The Positive Power of Hip-Hop in Ukraine

Posted by: Arthur Evans, Assistant Cultural Affairs Officer

Читати українською

IMG_1810Recently I joined Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt, his family and an audience of over 10,000 on Independence Square to watch the World Breakdancing Championship.  Sponsored by Burn Battle School, hundreds of young Ukrainian b-boys and b-girls “battled” (competed) in four categories: best youth b-boy, men’s, women’s and team or “crew.”  I was blown away by the popularity of the event and amazed at the skill level of the Ukrainian breakers.  Even more impressive was that, although competition was fierce, the atmosphere was positive — even festive — a bit like watching a college football game in my native Ohio.

IMG_2483Because our Embassy was one of the event’s sponsors, the Ambassador awarded the first place prize in the youth category.  The winner was a 10-year old dancing tornado from Kyiv: Andrei Kirilin. Taking first was no small feat on Andrei’s side.  The youth division included kids as old as 16, and many of the contestants were almost twice Andrei’s size.  But in breaking, where preparation, innovation and speed trump strength, “Davids” often best “Goliaths.”  Andrei’s victory was a testament to years of training and the support of his studio, Kinder Crew of Kyiv.  Backstage, many of Andrei’s Kinder Crew friends were there to support him along with older b-boy mentors, coaches, and family.

Hip-hop and, by extension, breaking, has always faced an up-hill battle in the image department, partly due to a “gangster” motif that has eclipsed other aspects of the movement, and partly due to misconceptions of what b-boying is really about.  If my experience on the Maidan showed me anything, it is that breakdancing can set a positive example for young people in Ukraine.  No matter how hard two “crews” “ battled”, and no matter the color of their skin or where they were from, when the music stopped and the winner was announced the competitors always came together in the center of the stage, shook hands, embraced and showed signs of mutual respect.

IMG_0990These positive aspects are in keeping with breaking’s American roots. When it emerged from New York’s boroughs in the 1970s, break dancing’s “street” status meant there were no coaches, teams or leagues.  For an aspiring b-girl or b-boy, getting in was easy but getting good was hard.  You had to learn from somebody.  Talk to any accomplished “old” b-boy or b-girl about how they learned and they will smile and rattle off the names of the best b-boys in the previous generation: people who inspired them, took them under their wing, and invited them to join a “crew” that could help them reach the next level.  “Each one teach one” is a quiet mantra in breakdancing that still holds true.

Perhaps no other crew has internalized “each one teach one” like Seattle, Washington’s Massive Monkees Crew.  Our Embassy was proud to support them as our country’s entry in the Burn Battle School’s team competition.  As dancers, Massive Monkees have won at the highest international level.  But what sets them apart is how they have parlayed that success into opportunities for their community, and particularly for the next generation.  One example is their Extraordinary Futures NGO, which uses dance to teach self-discipline, boost confidence, and broaden the horizons of at-risk kids.  In recent years they have even used city support and crowd sourcing to turn their Seattle dance studio, aptly called “the Beacon,” into a community center complete with afterschool programs, toddler dance classes, music and art.  No wonder the Mayor of Seattle created a “Massive Monkees Day” in their honor.

IMG_3345Massive Monkees brought this spirit of civic activism with them to Kyiv. Over the course of three days they taught classes, visited summer camps, hosted hip hop films, judged dance contests and performed for thousands of young Ukrainians.  They talked about breakdancing’s celebration of diversity and demonstrated its ability to break down barriers and to build young people up.  But Massive Monkees weren’t alone in delivering this message. Their trip was supported by a national network of Ukrainian crews and dance studios.  At each event they were joined by veteran Ukrainian b-boys and b-girls who shared their own experience with the younger kids or were there as chaperones, trainers and mentors.

In the end, one can say that this year’s Burn Battle School was a success because hundreds of kids competed and thousands more came to watch.  But what is more important is that it proved that breaking is alive and well in Ukraine.  Clearly, local b-boys and b-girls have developed a thriving community that stretches from Kyiv to Sevastopol, Lviv to Lutsk ….And that’s a good thing.

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