As a teen in the early ’90s, Anthony ‘YNOT’ Denaro latched onto hip-hop and hasn’t let go since.
He became especially interested in breakdancing – or breaking as it is commonly known. Eventually, he turned it into a career, traveling the globe extensively to judge breaking battles and teach dance workshops.
The 39-year-old New Jersey native, who had been involved with the legendary Rock Steady Crew of breakers, is now a dance instructor at UW-Milwaukee, where he taught his first hip-hop dance class last fall. He’s also an accomplished artist who creates everything from furniture to data-visualized images – and even recently designed a set of knives.
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Why should breaking and hip-hop dance be taught academically right now?
Hip-Hop has a culture to it that during this time – when the Black Lives Matter movement has really come into effect – it’s a wake up call, especially for institutions in terms of how they’re structuring their programs. [Universities are] rethinking their curriculum, thinking about how they can incorporate the history and knowledge [of Hip-Hop]. What are we representing inside the university? What histories are we telling? America itself has a very rich history, especially in the arts, and Hip-Hop is as American as anything else. The body of knowledge, the creativity, the amount of energy and time and practice that goes into breaking is no different than ballet, if you ask me.”
Breaking is fast-paced and complex. How has teaching it evolved over the years?
When I first started breaking, the general way of learning how to do something was to literally throw yourself at it … [Elders told us,] “You just jump in and you go here and go there.” Now it’s like, “If I put my weight here and if I shift and turn my hips this way, and if I kick with my right leg and reverse kick with my left, while my hips are turning …” – you use the torque, the gravity, your balance, your weight shifting and all of that.”
When people see breaking, they’re like, “Okay, I’m gonna do something like a flip or a head spin.” But there’s plenty of steps that build up to that moment. It’s not just like we’re gonna go and start right on top of our head. There’s the aspect of the dance itself – the rhythm with the beat and the groove and the footwork and steps that happen before you even approach [getting down onto] the floor. So you build it from that perspective and you see these are movements that you can achieve through practice and repetition.
What are your thoughts on breaking becoming an Olympic sport at the Paris games in 2024?
It could be good and it could be bad at the same time. Anytime things enter large stages like that, it could be done tastefully or not – it all depends on who’s controlling that situation. It’s going to be lacking a lot but on the flip side of that, it brings a lot of awareness to what we do.
It’s going to bring in a different industry – there’s going to be sponsorships and all types of things that will start to become available. But how do you turn [breaking] into something that can be sold and bought and manufactured? And how do you do that in a way that doesn’t really take away or remove the people?
Am I excited about it? Absolutely. But I also hope that people are not just looking at [the Olympics] as the only thing when it comes to breaking. We still have the scene that we’ve built since the 80s. Also, only a very small handful of people are going to be able to compete on that level, it won’t be all of us.
When breaking gets aired on TV during the Olympics, I think a lot of people are going to be really surprised at the level it’s at. If people are impressed with gymnastic floor routines, they’re going to be blown away by what breakers are doing today.
Going for the Gold
KNOWN FOR BEING AN EDGY, expression-filled dance style, some may wonder how breaking could be called a sport, let alone a medal-worthy Olympic one. But consider the speed and agility needed to build up to a helicopter-esque leg spin before executing a few dizzying flips and then freezing in a perfectly-balanced, gravity-defying end pose – all done on beat to music – and you can see how breaking rivals gymnastics or diving in terms of physical skill and training.
And as to why the International Olympic Committee chose to give breaking the spotlight, that’s simple: to lure a younger audience to the games.