw hip hop dance was at a university students’ club,” he recalls. “There was a room full of people, everyone talking and drinking beer. I didn’t even drink back then, I asked, ‘what are you doing?’

“They said, ‘it’s called Rap. Rap is a kind of dance.’ They were all doing the same move — they said ‘this is from New Jack Swing, it’s called the Running Man.’ We all did the same move together, for two or three hours… it was so much fun.”

Danny Evo Caster dance

Danny and Caster co-founder Evo practicing after class

Dancing instantly captivated him, and after that first encounter with “rap dance”, Danny steeped himself in whatever dance and hip hop culture he could find. Picking up lessons here and there from others who had been overseas, he started to piece together his craft.

But it wasn’t until a friend brought him to a televised dance competition that he first encountered breaking in earnest. The rudimentary powermoves being performed by Shanghai’s top dancers at the time were, to a former professional gymnast, child’s play. He came back the next week and won the whole thing, taking home a cash prize that was more than ten times his weekly budget for food and living expenses.

Merging the “rap dance” he’d learned at school with the acrobatic control he’d studied in gymnastics, Danny started wading deeper into the local dance circuit — learning from other performers and building his breaking repertoire, move by move, until no other bboy in China could stand with him on even ground.

Bboy Danny

Sitting down with Danny to talk about the past twenty years is an experience. The stories he tells are more like ’80s action flicks than hazy memories from a freshly-industrialized China — he recounts being challenged by a local gangster to a battle at a night club in Baoshan, far outside the city center. Amidst the pumping sounds of electro-disco, in a China where club drugs were still far beyond the understanding of local law enforcement, Danny took him on. He embarrassed the would-be bboy on his own turf, to the point that the loser’s gang assembled outside, waiting for Danny with knives and crude weapons. Luckily for our hero, a group of girls who had seen the exchange hid him inside, and helped him sneak out of the club to sleep the night away safely, the whole group together in one king-sized bed.

But not every tale is drenched in sex and violence. Danny recounts fondly the story of China’s first real breaking competition, held in the central city of Zhengzhou in 2000. Having seen Danny, people had high expectations for Shanghai’s bboys; expectations that were probably misplaced, since Danny was the only one in the city capable of high-level powermoves. When two crews from Zhengzhou made it to the finals, Danny challenged them himself, smoking fourteen bboys on his own and solidifying his reputation across China.

When he defeated Bboy Physicx from Korea in 2006 — widely considered to be the greatest in the world at the time — he solidified his reputation on the international stage.

Caster breaking dance class

A dance class at Caster Studio in Shanghai

Danny went on to put the entire Chinese breaking scene on his shoulders — he’s been inaugurated as a member of the legendary Mighty Zulu Kingz (the official bboy crew for the Zulu Nation), he’s battled top-tier bboys around the world, and he’s helped throw major events from Battle of the Year to R16. These days, Danny is still building out his legacy. Each year he throws his own competition, “Breaking in Shanghai”, that’s become the backbone of the city’s breaking community. He spends most of his time at the newly-opened Caster Studio location (a sprawling multi-floor headquarters for China’s hip hop dance movement) teaching, organizing, and providing for the next generation of dancers who will hold the torch after him.

When he isn’t teaching or raising a family of his own, Danny questions what makes a uniquely “Chinese style” of breaking. The distinctly American dance form is indeed distinctly American — the intense, high-energy movements are much more in line with American physical culture than that of China.

In China, where methodologies like tai chi and qigong have existed for millennia, there exists a foundational gap between the culture at large and something as American as breaking. An outward type of athleticism like breaking ­– the yang (阳) of the traditional yin-yang equation — stands in stark contrast to the yin.

But to Danny, that contrast is fundamental to the question of transplanting a culture like breaking, something that, intentionally or not, Danny has been doing for over twenty years.

“Chinese people have our own styles of thinking, our own concepts of self-cultivation. When we dance breaking, we pay attention to that. Breaking is just a medium, but we have our own ways of practice and self-growth. That’s the real Chinese way of breaking.” 

“Breaking in the US is a way to express your emotions, your attitude and your way of life. In Europe, at the start, it was all about power moves and techniques. Now it’s more about expressing your individual flavor. In Korea and Japan, it’s all about high-level sets and routines. In China, most of the time, breaking is a form of self-cultivation, drawing on the strength of your spirit.”

With longstanding heavyweights like Korea and Japan, Asia is an undeniable powerhouse of breaking — and yet, due to its unique history and challenges, China has been largely absent from that narrative. But now, thanks to pioneers like Danny, that’s starting to change.

Breaking in Shanghai has become a core event in China’s scene

Danny’s own competition now enjoys major sponsorship and huge international viewership, and in the past year alone, we’ve watched two reality TV shows and a VICE documentary spring up around hip hop dance.

With the Olympics poised to introduce breaking as an official event in Paris 2024, the sky’s the limit for the world’s bboys. Today is perhaps the most exciting time in the half-century long history of the art form (and considering China’s propensity for Olympic glory, the country’s still-developing breaking scene could be in for some major changes).

It remains to be seen whether Chinese breaking will win gold on the world stage — but these athletes all owe a great deal to the man who paved the way before them.

Text by Adan Kohnhorst and Mayura Jain

RADII China
China from all angles.