Zoom, November 2021
Nefeli is a Physical Therapist, Sports Massage Therapist, Hip-hop Dance Scientist, Lecturer, Choreographer and Bgirl (sMash), based in Cyprus. Nefeli is the Founder and Manager of Project Breakalign since 2013, an interdisciplinary research project for injury prevention for Breakers and Hip-hop dancers. The project was funded for the creation of the Breakalign Methodology (2015-17 by the CND, France), a supplementary conditioning programme for injury prevention. The Breakalign team of specialists have provided treatment, workshops and lectures at events such as IBE, Street Style Lab, Catch The Flava, Red Bull BC1, Outbreak and others, as well as the academic community of universities. Nefeli currently works as a Scientific Collaborator at European University Cyprus, a PT at Advance Medical Centre, a breaking and strengthening & conditioning teacher in dance schools. Nefeli serves on the Board of Directors of the International Association for Dance Medicine & Science since 2021.
IA: Could you introduce yourself and describe what it is that you do?
NT: My name is Nefeli Tsiouti and I'm currently based in Cyprus. What I currently do is...I'm a physical therapist and sports massage therapist in a clinic here and I work mostly with dancers. Because of where I am most of my dancers are ballet and contemporary with a few Hip Hop dancers. My Hip Hop clinic takes place mostly when I travel, where there are more Hip Hop dancers. I specialise in the prevention of injuries for breakers. I'm also a dance teacher, so I teach Hip Hop and breaking in dance schools and I teach fitness. I try to provide the knowledge of injury prevention through physical conditioning. On top of that, I'm still doing Project Breakalign research which involves getting dancers to the labs, collecting data, doing the analysis, working with my research team and publishing that data.
IA: We will get into all of those avenues a little bit later. The idea of crews and kinship is really prevalent in Hip Hop and breaking. Could you talk a little bit about the different crews, kinships and chosen families that you’ve found within breaking and Hip Hop?
NT: OK, I heard about crews before I got into Hip Hop...or when I was first getting into Hip Hop. I was hearing things, but I didn't really know what they were until I was actually in it. The first family that I experienced like that was in Greece, where I learned breaking...I was living in Greece at the time for my first studies and for me it means that you have certain inside rules that everybody agrees with...they might be done verbally or it might be done intuitively. These rules might never be recorded by the people, they're just meant for the crew. It also means that you abide by the rules, you have respect and you always backup the people that you're in the family with. However, I think this also works - to be devil's advocate - for everything else between humans. Sometimes it has a happy ending and sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes people turn their back on you. I would say that the Hip Hop crew is sacred, but I wouldn't say that everybody understands what it actually means.
IA: The idea of generational hierarchy and lineage is really present in Hip Hop and breaking. You mentioned a little bit about how you learned breaking back in Greece, could you talk a bit about your breaking lineages, who you learned from and who is in your family?
NT: The first time I ever saw anything Hip Hop related was in ‘98 or ‘99. It was in Cyprus when I was still living there and I was still at school. I saw a performance and it was commercial, slash Hip Hop, but I'd never seen anything like that before. I hadn't seen any films or anything, I didn't have any of those VHS tapes that people had. So I saw that performance and I immediately started Hip Hop classes - which were a little bit commercial - but the music was Hip Hop. When I moved to Greece to study in 2004, I started trying to find people and I couldn't. I went to Paris for a week and I took some classes there from some people, people who I don't even know where they are now because I didn't know anyone back then. So I don't know who they were. I did that around 2005 and then probably in 2006 I met a breaking crew in a dance school where I was professionally learning ballroom at the time...I saw them practice and I was like, OK, what is this? I immediately got in their crew, they recruited me and they kind of gave me my name as well, sMash. They gave it to me in Greek, but I translated it to make it international. They were my first crew and they were called No Second Chance. It was five or six guys and two females in the crew. At that time in Athens there were only three girls breaking. They were my first family as such. Then I moved to London 2009 and from 2010 I got involved with Renegade, Soul Mavericks, all of those people and started training with them. My first crew in the UK was Soul Superior, which was a sister crew to Soul Mavericks and we were training with them. Then there was a little thing with the name, so we changed the name to Suprema. In that crew, there was Emma Houston, Ella Mesma, Joey, Judy (from Toronto), Lisa, Rox (Zana), Emily and Rabia from Bristol. I think that was the second phase B-girl crew in the UK, the first one was the one that Sunanda was in - Renegade’s crew again - back from Break Station times. We were the second one I believe. These have been the crews that I have actively been involved in.
