Breaking bad? Quite the opposite with latest Olympic sport set to shift traditional thinking | Nicholas Rowe

The announcement that breakdancing will be included at the 2024 Olympics has led to much consternation. Commentators are questioning the legitimacy of breaking as a regulated, judgeable and competitive sport. They are asking why breaking should get in and other sports like squash continue to be excluded. They are baffled as to how this underground, urban, rabble-rousing past-time dared to bounce its way across the marbled pantheon of Mt Olympus.

The real questions, however, are yet to be asked. How have the Olympics survived so long without breakdance? Why have we spent so much screen time staring at athletes grunting and grimacing as they lurch and lunge in Lycra? After all we have been through in 2020, do we still actually enjoy watching people run around in circles? Isn’t it time to get physical with attitude?

The validity of breaking as a physical competition is aligned with other artistic Olympic sports, such as figure skating and rhythmic gymnastics, with established battle formats (gendered and mixed), a spectrum of movement frameworks (up rock, down rock, air moves, power moves, freezes etc), regulations that can lead to disqualification (for example, touching or flipping offensive gestures at other competitors) and a trivium judging criteria (also known as the mind, body and soul).

International breaking competitions have taken place regularly around the world since 1990, with the 2018 Youth Olympic Games seeing a B-boy from Russia beat one from Japan to roaring crowds in Argentina. Breaking is truly global and a well-established way for national bodies to compete.

It is, however, more than just a new form of competitive physicality. Breaking is transforming our understandings of what it means to be physically intelligent. This is because breaking, at its core, is improvisational. It reflects a world that increasingly values agile people who can think on their feet, respond to the ideas thrown at them, and come up with a whole new way of doing something.

When we are watching a break battle, we are not watching the coached sequences and stage-managed smiles of teenage gymnasts, or the rehearsed duets of skaters performing art that has been commissioned from a world-renowned choreographer. When we are watching a breaker in a battle, we are watching creativity in motion, and who knows what may happen next. We are watching someone inventing their witty comeback and next provocation, being actively exhilarated by the encouraging whoops of their encircling team members. We are not just patiently waiting for the finish line; we are enjoying the whole journey.

The BREAKIDZ XX hip-hop festival in Kharkiv, Ukraine. Photograph: Ukrinform/REX/Shutterstock

The inclusion of breaking in the Paris Games is also urgently important for global politics. Emerging from the hip-hop movement of urban black youth in 1970s North America, breaking presents a radical and vibrant means of questioning power and authority. While hip-hop has been consumed, commodified and culturally appropriated, breaking remains a dance form that in its essence is counter-cultural: promoting the status of the oppressed and challenging totalitarianism.

As a very social dance form, breaking allows for a complex expression of individualism within the collective, seeking difference and celebrating strangeness while emphasising solidarity. The roots of breaking remain so deep underground that it is inconceivable that even an Olympic level of legitimacy will crush its angry head-flick at the establishment.

Ultimately, the significance of including breaking in the Olympics is mostly for the dancers themselves. If one thinks of the lifelong standing that comes from being an Olympian, or part of any national sporting team, the impact on these young lives will be momentous. Within their families, their communities and their future workplaces, being a champion breaker will carry a lifelong cultural capital that validates their world-class creativity, endurance and competitive capability. For the parents and families of aspiring breakers, the Olympics provides a window into appreciating and engaging with their children’s passions.

This validation can also be carried to other social dance styles and contexts and may lead to a wider embrace of dance as a sport. Studies have shown that across the world, dance is the predominant means for groups of people to get physical: adults spend more hours engaged in social dance activities than within team sports. It is time to recognise that dance epitomises our ability to move our thinking and put our best foot forward. Let’s celebrate that in Paris in 2024.