SUNNY CHOI, the top-ranked B-girl in America, emerges from backstage at New York City’s Hammerstein Ballroom with the confidence of a boxer. Cheerfully skipping past thousands, she hops onto a large, round platform in her typical uniform: a loose, black T-shirt semi-tucked into baggy black track pants, with her hair scooped into a snapback.
It’s a warm November night, and Choi is here to compete in the Red Bull BC One World Finals, a premier international event for 32 elite breakers from Switzerland to Kazakhstan. Slightly hunched over on stage, Choi opens her first match against South Korea’s B-Girl Freshbella with a yawn — a battle-rap-worthy move — and advances to the next bracket, where she faces an icier opponent: France’s B-Girl Kimie, a 16-year-old with a blonde ponytail and no time to smile. After a two-minute standoff, Kimie takes the lead, nailing an impressive headspin-to-windmill move. Choi follows. Over the DJ’s springy drum beat selection, she transitions from a crowd-pleasing flare-ninety (a spinning handstand) into a flawless air flare — what one broadcast announcer describes as an “insane combo.” She finishes with a smile and a tip of her brim to Kimie and scores the win from the judges.
Choi has wanted to flaunt like this since college, when she first dove into the breaking scene as a quiet observer and saw it as an opportunity to free herself from a life of routine. “A lot of my journey through breaking has been figuring out who I am, being confident in my skin,” she says. Now, at 34, she’s looking to prove something to the young Sunny who fell in love with gymnastics at age 3 and dreamt of being an Olympic athlete. “That inner child whose dreams were crushed by societal and family and cultural expectations,” she says. “That inner child that’s super shy and scared but has so much to say and just wants to show it.”
Choi is now one of the 10 best B-girls in the world, and won silver at the 2022 World Games. Her ascendence comes at a time when break dancing’s platform has never been bigger and the stakes have never been higher: Birthed in the 1970s, on the cusp of the Reagan-era Bronx, breaking will debut as an Olympic sport in Paris next summer. A year out from the Games and as hip-hop turns 50 this month, Choi tells me she feels like an “unlikely candidate” for a story about breaking’s path to the Olympics, but in fact, her story epitomizes how far breaking has come as an art form, dance, lifestyle and burgeoning industry. Breaking’s evolution into a sport is the story of hip-hop as an infinitely expanding force that affords people worldwide access to cultural capital and Black American cool. Hip-hop makes the fringers and interlopers alike feel powerful.
It transforms the self-described mild-mannered participants like Choi into superstars. It allows them to earn money doing what they love.
Breaking is also now worlds away from the era when B-boys and B-girls spun for escape over cardboard and concrete; what started as a creative outlet for Black and Latino kids in the 1970s has transformed into a sprawling commercial enterprise. Although Choi feels more sense of belonging in the sport today than when she first started, she once felt like she stood out in the traditional sense, given the origins of breaking. “I always have this kind of imposter syndrome ’cause you have an Asian girl from New York City representing hip-hop, and do I feel like I can do that?” she says.
She has spent the past 15 years wrestling with the answer to that question while, at the same time, leading a double life. When we first spoke by Zoom last September, Choi was still working as director of global creative operations at Estée Lauder Skincare, living the dream. A six-figure salary. A generous corporate discount. The stability that comes with an executive position at the second-largest cosmetics company in the world. And yet, the job was untenable. Balancing a 60-hour workweek with the training schedule of a professional athlete led to fatigue and physical collapse. “I broke myself many times trying to do that,” Choi says.
And so, she did the sensible thing: She quit.
By November, when we met at a café near her home in Bellerose, Queens, Choi had given notice to Estée Lauder. In a white hoodie and leggings, she’s bubbly but understated in person, her sugary voice competing with the loud hum of buses passing by on the street. “I’m ready to make that jump because with breaking in the Olympics, it’s a viable career,” she says. “I can make something of it.”
The Olympics offers more prospects, not just for Choi but for an ambitious, expansive community of breakers, many of whom are less impressed by the idea of a global entity legitimizing the art form and more excited about the ecosystem it inevitably creates, allowing breakers to leverage their talents into branding opportunities and household names — the Shaun Whites and Chloe Kims of breaking.