IA: Why were you given the name sMash?
NT: It was because I was very hungry to go in the cypher and whenever I was going in, they would say in Greek, you broke the floor or you smashed the floor - which is the same word in Greek - so I just translated that into sMash. It doesn't mean that I smashed my face.
IA: Were they battle crews, jam crews or routine based? Could you give us a little bit of detail about the two crews?
NT: My first crew was mostly a showcase jam thing. We were invited to places and performed together...when I was with them - because after a year I had to have a surgery on my shoulder, so I wasn't in that for too long - we did one or two battles, but at the time, in 2007, there weren't that many things happening in Greece. However, we were practicing and jamming together almost everyday, sometimes even twice a day. We barely had Internet. But Suprema, with the girls we battled a lot, we even did the UK champs as a crew. We were doing a lot of two on two’s and we did a lot of things together, going out, jamming and training together. My first crew - No Second Chance - it was more underground, it was more of a baby phase, we were training outside on marble and were going to places that we weren’t allowed to go and getting kicked out.
IA: In terms of your networks and inner circle, who are the three people who nourish, support and feed you? It can be inside or outside of breaking, but it's important that it's only three.
NT: I would say my crew mate - even though our crew has died down - but Roxanne from my crew, B-Girl Zana. She supports everything I do. She's always there. She's supportive as a friend and is there in all aspects of my work and my social life, all of that. Then I will have to mention somebody who's out of Hip Hop - who’s not within the culture. However, he's a great fan of the culture. He’s Professor Jeff Russell from Ohio University. He's one of my mentors and supervises a lot of my research...he's always pushing me to do more Hip Hop research and to give to Hip Hop what it deserves, because there's a lot of researchers trying to do research on Hip Hop because it's something sexy and very trendy now. But they have no clue about it and they provide all this bad information to academia. So he's really pushing me to own the rights to Hip Hop and support the culture as it should be. I really appreciate him. The third person is...another person who was...she was my supervisor in my first master's thesis, when I did dance choreography. She's a professor in academia on dance theory and sociology. Again, she was always trying to push me to - still trying to push me to - have the Hip Hop rebellious behaviour and put it in academia and make that a part of my identity as a scientist. It's those people that come from outside the culture, but actually probably have more clue about the culture than some people within it you know. I really appreciate them.
IA: What was her name?
NT: Christina Kostoula - she's great.
IA: Paris 2024 and breaking. What are your thoughts on this?
NT: OK. My personal thoughts on this are anything that is being done to develop something...is good. The fact that the inclusion happened - I’d like to think that I was part of the very first stages before anybody really knew too much about it - when the first conversation started, I put a little stone in there. I think it's a good thing. It deserves more...to be more recognised, there's more chances, more opportunities, more respect from society. What I am against is the fact that some people are trying to jump on that now. This fake hype of opportunity, the fact that breaking is important now, let's get on it. That, I do not appreciate and I do not support it. Unfortunately it has been happening in academia and in the scientific world as well. People are starting to jump on it and investigate breakers suddenly...when they don't know anything about them and how actually this dance occurs. In my opinion the research that they're putting out is not of the best quality. I guess speaking from my sector - the sector that I specialise in - injury prevention, people are also trying to become coaches and get into positions that they've never been in before, instead of asking for people who have the expertise or are at least working with people who have the expertise. I don't appreciate that. I understand that maybe it comes from a place of Hip Hop, we say each one, teach one, so we teach even if we're not the best...because it's part of the sharing. But when you go to Olympic level, you have to think about it a bit more professionally and not act like a child. Hip Hop is a bit childish, I'm not saying this as a negative thing, it's a very young culture. However, when we're talking about the grand scale of things and we want to be professional and gain the opportunities that we deserve. We need to be professional.
