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Funky dance contest breaks with Austria's conservative past

Breakdancer Lou Kouri from Morocco’s La Halla King Zoo shows off a move to Switzerland’s Ghost Rockz Crew in Salzburg.

EMILY NIPPS | Times

Breakdancer Lou Kouri from Morocco’s La Halla King Zoo shows off a move to Switzerland’s Ghost Rockz Crew in Salzburg.

SALZBURG, Austria — On a recent weekend, a few mothers pushing strollers wandered into a corporate building lobby to see where the loud rap music was coming from.

Inside, a German girl wearing a striped jumpsuit spun on her head while a group of Moroccan boys watched and prepared to outdo her moves. A dark-skinned boy from Hungary skidded on his knees and grabbed his crotch, gesturing toward an opposing crew of Austrian kids and prompting hollers from the crowd.

Meanwhile, at the nearby Europark shopping mall, elderly Austrian couples and teenage girls in sundresses slowed to stare at the ragtag group in baggy T-shirts and ball caps, bouncing around while a DJ scratched hip-hop records. An Iranian-born MC screamed in both German and English, "Let's give it up for my b-boys in Prodigy Crew!"

The shoppers stood silent, unsure of what they were witnessing.

It was a dance competition, actually. Salzburg's first-ever Urban Culture Festival, featuring breakdancing teams from Hungary, South Korea, Italy, Morocco and more than a dozen other countries, was admittedly an awkward fit for a city that prides itself on classical music and high culture, said organizer Onur Bakis.

It's even a more of a stretch for a country not exactly known for its ethnic diversity.

"In Austria, people tend to be very close-minded,'' Bakis said at the June 26 breakdancing championship round. "And you have to understand, 50 years ago, there was only one race here. But now, changing politics are giving us a chance."

Indeed, Austria's demographics have been undergoing a dramatic transformation, thanks to relaxed European Union border laws and a large influx of former Yugoslavia refugees and asylum-seekers. According to an Austrian statistics agency, about 10.5 percent of the population is now made up of foreigners living in the country legally, with those from Turkey, Croatia, Romania, Slovenia, Bosnia and Hungary making up a large percentage of that group.

Though Austrians have come a long way since the one-race culture of the World War II era, not all embrace the idea of letting foreigners take advantage of the country's generous social services. As more foreign families move in and have children, Austrian families are shrinking. Women are choosing to have fewer children (dropping to 1.39 on average) and waiting longer (age 29.7 on average) to have them.

Concerns that immigrants were having too much of an impact on Austria's increasingly strained labor market and growing crime rate led to strict immigration reform laws in the 1990s and 2000s. In recent years, increasingly younger and well-educated Austrians have been aligning themselves with the country's far-right political parties, known for strong anti-Muslim and anti-immigration views.

But Bakis praised the Austrian government, and particularly David Brenner, Salzburg's regional minister of culture, for being willing to give hip-hop a try. Brenner called the event a "trial run," but seemed hopeful as he welcomed the crowd of several hundred at the event's final battles in a Salzburg nightclub.

Bakis, 28, wants to see more foreign cultures connecting with young Austrians, and vice versa. Born in Turkey, his family moved to Austria when he was 9, and he became an Austrian citizen at 12.

He trained to be a cook as a teenager, he said, but hated the prospect of working in the food industry. He taught himself breakdancing "out of frustration." He now organizes breakdance and hip-hop dance workshops, and considers it the perfect outlet for minorities and immigrants, who identify with the genre's nonviolent themes of brotherhood, bragging rights and self-expression.

The significance of hosting crews from Serbia, Morocco, Croatia and other countries that have been struggling to integrate as Europeans — right here in the formerly oppressive Austria — was not lost on Bakis. And letting them compete for superiority — while obeying the rules against touching, arguing or fighting — seemed like a great way to introduce the uninitiated Austrian passers-by to this kind of culture.

The Salzburg festival's breakdance "battles" consisted of five-minute routines where crews of five dancers — mostly males but a few females — showed off their tricks or hip-hop steps while staring down their opponents and pretending to mock each other.

Americans and Koreans tend to dominate at breakdancing, or "b-boying," which originated in the late 1970s among African-Americans on the streets of New York City. But at this competition, judges from the United States, France and Germany had to decide whether to side with the flamboyant flair of the Italians, the gymnastic feats of the Swiss or the flawless footwork of the Austrians.

In one battle between Italy's Feet 4 Funk and Germany's Tru Crew, one Italian guy in a plaid shirt appeared to slam his body into the ground in stages, first falling on his hand, then his elbow, then his shoulder, before hopping back to his feet. A host MC named Trix kept a running commentary along with the music: "Some funky style . . . guys, guys, guys . . . psyyyych!"

Judges decided which teams won the battles based on technique, trick difficulty and other criteria. (The Gamblerz from South Korea beat the United States' New World Order in the championship battle.)

"Hip-hop dance is so big in our country now, and to bring it to the city of Mozart is very symbolic," said Axel Joka, part of the Hungarian breakdance team Funky Connection Crew. "We like the change in Austria. We want to be a part of it."

Hip-hop culture is not as revolutionary to younger Austrians who dance to Jay-Z and Black Eyed Peas in the clubs. But for older locals, it's still new.

At the Europark mall, a middle-aged woman named Therese Eppler wandered up to the edge of the crowd, just for a second. Just long enough to hear an announcer shouting: "B-Boys get funky" in English, hip-hop's universal language.

"I don't understand a word," Eppler said before walking away.

But she smiled as she said it.

Emily Nipps can be reached at nipps@sptimes.com.

Watch breakdancers online

Visit links.tampabay.com for a link to video of a breakdancing battle between an Italian crew and a German crew.

Funky dance contest breaks with Austria's conservative past 07/05/10 [Last modified: Monday, July 5, 2010 11:09pm]

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