But from the music selections to the judging, every aspect of the sport is being scrutinized leading up to the Paris 2024 Summer Games. Hip-hop is always open for business, and the question at the center of breaking’s expansion is whether this subculture will have an organic connection to its origins and who will benefit. Some of breaking’s senior members worry in particular that an organization led by ballroom dancers — the World DanceSport Federation — is the official governing board for the Olympics, appointed by the International Olympic Committee to oversee a hip-hop art form. Still, Paris 2024 is only a trial run. Breaking has to survive the next two summer games — 2028 in Los Angeles and 2032 in Brisbane, Australia — and be put forth by each host city before officially becoming an Olympic sport.
In the meantime, Choi has gone from being a competitive B-girl with a desk job to becoming a pro athlete, seemingly overnight, traveling the world to attend panels, competitions and community events while training harder than ever. There are moments when she laughs, considering it all; this was never her plan. “I never really saw myself doing anything big with breaking,” she says. “It’s a lot bigger than me. As the first group going, we have to make such an impression. Breaking has changed in other places in the world. People aren’t freestyling anymore, and the essence is going away.”
On the other side …
“There’s obviously personal gain in this, too, like opening a studio and having that visibility and exposure in the media. And then there’s the little girl in me that always wanted to go.”
CHOI BEGAN PLOTTING her path to gold in the small town of Cookeville, Tennessee, where she was born to two first-generation Korean Americans. Her mother, Jung-In Choi, and father, Kyung-Ju Choi, emigrated from Gwangju, South Korea, to the United States in 1977 to pursue doctorates at the University of Tennessee. Jung-In majored in math, and Kyung-Ju studied chemical engineering. The couple had Sunny in November 1988 and named her Grace, but the family has called her Sunny — adding “ee” to her Korean name, Sun — since birth.
The name fits her personality. Sunny’s older brother, Joon, describes his sister as “super nice, friendly and smiley,” attributing these traits partially to her upbringing as the second youngest of four and the only girl in a Korean household. As a toddler, Sunny took piano lessons and Taekwondo but became obsessed with gymnastics after she sat mesmerized by the U.S. women’s team in the all-around competition at the 1992 Barcelona Games. She remembers begging her mother to take her to lessons before mom finally enrolled her in gymnastics classes at a local YMCA.
When Sunny was around 7, her dad got a job as a researcher and moved the family to Louisville, where Choi recalls kids at her predominantly white elementary and middle schools yelling racist insults at her in the hallways. “Growing up in a household with Korean roots but on American soil, I never felt like I fit in,” she says. “I didn’t speak Korean well, dressed American and brought Korean and American foods for school lunch. I had a bit of an inferiority complex, which I didn’t realize until recently. That’s probably one of the things that made me want to get out of Kentucky.”
By age 12, her tight schedule didn’t allow her to train for an Olympic track. She gave up that dream but stuck to gymnastics in high school, spending 25 hours per week on the mat while often falling asleep in class. “Extremely burnt out,” she says. Choi would eventually follow Joon to the University of Pennsylvania, enrolling in the Wharton Business School and joining the gymnastics team. A torn ACL and reinjury forced her to withdraw from the team in her first year.
It was a year of letting loose for Choi. She drank more and partied, a lost child with more freedom than she’d ever had, just in time to discover breaking. One night, she spotted a group of breakdancers on campus and started frequenting Philadelphia’s The Gathering at the Rotunda, a community space where she could immerse herself in the four elements of hip-hop: emceeing, deejaying, graffiti and breaking.
For the first time, Choi saw B-boys performing power moves: explosive, rotational movements predicated on speed and upper body strength, pioneered in the seventies by original breaking crews like Rock Steady Crew and NYC Breakers. “I remember that being my first real sense of, like, this is hip-hop,” Choi says. “And thinking, One day I want to be part of this. I want to be able to contribute. I want to be able to go in and dance with them.”
Still, she felt a disconnect. Besides having a miniature, teenage Dirty South music phase, she was far from a rap fanatic — she was more used to her dad playing classical music around the house. It took her months of practice to feel confident enough to enter a cypher, an open circle where breakers take turns performing. “Here I am, this quiet, reserved Asian girl at Penn,” she says. “At the end of the day, nobody was saying, ‘Hey, Sunny, you can’t be here.’ It was really a me thing.”