IA: You said you had a tiny little stone at the beginning, what was that?
NT: In 2015 there was an organisation called the United Breaking Association, UBA in the United States, which was an NGO, a non governmental organisation. B-girl Candy Molia from Florida was the president back then and one of the board members left, so she asked me to take their place on the board of directors. She nominated me to join the board and the main discussion back then was the Olympics and Candy was responsible for having some conversations with some organisations - I'm not going to mention names because some things are confidential - but I was part of the board of directors and Candy was leading the thing, that's what I was referring to.
IA: In terms of the Olympics, people will be representing their flag, which is a kind of nationalism. However, nationalism in politics is sometimes problematic. Hip Hop and breaking is inherently about localism, representing a hyper local area. Could you talk a little bit about what you think about flags, nationalism and localism?
NT: Yeah. I'm very opinionated on this. Take me as an example. I was in London for seven years. Let's say that I'm still in London and I'm this top B-girl and I want to compete for the Olympics, but I don't have the passport. That means that I cannot compete. However, I do have the choice of actually getting a passport because I’ve lived there for so many years, but how much do I actually represent the UK? But then, I learned most of my knowledge in the UK and all my circle is there, so I think it's problematic. Then there is the real rationality behind it and it's problematic...I am not against it though. The ancient Olympics started in Greece and it was initially supposed to be about representing your country. Back then, what it meant is that I come from Cyprus and I live in Cyprus, there's nothing extra involved. Now there's globalisation. So...I come from three countries actually, that's where I'm from. So which country do I represent? Egypt, Australia or Cyprus? Actually, maybe I look like none of them. I'm comfortable with globalisation because of my roots and most people don't even know where I'm from because I don't shout about it. Wait, I forgot one part of your question that I wanted to answer. Remind me.
IA: It’s the idea of representing a flag and the tension between nationalism and localism because crews are hyper-local.
NT: I think it goes beyond Hip Hop culture, but I think it's acceptable because it's part of the development. I'm OK with it because at the end of the day you're just representing for the Olympics, it doesn't change your identity or who you are within the culture. The Olympics are not expected to be the place where Hip Hop culture is being kept to its maximum. It's not. It's just a very big competition which will help bring money to the culture, create opportunities and more professionalism. Everybody's trying to get serious now, how do I create an organisation and reading by-laws and stuff.
IA: Could you talk a little bit about how you consider your archive, how do you document what you do and what are the things that you want to leave as a legacy?
NT: OK. I think what I'm known for is injury prevention and starting the whole health awareness in breaking. Back when I started this movement in 2013...no, actually I told people in 2013, I was thinking about it for two years before but I was too scared to talk about it. In 2013, back then, I was attacked by many people - verbally, not physically - many people within the culture, some OGs and pioneers that people look up to (I also did at the time). As a girl, especially back then within breaking, 3% of the population, it was very hard to survive. I did have a lot of mental health issues because of everything that was coming against me. However, the fact that I survived and I managed to build Breakalign with my team, my brain was leading it, but without my team, I wouldn't have created what I did. I think it's something that should exist even when I'm gone and die. Because it's necessary and it didn't exist before we created it.
IA: As a Hip Hop dance data scientist, you publish and present a lot of papers in academic spaces, in journals and conferences in medical and cultural contexts. Could you talk about your recently published paper Dance Technique: The Breaking Body, As Opposed To The Broken Body and offer an insight into what it's like talking about breaking in academic spaces?
