Bodies surge across the stage, all grins and swagger, as the crowd cheers each new gravity-mocking move. B-boy crews S.I.N.E. (Saying Is Not Enough) and BigToe have battled other teams many times today. Still they dance with vigour and passion. Behind the dancers and the pulsing lights, the judges sit stone-faced, observing the final match like all the rest. DJ Red Ant works his turntables like a mad scientist, calling the dancers to battle as MCs Buck and Quan Rapsoul draw the crowd into a frenzy.
When the battle finishes and the winners are announced, the auditorium erupts. It doesn’t matter who the fans came to root for. They got what they wanted — another exhilarating show.
Welcome to Battle of the Year 2014, the biggest breakdancing event in the country — and the world. For hip-hop dancers, BOTY is like the World Cup.
At the beginning of August, 21 10-member crews from over the length of the country headed to Saigon to dance for one of two Vietnamese spots in the Southeast Asian finals. The finals held on Aug. 29 in Danang, pitted the Vietnamese winners against eight to 10 other teams from across Southeast Asia.
The Aug. 9 battle was held at Ho Chi Minh City’s Tan Binh Gymnasium. Cheered on by over 1,000 people, the competition was photographed and filmed by national and international media outlets like Xone FM, Japanese b-boy magazines, HTV-9 and many others.
Besides being a dazzling display of Vietnamese hip-hop culture, there was plenty to see and do during the roughly eight-hour long qualifying event. The judges, all skilled, internationally-known dancers themselves, showcased their skills. Rapper Wowy blasted the stage before the final battle.
Organising company Syncnamart put together a worthy show. This is their second year running BOTY, and they seek “to affirm that hip-hop and breakdance is not just a platform for b-boys, but also a sport and healthy playground for Vietnamese youth to express themselves to the world,” according to business development manager Huynh An.
But the day was about b-boy crews, fans, and their love of dance. Every team danced with athleticism, pride and skill. Some fans watched from their seats with a connoisseur’s focus. Others danced and cheered from the floor.
A Fated Battle
The final qualifying battle matched powerhouse Hanoi crews S.I.N.E. and BigToe, who have something of a history. S.I.N.E won the Southese Asian Championship in 2013 and a trip to Germany for the international finals. BigToe won in 2010, making it to that year’s finals in France.
S.I.N.E. was formed in 2011 by 16 breakaway BigToe members, led by 26-year-old Pham Khanh Linh. Linh started dancing 10 years ago and has competed in every Vietnamese BOTY since it debuted in 2005. His crew now has 35 members, while BigToe has around 60 in four teams. The oldest crew in the country, they are a perennial BOTY contender.
And on this day, defending champions S.I.N.E. prevailed over runner-up BigToe, but both teams will meet again in Danang.
“It was very difficult for us to beat them,” said Linh, “because of their creativity and skill.” And emotionally? “They are new members, not my bros and sisters anymore. We beat them, same as we beat all the crews.”
BigToe spokeswoman Mai Thin Vi had a similar take. “They’re just a crew from the same city... can’t say they’re not hard ‘cuz they were BigToe members.”
BigToe actually fielded two teams, with secondary crew Assassins not advancing to the final six.
Still, their shared past is important, as both teams have devoted followings which are steadily expanding as hip-hop culture in Vietnam grows each year.
A Brief History
From its origin in early 1970s New York, hip-hop culture has become a force in nearly every country on the planet. Adapting everywhere to meet the needs of the young, it often causes friction with older generations.
Arriving in Vietnam over 20 years ago, its first manifestation was with the 1992 formation of BigToe by students returning from abroad. The first and most influential of the Vietnamese b-boy crews, their style became the national template, and these godfathers of the hip-hop scene have had a tremendous influence on every b-boy in Vietnam. Original member Nguyen Viet Thanh, 40, remains, heading the BigToe Limited Company. He still breaks, apparently holding his own in in-house battles.
Despite its apolitical nature and lack of cultural associations — different from many other countries — Vietnamese hip-hop and breakdancing culture still needs time to gain acceptance.
BigToe, and hip-hop as a community, received that social recognition in 2007, with an officially sponsored show at the Friendship Palace in Hanoi, followed by a national tour. In 2010, the group even received an official Certificate of Merit, and went on tour to France and Germany.
It’s fitting that BigToe once again has a chance to dance in the finals, as BOTY is the oldest breakdancing competition, formed in Germany in 1990. It’s also fitting that their progeny S.I.N.E. have their chance, as BOTY itself has spanned generations, going from 400 to 14,000 attendees at the finals.
BOTY is a multi-month, multi-continent affair, which kicked off in Senegal in April of this year, and will finish in Germany on Oct. 18. The central company recommends countries for local and regional competitions and local affiliates present the events. National winners then go onto regional finals. From there the world’s best meet in Germany.
Having finished first and second in the national championshops, for BigToe and S.I.N.E, Danang looms large.
“For me, the toughest teams must be BigToe crew and the Thailand b-boys,” said Linh.
When asked which crews would present difficulties in Danang, Vi laughed. “We don’t know, we also don’t care.”
For the other teams, it was time to go home. A lucky few went to Danang to cheer on their countrymen. But all want a rematch in 2015.