She found mentorship easily in Philly, where she attended practices, jams and workshops, learning the origins of breaking through community centers and more established breakers. Whereas gymnastics stressed routine, breaking encouraged originality and self-expression and appealed to Choi’s desire for freedom and belonging. She started skipping classes and watched her GPA slip to its lowest, 2.5. “My mom was like, ‘We’re going to pull you from college.’ I was like, all right, I can turn things around,” Choi recalls. “It’s not that I couldn’t do it. I was just so over it and tired of doing what I thought I was supposed to do.”
A business student who hated business, she feared financial instability more than failure. And so after graduating in 2011, she picked up full-time marketing jobs, along with a stint coaching gymnastics at New York City’s 92nd Street Y. She found little fulfillment in corporate America, but the work funded her passion. “I came to this point where I was like, you know what, I don’t think I’m cut out for a 9-to-5, but I didn’t think breaking was going to give me the money,” she says. “So I kept working for a paycheck.”
Last summer, she started a regimen with strength and conditioning coach Aja Campbell, who has focused on building Choi’s strength and stamina through plyometrics and contrast training, combining heavy lifting with speed exercises to promote explosive movement. “Like, a heavy back squat for a couple of reps and going right into box jumps,” Campbell explains.
Joon, who dabbled in breaking when he was younger, has attended Sunny’s competitions in Los Angeles, where he lives. “I would joke to my sister about how my motto is to ‘dance hard like nobody’s watching,'” he says. “My sister had this goal of going to the Olympics as a toddler. To be one of the top 16 in the world going to the first Olympics for the sport is like record book stuff.”
Their mom took longer to come around. She saw Sunny perform live on stage for the first time at last year’s Red Bull BC One National Championships in L.A., where Sunny took first. “The power it takes to pull that off — I can’t do that,” says Jung-In Choi, chuckling over the phone. To her, the Olympics validate breaking as a profession. She has texted clips of Sunny’s performances to friends and volunteered her daughter to teach breaking at a church camp in Kentucky.
“I can tell she was proud. She just wouldn’t tell me,” Sunny says over lunch, blushing. “She knows the Olympics is my goal, this is what I want, and this is where my career is going, so she’s finally come to terms with it and realized I can be successful.”
IN ITS ORIGINAL form, breaking is impromptu, an interpretative dance to a fusion of Latin percussion, soul music and funk. It originated in the early ’70s as a dance among Black American youth and gang members in the Bronx before spreading to local Puerto Rican communities. On any block at the time, kids could become B-boys and B-girls (terms that came before “breaking”) through friends and at parties, where Kool Herc, prominent DJ and Godfather of Hip-Hop, popularized the “break,” amplifying the part of the song when the rhythm breaks free. In Joseph Schloss’ 2009 book, “Foundation, B-boys, B-girls, and Hip-Hop Culture in New York,” he writes, “hip-hop music and b-boying were born as twins, and their mother was the break.”
MC Sha-Rock, who describes herself as a “nomadic B-girl,” remembers learning uprocks and floor moves from two junior high school friends around 1976. During the summer, she would go to park jams and parties where she’d hear breaking anthems like James Brown’s “Give It Up Turn It Loose” — “Stomp your feet, huh!/ Clap ya hands!” he wails, almost as a challenge. “When James Brown hit a certain part of that record, Kool Herc would drop that beat down,” Sha-Rock says. “Every B-girl or B-boy at that party would hit the floor and do they uprocks or moves in competition.”
The energy was infectious, and yet, the average American wasn’t yet exposed to it unless they were part of the communities creating it. That changed once hip-hop and breaking hit the mainstream through movies like 1983’s “Flashdance” and 1984’s “Breakin'” and “Beat Street”; a new world of outsiders discovered, infiltrated and changed the movement. Still, for decades, the breaking scene remained largely grassroots, with a strong base of dance studios, competitions and sponsorships; outings like Steve Graham’s Pro Breaking Tour; and increasingly high-profile global events, like Red Bull’s BC One series, heading into its 20th edition. The breaking community wasn’t all that pressed for Olympic recognition.
Then in 2015, the World DanceSport Federation, formerly International DanceSport, tapped former IOC CEO Jean-Laurent Bourquin to campaign for Latin and rock-and-roll dance styles to become Olympic sports. Breaking’s success at the 2018 Summer Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires proved it could work on a global level — 50,000 people attended events over five days, and the games drew more than 2.5 million content views, according to the IOC. It was the dance style that best met the IOC’s initiative for youth-oriented communal sports like skateboarding, surfing, and three-on-three basketball, introduced at the Tokyo 2020 Games. “Ballroom still feels a little hoity-toity, whereas breaking is approachable to more people,” Choi says. “It’s definitely a different audience from what most Olympic sports bring in.”