NT: It helped me become very known, very fast within academia, because I was the only one. So that helped it get a lot of support from people because it's, wow, Hip Hop is in academia, this is so cool. No more ballet. I did get a lot of support because of that. I think if it wasn't for that, maybe it would have been more difficult for me. However, most of the times it’s like talking to a five year old baby, because they have no clue. Sometimes you have to repeat things that are very natural for us and I have to phrase them in a certain way, the academic way. Whereas I learned them in the streets of Athens or I learned them completely naturally. It's very difficult to codify a lot of things, especially the scientific aspects, the actual research that I'm doing. Codifying that when I've never read scientific research on Hip Hop has been super, super challenging for me...and I always have to do it in English, which is considered my native language, but I haven't really been speaking it as much as Greek for the last five years. So it has been very challenging. I've had a lot of support from a few people helping me with that, but it's like chewing the food for someone and then giving it to them...whilst trying to maintain the roots of Hip Hop. At the same time that’s how science works, one of the two will bring you down and they will have every right to. I've never used any words or anything that diminishes Hip Hop from what it is, I'm always trying to keep it to what it really is, as a Hip Hopper, but trying to keep a high level of science so that the academics can accept what I'm putting out. The reason I wrote the paper...the reason I'm doing everything is because of my own injuries, especially the one very big injury that I had in my very early stages of breaking. When I had to do surgery on my shoulder. That kept me out for a very long time and even though the doctors told me that I will never dance again, I managed to dance again. That big trauma has ignited a lot of things for me to...so this is why I call it the broken body. In a sense, breaking does break you. But there are ways to prevent, at least to a certain degree, breaking our bodies. That chapter was written for people who again, are clueless. So if a breaker does read it, they might get some tips on technique, because I talk a lot about technique and I analyse safe practices. But it's very useful for somebody who is clueless about breaking, because they will start learning from the beginning and understand things from a safe dance approach. I am not a fan of, what’s the phrase - you have to destroy your body to - you shouldn’t have to break your body in order to achieve something. I think it was back in old days, but now it's 2021 and we have to get over those cultural things that we had back then. I don't think that the culture is the same and we can develop new things...I think this should be developed. We should get over the no pain, no gain. That's it - no pain, no gain. It should be no pain, more gain. Nowadays, there's a lot of scientists saying that as well.
IA: There's a lot of people in the community who you've worked with and demonstrated the value of the work that you're doing with Project Breakalign from Storm to Gavin from Soul Mavs, Breakin’ Convention etc. What has been the most satisfying aspect of sharing your method with the community?
NT: I've had some very interesting conversations with Storm - it took him one and a half year to accept my work. It was like he was putting me through tests and stuff...you can put that online, it's global knowledge. Thankfully I passed all the tests and he was part of the Breakalign team for a short period throughout our research and it felt good for me to be validated from some people that I looked up to. However, a lesson that I was taught...I learned is that I'm against hierarchy, I don't believe that because people may have decades more experience than me, that they are above me as a human. In class and all of that. We're all the same and I don't accept any bullshit from anyone any more. This is what I learned. With the work that I've built, I always have something to say back and respond to people when they do that to me. I'm not going to mention names, but I've had some very disrespectful moments in my Breakalign career from people. It's been good to work with some people that I looked up to and learned from, like Gavin - I learned a lot of things in my breaking from Gavin...we were training together in the same setting, but he taught me a lot of things. As far as sharing it to the community, it's the most satisfying moment...it's like you have to translate the science to their language, or else you're speaking Chinese to an English person...but the breakers, they're so open to actually expressing how much you've helped them. It's crazy. Some B-boys that nobody knows, you don't even know them, they give you the best thank you possible and I’m like, my heart melts - even though I don't know who you are. I’m like who are you, tell me about yourself, how did this help. This makes me want to build more bridges and give importance to people that are not “important” in their country or maybe nobody knows them globally. We're all the same. If somebody is suffering in India and I help them, it’s the same success as if I helped Dyzee from Supernaturalz. It doesn't mean that because Dyzee is very famous he’s better...they're both the same. It also gives me a humanistic approach when I work with the community, I'm not just a raw scientist. I can speak the language of the community because I'm part of it. It brings me closer to them and they bring themselves closer to me.
