This school year marks the tenth anniversary for the Madtown Breakers, University of Wisconsin’s student organization dedicated to performing the art of breakdancing.
A group of UW students founded the group in 2002 due to a common love of breakdancing. What they lacked was a space to practice until they registered to become an official organization.
“It was mainly just a social group with spots to practice,” Charlie Lee said, coordinator of the group formerly known as UW Breakers. Now, the organization has a new name, an even greater campus presence and a mission to collaborate, perform and host competitions.
According to Lee, a senior studying kinesiology, the group boasts a variety of campus cross-sections, including a pre-med student, a grad student and First Wave members. For size, the group tends to keep to about 10 students; some come with former breaking experience, some learn as they go and others even hang onto their skills post-grad.
“A lot of the alumni that graduated, they’re still involved with the art,” Lee said.
The Madtown Breakers coordinate a number of events around campus and the Madison community to showcase their breaking. Recent invitations include performances on the Memorial Union Terrace and the Willy Street Fair.
For the Madtown Breakers, breakdancing is a generalized term of their main focus: breaking. Those involved still hold the title of b-boys and b-girls — the same as breakers of decades past. Lee said breaking is still a relatively new thing even with its retro hip-hop roots. And while the art has more popularity on the coasts, it is slowly gaining traction in the Midwest.
Breaking is one of the five elements of the hip-hop culture along with spoken word, DJing, graffiti art and knowledge of the culture as a whole. One would most likely find multiple elements of the culture at a single breakdancing event.
“We mostly listen to drum breaks, that’s how it always started. DJs always played funk, soul,” Lee said. “Breaking is a lot of sampling of other dance styles, but the breaking happens because the music breaks.”
Aside from performance, the Madtown Breakers take their skills on the road to competitions. Unlike at choreographed shows, competitive breakdancing relies on live breaks from a DJ to back the action. Competitions occur at two levels — team and individual. And at the end, judges declare a winner. Rigorous training all culminates in the final moments where breakers dance on instinct.
“We prepare by ourselves by just training; we don’t choreograph it. When we’re battling, it’s all in the moment — it has not been thought out ahead,” Lee said. “[The judges] like to see a person that has character, confidence, someone not giving up right away and they’re still dancing hard on the floor.”
Most harbor a mental image of what breakdancing is, but according to Lee, some of these images are myth.
One misconception involves the idea of choreographed battling versus actually freestyle battling. The true battling is unplanned and always has been, according to Lee.
“When breaking started, that’s how battles were started — impromptu free styling rather than choreographed,” Lee said.
The second myth relates to gang involvement, which Lee said is completely separate from breakdancing. Breakdancing began with gang association, but has largely moved away from that in modern times.
Part of Madtown Breakers’ mission is to reach out to the community and teach others about “expressing the art,” especially Madison’s youth. Most recently, they worked with the Madison School Community and Recreation after-school programs in Madison and volunteered at the East Madison Community Center.
“We’re still volunteering there [at EMCC], kind of practicing and teaching the kids, it’s been great. They’re only teenagers, but they’re as good as us,” Lee said.
To Lee, it’s all about self-expression and passing on the art. True, breakdancing has plenty of sport and athleticism involved, especially through the competitions. As an art form, it provides a release for its artists, including Lee.
“Through the dance, we can just kind of show what we’re feeling that day, maybe we want to show anger and release some of that stress, you might see that through our movements,” Lee said. “That’s one way to see it — as an art expression.”