Image Credits: @JohannaRodrigues
Few members of the Indian breaking scene are balancing quite so many roles in the art-cum-sport at the moment – and certainly none I know, doing so with such a consistent smile on their face – as Johanna Rodrigues a.k.a B-Girl Jo.
The phrase rebel soul can be taken quite literally when talking about Johanna Rodrigues who’s journey to become India’s best B-Girl has been far less than conventional. The calm controlled and thoughtful demeanour radiates confidence and assuredness. Rodrigues, who goes by the name B-Girl Jo, seems in total control of her life and career, and you just get that feeling, even though, it is through WhatsApp voice notes, that whatever she decides or wants to do, she will get it done.
Making her the latest testament to the roots, rasta and rebel and another example for those who see craving their own path in the realms of breaking and yoga as a way out of purportless habituality.
For someone who has been training yoga since the age of 11 and dabbled in basketball, Bharatnatyam and Indian martial art Kalaripayattu for years before switching to breaking, Johanna Rodrigues’ rise has been swift.
“Growing up, I was obsessed with dance movies. It all started with Step Up (2006) but I have really enjoyed the Hip-Hop Evolution series, The Get Down series, Planet B-Boy (2007), Beat Street (1984), and Turn It Loose (2009).”
Hailing from Bengaluru, Rodrigues felt star-crossed when breaking rocked its way into her life. At the time, she had no idea how her life could, and would, be changed dramatically by a niche dance genre.
The youngster was 11 when she happened to pass through a neighbouring building where a handful of boys were practicing their breaking moves. A mere glance of the scene made her stop in her tracks and made her excited.
Right off the bat, she showed promise as a novice, and she counts herself lucky that she grew up with the likes of Freeze and Black Ice Crew during her formative years who all are fundamental in her growth as a B-Girl.
“Black Ice Crew has been vital in my growth as a B-girl from just being open enough to show me moves and helping me out. At the time, I sucked at breaking, but I would push myself to keep practising the basics.”
“It was a bunch of highly motivated people trying to be the best versions of themselves. I was grateful that I could now be one of them. And given the fact that the crew was very diverse, each dancer has their own style. I had a beautiful opportunity to learn different things from different people.”
Like the most sport or art that people love, initially they casually explore it, learning the basics and just appreciating the spectacle of what they see. Then slowly they start to develop a greater understanding of the techniques that involved. So, it was the same with Rodrigues.
Soon, breaking became her focus and she also proved to be a natural at it. She practiced hard and began to make a name for herself through various competitions. At the age of 22, she became the first Red Bull BC One B-Girl India Champion. In 2021, she won her second Red Bull BC One India championship and represented India at the World Final in Gdansk, Poland.
Breaking – more than just a form of expression
The story of breaking’s meteoric rise to the Olympic stage — it’s set to make its debut at the Paris Summer Games in 2024 — involved an unlikely and reluctant partnership between street-savvy breakers and traditional ballroom dancers, an evolution of an urban art form into a competitive endeavor and a lightning-fast education campaign to sell Olympic officials and a curious sporting public that breakers are very much athletes.
Born in the South Bronx nearly 50 years ago, breaking long ago had spread across the world and become far more nuanced than what was commercialized by 1980s pop culture and mass media. By 2010, there were independent competitions around the world and instructors operating in most major cities. Breaking was still an activity that could be done by tossing a piece of cardboard on a sidewalk and letting the music take hold, but for many, it had graduated from the sidewalks to dance studios.
Breaking isn’t just a form of expression; competition is baked into it with fierce dance battles between b-boys and b-girls. The competition generally involves a series of dance battles. The dancers don’t know the music ahead of time and have to improvise on the spot. Judges score them based on personality, technique, variety, creativity, performance and musicality.
Outsiders have a more basic, intrinsic question: Is breaking even a sport?
A breaking competition generally involves a series of dance battles. The dancers don’t know the music ahead of time and have to improvise on the spot. Judges score them based on personality, technique, variety, creativity, performance and musicality.
In that sense, breaking isn’t that different from other judged events at the Olympics, such as figure skating and gymnastics. Many incorporate music, costumes, acrobatics, strength and athleticism.
“Breaking is such a physically demanding dance,” Rodrigues explains.
“It’s so different than all the other dances and requires so much strength, energy, creativity, artistry.”
Surviving the teen years and being independent
Breakers are mesmerizing, in large part, thanks to the element of energy, a movement that they incorporate into breaking, a combination of dance, creative rhythmic flow, physical disciplines, transitions, tricks and flicks, which makes it even more joyful to watch.
The recent modest rise of breaking is a far cry from what it was when Rodrigues first started out, it seems so recent, but prehistoric at the same time. On being asked what is the toughest aspect of being a B-Girl, she said:
“The tougher aspects of being a B-Girl would be making things work when you're just choosing it as a career.”
“If you’re in your late teens, then it is hard for any breaker to explain to their parents what they want to pursue but maybe a little harder for girl’s parents who are rather more protective and reluctant with – where you’re going and how you’re going? Is it safe? – those things can be little dent for the young girls.