IA: What is the anatomy of a breaker? In terms of gait analysis, motion tracking, what anatomical traits distinguish a breaker?
NT: The basic anatomy of all human bodies is the same, the bones we have, how movement is etc. However, breakers adopt certain patterns because of their movement and we see that in different dance styles. It’s the same thing with ballet dancers, they adopt certain patterns...when you see them walk, they walk like a ‘duck’ because that's what they’ve adopted from their movement. Breakers - there's a lot of things to say - I'll mention what comes first in my head. They're distinguished by muscle imbalances, on most of them one side is more bulky, more muscular than the other side. This is because we mostly do things on one direction or power moves are done in one direction and that causes an imbalance. If you're a little bit experienced in this, you can see that just by looking at them. If they take their top off, you can see all these things...and usually I say, you’re a power mover, on this side and I tell them which is their dominant hand. It's obvious. The other thing is the Hip Hop posture, the fact that we're a little curved forward...that slowly translates in their everyday posture. Unfortunately, they don't have the capacity to differentiate between the two and this leads to a lot of injuries...it's called the upper cross syndrome, you get this as the years and decades go on. We get this syndrome. Am I answering this in the right way? IA: Yeah. When you brought breakers into the lab and used motion tracking, did that tell you anything different from your visual inspection?
NT: The motion tracking came from that the first study that we did in 2015 and we didn't analyse it in the end because it was so much data and my co-researchers kind of left the project, so I didn't manage to analyse that. Another study with motion capture, we did head spins gathered in Cyprus, but I haven't published it yet, it’s not official data, so I cannot answer on that specific one.
IA: A circus artist practices a particular skill all their life, they're hyper specialised. But after achieving a physical peak the skill slowly fades. They try to keep it at the top, but there’s a plateau and then it fades. Is there something similar in breaking, where you build, build, plateau and slowly fade?
NT: I have two strands to this answer. Firstly, some people plateau at whatever age because of their practice, they malpractice basically. If they don't know how...if they don't have a methodology on how they're actually practicing, even if it's just the skill, if you don't have a method, don't follow a plan and they don't have periodisation - which means like small plans for weeks and then a big plan for months - if you don't have that, they will plateau at some point. The body needs to increase, an increasing of load in order to develop...if you're doing the same things, that means you're on plateau. Some breakers don't know that...because it's not part of the culture to have knowledge like that. That's the one thing, then in relation to age, as we age, now I'm in my mid 30s, going towards 40, my body has already given up. Maybe it’s because I'm more vulnerable or maybe it’s because I've had more injuries than other people because I've been dancing since I was eight years old - doing ballet etc., all those things have made me reach a plateau a couple of years ago...but maybe Gavin who's on top of his game the whole time, maybe his plateau will be at 42, or even later. It depends on your habits, your genes, your injuries, how you practice and your vision. Is your passion still there or has it died down? Mine has died down because of all the pain that I've gone through. I think it depends on a lot of factors and your knowledge...we cannot...we don't have actual data to say this is the decade that there is a plateau or where their career starts going down. I don't have something solid to give you. It's very individual and based on the person.
IA: What was the first Hip Hop theatre work that you saw?
NT: It was probably Breakin’ Convention 2009...I fell in love with what it was...was it 2009? Maybe it was earlier, it was probably Breakin’ Convention at some point. Because 2010 was when I created my first Hip Hop dance theatre show - Jonzi D was my mentor - he was my supervisor.
IA: Can you remember any of the particular acts or pieces from it?
