Ukrainians on dance floor reveal what's happened to breaking

ALHAMBRA, Calif. – Funk music blasted inside a Chinese restaurant, and spectators who crowded around a small, makeshift dance floor clapped to the beat in anticipation of a battle.

Break dancers from opposing crews, Unexpected Squad and Flava Hood, lined up under the spotlight, not unlike how they will next summer on the Olympic stage.

Breaking will make its Olympic debut at the 2024 Paris Games. Last weekend, at the Rock City event on the Snipes Pro Breaking Tour stop near Los Angeles, the final battle of the 3-on-3 freestyle competition revealed something about the urban dance form born in America.

The B-Boys (as dancers are known in breaking parlance) looked like a cross between acrobats and contortionists as they showed off their best moves – airflares, windmills and spins. Three judges watched from a couch near the 16-by-16 dance floor known as a cypher.

When the eight-minute showdown ended, and the judges declared Unexpected Squad the winner, one of the dancers yelled into a video camera, "Glory to Ukraine!"

Two members from the winning crew are from Ukraine and the other member is from Kazakhstan. They beat a crew made up of two Americans and one Jordanian.

"We put our style, our feelings into these moves, but everything, created USA," said Daniel Zhydkov, 31, one of the Ukrainians. "That’s why it’s a big shout out, big respect for America."

An Olympic sport born in New York

Breaking surfaced in New York in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but it's no longer dominated by Americans.

In the world rankings, three of the top 10 spots on the men’s side are occupied by Americans: Jeffrey Louis (a.k.a. B-Boy Jeffro) is ranked No. 4, Miguel Rosario Jr. (a.k.a. Gravity) is ranked No. 6 and Victor Montalvo (a.k.a. B-Boy Victor) is ranked No. 9.

On the women’s side, American Grace “Sunny" Choi is ranked seventh. The other spots in the top 10 are occupied by non-Americans.

Chris Wright, chairman of the Snipes Pro Breaking Tour that started in 2013, said every year he takes his freestyle event to eight countries outside the USA.

The Ukrainians helped demonstrate how this type of dance has influenced artists around the world. After they won the 3-on-3 competition, they thanked the three judges – Flo Master, B-Boy Ronnie and B-Boy Reveal – whose moves they had studied while they were growing up.

"We were inspired by these guys," said Mykhailo Sivets, 37, the Ukrainian whose B-boy nickname is Climate.

They honed those moves into their own – a practice that likely has taken place across the world as the popularity of breaking spread from its origins in New York.

What are America's prospects for Paris 2024?

The American pipeline is not empty.

At last weekend’s Pro Breaking Tour stop, which organizers said drew between 300 and 400 spectators, Rosario was in the crowd. He is a strong contender for one of the Olympic spots.

But Rosario, 34, wasn’t dancing. He had brought his 10-year-old, Miguel III – a potential future Olympian, according to Rosario – from the family’s home in Arizona to try to avenge a recent loss.

Little Miguel won the youth competition and avenged his recent loss.

"He’s got the bloodlines, put it that way," Rosario said.

There was no need for Rosario to compete on the Pro Breaking Tour, which has no impact on Olympic qualifying. Instead, he is scheduled to compete at the Pan-Am Games that start in October and other international events that effect his chances of securing a spot to the Paris Games.

(A country can qualify for only two of the 16 spots on the men’s side and two of the 16 spots on the women’s side.)

Breaking isn't a full-time gig

The two Ukrainians and the Kazakhstani who prevailed in the 3-on-3 competition last weekend smiled as they looked at their gold medals. But they will not be in contention for Olympic gold.

They are not competing against the world’s best dancers, but breakdancing still is playing an important role in their lives.

Zhydkov and Sivets said they met in 2015 when they joined the same breaking crew in China and moved to the United States before Russia invaded Ukraine. When the war began, the men said, they realized they would not be going home anytime soon and so they started a new crew – the Unexpected Squad.

Breaking is not a full-time job. Both work for moving companies.

"We have to pay the bills," Zhydkov said.

The first place prize for the 3-on-3 freestyle competition at the Snipes-sponsored event was $1,500, plus a little something new to the tour: Gold medals inspired by next year’s Olympic competition.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Olympic sport of breaking gives taste of airflares, windmills, spins