So when host city Paris proposed breaking for the 2024 Summer Games, the IOC formally approved the event as a trial sport in December 2020. It then appointed the WDSF as the board tasked with regulating breaking internationally, entrusting the ballroom constituents — already familiar with Olympic bureaucracy — to establish a point and scoring system. To do so, the WDSF recruited a crew of veteran breakers — including American B-boys Ken Swift and Moises Rivas (aka B-boy Moy) and Chen Bojun (aka B-boy Bojin), from Taiwan — to consult.
Judges at the Paris 2024 Games will score the breakers across six categories: creativity, musicality, performativity, personality, technique and variety. Performativity and creativity will hold the most weight (60 percent) while the other categories account for the other 40 percent. (Red Bull’s BC One competitions, in comparison, have no standard scoring system but rather a judging panel with their own respective, intuitive metrics.)
“The second I see someone walk out, I can tell whether this person is going to blaze up that floor,” says Jorge “Pop Master Fabel” Pabon, an original B-boy, choreographer and historian born and raised in Spanish Harlem. “There’s a certain confidence and, you know, wearing your crown. Owning who you are, your essence, your persona.”
Then there’s the issue of music: In a typical breaking competition, the breaker doesn’t know what music the DJ will play beforehand. And while the dancers can pull from a base of fundamental moves (uprocks, toprocks, power moves and freezes), they blend it with improv. However, restricted by copyright and licensing, televised breaking tournaments, like Red Bull’s BC One series, have used generic tracks by independent musicians.
The WDSF is still figuring out music plans for the Olympics, but most breakers expect they’ll likely opt for a similar inexpensive approach. “For a lot of people around the world, music doesn’t matter so much, but to me, it’s a lot,” Choi says. In televised competitions, she says, “It tends to be a little more soulless and harder for me to dance to.”
Ultimately, people want theater. Which explains why power moves like windmills, headspins and halos — explosive, incredible and physically demanding — get the loudest crowd reaction at the BC One World Finals. The music itself might end up taking a backseat, which negates the spirit of traditional breaking. “My concern is that when you go too far in power moves, you’re ending up going into the realm of gymnastics and leaving the realm of dance,” says Michael Holman, a New York-based artist who founded and managed the NYC Breakers. “We were all about the dance and the music, but we could thread that needle between dance, athleticism and power. Nowadays, you see a lot of dancers doing moves that have nothing to do with the music.”
In 1983, Holman wrote a proclamation for breaking in the Olympics and rules and regulations inspired by gymnastics. The letter described “breakdancing as a future Olympic sport, and ourselves as pioneers in making this dream a reality.”
Holman, like many of the original breakers, is experiencing some of the same struggles as rappers who felt shut out of the culture when it became a business in the early ’80s. Suddenly, breaking isn’t just a fun activity you can do in your basement, club, streets or competition. The art form inevitably loses its cool factor in a setting that spotlights only the battle component. You don’t have your crew. You don’t feel that energy. “We’re showing such a specific piece of breaking on the Olympic stage. And it’s an exciting piece,” Choi says. “I can see why it could be a vehicle to bring people in who would have never thought about it before. But it’s also spotlighting just that one piece out of context. So then, how do we bring the context in for people? Because breaking isn’t breaking if all you’re thinking about is the battle.”
The IOC insists they’re on the same page as their athletes. “What makes it attractive to us is exactly what we want to preserve and protect within the games. And that’s freedom of self-expression. It’s the feeling of community,” says IOC Sports Director Kit McConnell. “We’re not looking to change the sport.”
The reality is, it has already been changed: Breaking is entering a world stage with little representation from those who originated it. Most of the top international breakers in Olympic contention are from Asian countries, and there’s a glaring lack of Black B-girls in global competitions, outside of a handful like Carmarry Hall, aka B-girl PepC, from Indianapolis, who’s on the Olympic path. Toronto-based breaker Judi Lopez links some of the racial disparity in breaking to expectations around gender. “It’s a masculine dance, and that’s what drives the dance: How powerful are you?” says Lopez, who purposefully leaned into what she describes as more feminine movements as a Black B-girl, meaning less of a focus on power moves. “It’s aggressive, and I didn’t want to come off that way. Because people have that idea of me going in.”