NT: It's just an experience...I have problems with my memory, so a lot of things I don't remember. I remember feelings, like what I got from it, the overall experience, but I don't remember acts. It's what I told you before about Paris, if I don't really know the names and the crews, I probably won't remember who they were, even if they were the most famous in the world.
IA: Talk to me about Scope Dance Theatre and your work Velocity and Palette. I'm interested in you in that space as a maker.
NT: I didn't hide it well enough...and I deleted the website. Scope was created in 2010 and my first performance was Velocity - which was part of my thesis, my master's in choreography - my thesis was co-supervised by Jonzi D and Christina Kostoula, who I mentioned before - my number three person. That opportunity gave me a very good step into the hip-hop dance theatre world because I had Jonzi D by my side the whole time, so I got a lot of insights and he gave us a slot in his Open Art Surgery in 2010 because he was helping me with my thesis. That was...I had just came to London...a very big opportunity for me. So we did that and I learned a lot. I made a lot of mistakes, but I learned a lot of things and I think I created a very good production. It was recorded beatbox where we...I had these ideas of actually changing the physics of the sound - that was the topic of my thesis, the physics of sound and movement and their combination together - that's what Velocity was based on, the velocity of the bullet, how it goes and how you can actually alter that and how does that affect movement or cause it. That was the whole concept. We did a few performances including at The Place, St. Paul's church in Covent Garden and The Albany in London. We did it in Cyprus or Greece. We did a few versions here and there, so after that, I thought, OK, I'm going to create this company called Scope Dance Theatre, but because of funding reasons, every time I created a piece there were different people in it. So I was probably the only same person, and most times also Jam Fu. As Scope was going, I realised that what I really wanted to do was have people who had knowledge of contemporary and breaking. Kind of what Marso was doing with his company Decalage - which I saw afterwards actually - when I saw Marso’s company, I was like that, that's exactly what I want. I saw the guy from Canada, Rubber Band dance company, I liked that too. That's what I wanted. I never reached the level of Marso or RUBBERBAND, but it's okay, we cannot always achieve the best in everything we do; I was more so stronger in the theme of concepts. Scope toured three or four pieces in total and I also brought the company here to Cyprus, Leeroc (Dang) was in the company, and Jahmai (Jam Fu) was in the company - well he was my boyfriend at the time for many years and it was convenient. Scope died out in 2015, I think it lasted five or six years. I came to Cyprus in 2016 and I got into solo work because of funding. I did a very big production of Hip Hop dance theatre three years ago, in 2018 I organised the Hip Hop dance...the first Cyprus Hip Hop dance theatre platform in 2018. I got funded by the Ministry of Education and Culture here in Cyprus and I did a trio with three guys, two of which were really top Hip Hop dancers on the island. Hip Hop, breaking and popping, but I didn't call it Scope Dance Theatre. I would say Scope closed in 2015 and now I'm into other things, but I'm glad it passed through my life and I’m blessed that somebody else knows about it. The Platform was called Breakalign Grounds.
IA: A perfect segue. Tell me about the platform that you put on, some of the artists involved what were they exploring, their themes etc.
NT: The idea of the platform...my initial idea was to bring the Breakin’ Convention team to Cyprus and offer Open Art Surgery...no, not that one, Back to the Lab. Something like Back to the Lab because there's a few people here trying to do Hip Hop theatre, but it's a little bit...phasey. I wanted to offer them first-hand people talking about that, but I didn't manage to get funding. So I had to improvise...and I brought Christina Kostoula, my number three woman, I brought her here because she's a dramaturg and can work on the aspects that I wanted to offer to the community here. It was a bit limited because of funding, but she met with them and we worked together. I supported some of the main artists here who are trying to do big things, I felt that they deserve a place in what I was trying to offer them. That platform opened a lot of things, it created job opportunities for some of my dancers because they were seen by a contemporary audience and they got some contemporary dance jobs. One of them, he's like performing everywhere now, it's crazy...and it’s probably because they saw him there. It was supposed to be a platform that is repeated every two years, but then COVID happened in 2020, so it's probably going to happen in 2022...if we manage to get the funding. However, I do want to bring people from abroad, because I am also here, which means I don't have the stimuli that I had when I was in the UK. I want to bring in something fresh because I'm not so fresh now as far as Hip Hop theatre...I don't see it anywhere. There's nothing here. That was the idea, to provide an educational and showcase platform.