Luckily for Rodrigues, the support from her mother has clearly been a huge factor in her success:
“I am 25 now with independent of travel. I have had the privilege of having a single mom who has given me a lot of freedom that tells a lot about my eight years in the breaking scene.”
Community – growing together
If you look back to just a few years ago, the idea of a female breaker talking about winning titles and competing at the Olympics would have seemed almost beyond belief. But women’s breaking has grown to the point where they are recognized amongst some of the biggest names, despite the numbers are being staggeringly low and the majority of the community enjoy male and female contest equally. We asked the Bengaluru native why she thought this was, and where she foresees women’s breaking going over the next few years:
“I just see it getting stronger and bigger, to be honest. Perceptions have certainly changed, not only that women’s breaking is now accepted and very much on an upward trajectory. What’s so lovely to see is the massive increase in young girls getting into breaking, and feeling like they can get into it and there’s so much talent coming through and they all want to explore; we all just want to prove what we can do.”
“I love the place we have come to as B-Girl community and there are a lot of B-Girls are really united but definitely starting out it was a bit of a challenge to find other B-Girls who I could relate to and meet & connect and practice with them often enough to really grow together.”
She further states that the Olympic recognition will help in changing the mindset of the society towards their craft.
“I think that the breaking community is now more open than ever and now with the Olympics like parents even in India are probably more likely to support young girls and boys learning this art form and I strongly feel it's a beautiful community for girls to step into because you can show your fierceness, fire, anger, love and it’s the space and room for all of it in the hip-hop community.”
Breakers used to spend a lot of time at studios or streets, say that friendships were born there, that they fell in love at the place or came there looking for consolation after breaking up or catching up with old friends. Reflecting on the same, she said:
“I have made some really close friends through breaking. My opponents have become really good friends because we have such a beautiful and personal exchange that you can even show your anger towards in a way you become a family.”
On fashion and music
The relationship between fashion and breaking is nothing new.
With performances have such a spectacle aspect and part of the spectacle seems to be how they dress. She also echoes the same sentiments on how fashion plays a part in what breakers do.
“Breaking and hip-hop is all about being yourself. Over the years, I have been trying to find fashion and clothes that represent me for who I am.”
“When I was a teenager, I used to try and get on with the trends like the skinny jeans and H&M tops. But now I have grown up, I have realized that feeling comfortable and my clothes represents who I am is a big advantage. Nowadays, I shop mainly at thrift stores and try to look for what catches my eye and what makes me feel like me – the combination of hip-hop, India, yoga, comfort and style.”
“My mom often says that she looks up to Bob Marley a lot, so the rasta culture and the rasta colour has had a huge impact on me as well.”
Like fashion, music and breaking are like inseparable twins. The rapport between breaker and music plays a significant role in allowing them to be creative in new ways, and is a fantastic way to escape the stresses and cares of everyday life.
When asked what type of music she would often listen to and which she could break to:
“My current favourite style of music is like Jazz, Drum & Bass and Chillhop. I am also genuinely liking Khrungbin. And If I could break to any of my favourite music, I think it would be Khrungbin as I feel it’s more freeing and groovier but sometimes with low tempo for breaking.
On the support from Welspun group
The 26-year-old breaking specialist also spoke at length about the support she has been receiving from the Welspun group through Welspun Super Sport Women Program.
“ I have been doing yoga for decades. I am very careful about how I move my body as I go ahead in breaking some of the task requires risk-taking, powerful, quick movements. Taking the strength and conditioning sessions really helping me to understand my body a little different from yoga as yoga is about stability, flow but strength and conditioning helps me find those quick movements, power movements and I am feeling very blessed, I think I might be the one of the very few in the country receiving support for training this way. I am extremely grateful for Welspun's continued support in my journey."
Moulding and building confidence
The days are long and relentless for Rodrigues, but the never-ending aspect of her life is something she revels in. The love of what she does drives her forward.When she fell in love with breaking, the she never could have imagined this fringe cultural offering would one day become a mainstream Olympic sport. And for many in the breaking world, it was the first time they considered the Olympics a realistic goal. For many in the Olympic world, it was the first time they considered dancing a true sport.
Being a part of the Olympic charter has just opened a whole new world of opportunities for breakers in which she aims to represent the country. She accepts what is needed. An understanding nothing is given in life:
“I am looking at just improvnig my moves and building confidence because I think that's what I really need t the moment. The girls from other countries meet more often as they travel from one country to the other more easily and they have a lot of practice to gain sonfidence so I may not get that opportunity to be on the international stage as much as them but I am trying to use other avenues to build my confidence to build myself up so that when I am facing them, I am able to give my best and represent my style.”
Breaking has saved many a wayward soul. The stories always differ, but it seems to draw people in and offer them something that was previously missing from their life of trouble. The ambition is obvious and Johanna Rodrigues has given up plenty, in pursuit of beyond just a passion. A new year brings a new start and one that promises plenty, and hopefully will give her everything she craves.