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Finnish women break better

Although it began in 1970s New York, breakdancing (or breaking as practitioners call it) is now a worldwide phenomenon--and Finland has some of the best b-girls.

Breakdancer Ramona Panula
Ramona Panula at Töölö sports hall, a popular practise spot in Helsinki. Image: Yle

In its short history, breakdance has mainly attracted men, and women’s role has at times been overlooked. In Finland so-called b-girls have played a prominent role, however, and last year the first all-female crew in the country made it to the semi-finals of the Finnish championship.

In October the dance form is set to premiere at the Youth Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, and Anniina ‘AT’ Tikka, one of Finland’s best b-girls, will act as a competition judge. She’ll also serve as an athlete role-model during the games.

At home in Helsinki, she also teaches classes tailored specifically to girls coming into the scene.

”I think girls are excited to hear my story, because I'm a girl and I tell it from a girl's perspective - sometimes they have questions of how to do something as a girl or how to deal with some issues as a girl. I think learning from a woman is important. Of course it's good to learn from the guys as well, but I think that girls have something we can share with other girls as well,” she tells Yle.

Tikka says she feels a responsibility since her own mentor, Taya ”T-Flow” Hinkkanen, went out of her way to introduce her to the dance she then fell in love with. Back then, the women breaking in Finland could be counted on one hand, and she says she was lucky to have a female role model who danced better than most guys.

Show and prove

”In Finland, the scene has been very welcoming and friendly for girls. Even as a beginner, I felt welcome. Of course I was nervous but everybody was always supporting and cheering for me, so I felt good. When I started to travel, I felt like girls had to prove themselves before people respect you,” she recalls.

Skills are hard currency in breakdance culture. It is not unusual for breakers of all genders, ages and across handicaps to compete in the same category. Indeed when Tikka did a survey of women's preferences for competitions, it showed that almost all of them wanted to compete in the same category as men.

Differences in physique have led to women adopting a different approach to the dance, adding something different to it. Tikka says that women tend to focus on details and musicality.

”Now that there are a lot more girls, new girls see that they can do this and are more open to start breaking, which is a really good thing. I think it's important to have girls in the events, so that it's more like a party and not just a competition between guys, like to see who's strongest or something like that.”

Olympics around the corner

B-girls have been breaking since the dances' inception, but have not always gotten the same recognition as their male counterparts. In some cases the female category has been held on a side stage while men compete on the big stage.

Story continues after photo

Breakdancer Ramona Panula
The sports hall in Töölö was originally built for the Olympics, but has played an important role in the history of Finnish breaking. Image: Yle

The inclusion into the Youth Olympics was initially met with scepticism in the breaking community, mainly because it was in the hands of a ballroom dance organisation with no ties to breakdance, the World Dance Sport Federation. A petition against letting the federation oversee the competition gathered a couple of thousand signatures.

Since then, the WDSF has gathered a committee of people influential in the breakdance scene for the project, but critics have expressed concerns that high profile contests could change the focus from culture and art to sport and performance.

Tikka is unflustered. She says many already treat it as a sport anyway, and that the visibility gained though the Olympics will benefit both competitive and non-competitive parts of the scene.

”I think in the beginning people were a bit scared, because it's a big development," says Tikka. "They may be scared that it will change something, especially in the underground scene. For many people this is art, their way to express themselves, their culture... I was a bit scared myself, but now I know it's in the hands of people who already organise some of the biggest competitions and are a big part of the scene. Now I can trust it's going to be a good thing.”

Commercial interest makes a comeback

Breakdance initially burst into mainstream consciousness during the 80's. The media dubbed it ”breakdance”, but the term has never fully been accepted by the dancers themselves. Acrobatic moves were used as a gimmick to market things from hamburgers to cereals. Dancers from New York were flown around the world to perform, and breaking spread across the world through movies such as Beat Street and Flashdance.

When the hype died many of the original dancers stopped dancing, but by then it had taken on a life of its own outside of the US. Today, big-budget events across the world and increased interest from sponsors such as energy drinks Red Bull and Monster Energy might make it tempting to draw parallels to the commercialisation of the '80s.

Since then a global community has grown around the dance, and industrious initiatives are often in the hands of the dancers themselves.

The social side of spinning on your head

The current female Finnish champion, Ramona Panula, got into the dance over a decade ago. She grew up in Tampere and her family did not have the means to pay for dance classes. When she started working at sixteen she took it upon herself to travel daily to a sports centre in Helsinki to learn from those practising there. The dance helped give her life some direction.

”I definitely got more self-confidence," remembers Panula. "We usually do everything by ourselves from scratch. There are no systems in society to provide us with things - like a musician has music schools, we don't have a hip-hop school in that sense. It definitely taught me."

Panula uses the dance as a tool for engaging with youth, and tries to pass positive values on to them. She organises events under Call Out Helsinki and works for the 09 Helsinki Human Rights Foundation, which gives children in typically low-income areas of Helsinki the opportunity to pursue hobbies free of charge.

”The main idea in breaking is that it's cool to be different," notes Panula. "That the differences between the children, between b-boys and b-girls are a good thing. The more different you can be, the more original you are. If you are good at something, you make it your thing. So you can be good in the things that interest you the most, and you can be recognised for these things. Everybody in breaking understands this. We shouldn’t be copies of each other, we should encourage each other to be different. I think it's a really healthy thought for all the children.”

Since copying others' moves (or ”biting”) is frowned upon, dancers are encouraged to creatively incorporate influences from across the board, moves taken from martial arts, cartoons and Latin social dances. Through a combination of this philosophy and a very competitive nature, breakdance has evolved from something fairly simple into a complex art form where some movements can take years to learn.

Global connection

When asked about what she sees as the best thing about the dance, Panula says that it is the community. She says that you can find people who share the same mentality all across the world, using the dance to exceed language barriers.

And while the internet helps the community stay connected, Panula says she is a little concerned that instant access to information is changing the way people approach the dance.

”Before people had to travel to jams to represent their name, and only there people would see them. But right now people are doing it through Instagram, posting practice clips and so on. Everything is happening on the internet now. I think people will miss out on a lot, because it’s a culture, and a culture is so much wider than the internet. So, the actual culture gets poorer and more one-dimensional. It's more about how many invitations you get or how many views you have, because it's easy to build a picture of yourself on the internet," she says. "It's not about saving up and going to another country to explore and share the culture.”

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