IA: You were originally a ballet dancer before you found breaking. Are there similarities that you found either anatomically or musically - how did those two styles meet or not?
NT: They don't. What ballet gave me was a very good musical education, I understand classical music which I believe gives you a very good foundation in your ear. My sister is a pianist, so I grew up with a lot of piano at home and at the ballet school. So my ear knows music and it very easy to understand funk music...to build on that when I was learning the Hip Hop styles. Movement wise, I would say it’s completely opposite. In ballet you think up - like you're pulling up - and in breaking, it has to be down and curved...only when you go down to the floor do you go back up. It’s very different dynamics and it's probably why I got injured when I shifted from ballet immediately to breaking and I had to go to hospital and have surgery. But if I didn't have the education of ballet, I wouldn't have created Breakalign...the methodology of my thinking is based on the ballet technique. The fact that ballet is so structured - it has grade one, grade two, grade three - everything is so gradual, it's crazy how gradual they made it. I did the English system, Royal Academy of Dance (RAD), which is so systematised. Even now, after I've been numb from ballet the last 10 years, I could still teach a ballet class and be right on point...because the technique is still embedded in me. That's what I wanted to create for Breakalign - a very structured way of conditioning. I don't go against how it's being taught or how people want to keep it as a genre. I don't want to be that person. B-boy Focus is maybe that person with his dojo, I’m the conditioning and injury prevention person because that's what I know best. This is where the two meet for me...they helped me create this idea and helped me create the Breakalign methodology.
IA: What do you want to dismantle in hip hop?
NT: The first thing I want to dismantle is the fact that some people don't think with their brains, they think about what has been suggested to them throughout the years of Hip Hop existing. I mean, this whole thing with some OGs, people we look up to and they did very bad things to women. You know who I’m talking about. All these things that came out last year. I'm like thank you people. Why do we have to make people look like gods when they - yes, they created a dance, they are credited and they will always be credited because they did that - but I'm not going to behave as if they're gods. They're not. I created Breakalign, why are people not acting like I'm god? I'm not god, I just created something good and I'm the same as everyone. I want to dismantle this approach of following the crowd, following like sheep. People should have critical thinking and maybe this whole thing like with the WDSF judges, maybe that will make people think about critical thinking. I’ve been talking about this for years and I've been made fun of...maybe people were saying that it's the rebellious attitude as a Hip Hopper. No. It's just logic. You have to critically assess everything that you have in front of you. That's one thing. Give credit where you have to, but don't accept bullshit. I think I’d like to dismantle a lot of things. The fact...I think it's down to the same thing...just because somebody is famous or you really like that they can offer you conditioning sessions, or they can do physiotherapy for you because they did a two day course on Coursera or wherever. Don't do it just because they're famous or because you don't want to make them unhappy. Make them unhappy. Tell them what they're doing is not right. I cannot trust my body with you because you don't have the knowledge. I have zero tolerance if it comes to health...because physical conditioning is health. So if you're a very fit B-boy who offers fitness classes and conditioning...no. Zero respect. Seriously. I go and call people out and I call them out to their face. I don't make fun of them on social media, I go straight to them. Now with the Olympics, it's gone through the roof. I don't have time to do it all, I don't even have time for scrolling through Facebook any more. It's ridiculous. Are we trying to up the game or are we trying to lower the value of breaking? I would change all these things because people don't understand what they're playing with. If they had the knowledge of health, they would know that it's very different to - for example - do 20 crossover steps, three times or do 60 crossover steps at once. You're achieving different things and if you do that with the wrong timing, you might cause some problems as well. Problems that might go beyond an injury. I find it very unprofessional and very childish.