Lopez was part of the breaking scenes in London and South Korea, where she discovered breaking in 2011. Introduced through American soldiers, breaking exploded in South Korea, where hip-hop later heavily influenced K-pop, and Korean breakers played a critical role in innovating power moves. “There’s a gigantic talent pool in Asian countries right now, which is why the level is so high,” Choi says. “There’s so much competition. The best are really, really fighting for those spots. They have armies of breakers and amazing dancers from a young age.”
The IOC has a poor track record of adding that kind of context to new sports, having faced criticism for whitewashing surfing from its Hawaiian roots in Tokyo 2020. Stephanie Choi, a professor in Asian Studies and ethnomusicology at the University of Buffalo, puts the onus on the IOC to “not just consume [breaking] as a form of entertainment but to also promote the spirit and history of it,” she says, adding that individual breakers must also learn the roots of breaking to avoid cultural offenses. “There’s an ethical responsibility. You accept this as mainstream American culture, but you have to learn the colonial history behind it,” she says. “Learning history means learning about yourself.”
DAYS BEFORE the Red Bull BC One Worlds Final in November, Sunny Choi joined other competitive breakers at Capitale, a 40,000-square-foot bank in New York City’s Chinatown, for another tournament, the BC One Last Chance Cypher. David Jr., a 25-year-old hip-hop dancer from Minneapolis, was there as a guest, watching from the mezzanine, where he told me matter of factly, “Breaking is everywhere.”
It’s clear why breaking would appeal to a nation of young people raised on “Step Up” and “America’s Best Dance Crew.” Competitive breaking fosters community and allows breakers to become global dance ambassadors.
Choi and other competitive breakers have three opportunities to secure a spot at Paris 2024: the 2023 World Championship this September in Belgium, the Continental Games or Continental Championships in various regions this spring and the Olympic Qualifiers Series in 2024. She’s shooting for gold but plans to give the Olympics only one shot.
“The best-case scenario is to win the Olympics. That’s going to be the cap of my breaking career,” Choi says. “Not that I’ll ever leave and stop dancing entirely. But competitively, that’s probably the end for me.” She wants to open a breaking studio in Queens and a youth center. But before and after Paris 2024, the challenge will be creating an infrastructure for an increasingly widespread international sport with increased stakes, players, money and potential vultures.
“I hope it gets to L.A. I hope it gets to Brisbane. But part of me wants to see what happens before I tell you that I want it to be there,” Choi says. “If we start to see that it’s changing breaking too much, then I may have my reservations.”
Over the phone in March, Choi described the past year as a whirlwind. With the Olympics in reach, she began 2023 with a packed calendar. “I’m still much happier, and it’s not as draining as the full-time job ever was,” she says. “But yeah, it’s wild.”
The cascading effects of the Olympics will impact the entire landscape of breaking either way. But like hip-hop, breaking is never in danger of being lost. Whether it stays in the Olympics or not might be beside the point. “Breaking has been in the mainstream before and then fallen out, and it’s always been an undercurrent,” says Choi. “That structure is there, even without the Olympics. But I don’t think it will be the end of the world if we’re just in the Olympics, and it’s fun. It may even be a better thing.”
Back on the Red Bull BC One stage, it’s the quarterfinals of the Last Chance Cypher, and Choi is up against Belgium’s B-girl Camine. Standing in front of a circle of fans seated around her in a circle, forming a cypher, Choi cedes the floor to Carmine, who’s cartoonishly animated, capping a series of windmills and headspins with a backflip. In moments like this, Choi’s mind is less on her opponent and more on her own internal monologue, and she’s boosting herself up as much as she is the crowd. “That’s the space I have to get into to be me,” she’d said earlier.
During her third set, Choi skips to center stage, crouches down on one knee as if proposing, and brings one hand to her chin, B-girl style, then breaks into a barrage of one-handed floor kicks. Again, she smiles. And suddenly, she’s upside down.
Clover Hope is a Brooklyn-based writer and author of “The Motherlode: 100+ Women Who Made Hip-Hop.”
POST AUTHOR: Clover Hope