IA: Could you talk about craft and practice within Hip Hop?
NT: We use the word craft a lot I think, it's very individual. Each person's identity is their craft. Essentially we're all talking about the same thing, but we all create something different in the end...through practice our craft changes, develops and evolves. I think it's based on what your goals are, for example, when I was actively breaking...because now I'm a bit retired...I am thinking of coming back, but we'll see. When I was breaking creatively, creating my own things, that was the hardest thing for me. I have dyspraxia which is a neuro-developmental condition which makes my brain work in certain ways, and it makes my brain not able to work in certain ways that other people can easily do. So, for me, my craft had to have creativity in it, but I was more a fan of technique. Everything you see, videos of me, I'm very clear with technique but I'm not the most creative person. You have probably seen what I do a 1000 times. But for me the important thing was that it was super clean. And it was. It doesn't tick certain criteria perhaps in a battle setting, but for me I was working on mastering my craft. So it depends on what each person sees and if you're trying to make it for battle or if you're doing it for another reason.
IA: One of the massive world issues at the moment is around environmentalism and sustainability. Because capitalism has been driven by a growth agenda, everything's more, bigger, better. I'm interested hearing your thoughts on degrowth and slowness? How might that manifest in either your practice or Hip Hop or breaking?
NT: I think it's necessary...but there's a lot of pressure from the scene, from social media, from certain people, talking about if you don't do this then you're not good enough. Or if you haven't achieved that, then you haven't achieved anything. If you haven't won at least one BC One, then you're not good enough. What is this? Where are these people coming from? I don't even know what their thought basis is based on and I really don't support this concept. If you talk to a lot of people...or talk to a lot of women behind the scenes...you'll notice that a lot of people have backed out of breaking because of this peer pressure and pressure from the environment. I find it absolutely unhealthy and completely beyond what Hip Hop truly is. I have been a victim of that as well, it's one of the reasons why I stopped competing...I realised that I was suffering from anxiety, I was suffering so much. And then when I stopped, I was like, ah, is this...is this a peaceful life? I forgot about this. The fear of missing out died and I didn't care about missing out any more. It's OK. Why do I have to be there? It's OK if I'm not there. You have to slow down, but you have to keep working hard. I believe that. But it has to be done in a safe and supportive environment. I don't believe in non supportive environments and negativity. Especially if you're an educated person...if you read a couple articles on psychology, you will see that tough love works only on a minority of people. It's not a thing and it probably works because they have some trauma from their past, not because it's something that actually helps. Let's take physical conditioning, which is what I know best. You create a plan, like I said before, periodisation. You have these small periods of time and you say, by Friday, I have to achieve this, by next Friday, this by the end of the month, that, by the end of three months, this and six months, leading up to the Olympics, this. But in those six months leading up to the Olympics, you don't keep going like this, you have to know when you have to plateau, you have to go lower intensity in some days, you have to go higher intensity and some medium intensity on others. You have to have this variability or else what happens? You get an injury. This is proven...it's published everywhere, in all sports as well. If we don't have this range and variability, we get injuries...which can also manifest in psychological injury. This periodisation that I'm talking about, is not supposed to just be about the physical body, it's supposed to also be about the mental state too. I think degrowth actually helps you grow a bit more. It's OK...as long as everything is done in balance.
IA: Is there anything that you want to talk about that we've not spoken about so far that's important for you and you want recording?
NT: Maybe I would like to give a message...if anybody reads my interview. I think people have to get a bit serious about...we're supposed to be a community. So in a community, whatever somebody does, who is part of the community, may affect other people. If you do something good for other people, then you're probably affecting them positively. If you're doing something good for yourself, you have to be careful how you're putting it out there, because there's sensitive people out there. If you're doing or saying something that is negative, you probably want to keep it to yourself. You don't have to create all this social media crazy thing...we have to find more mature ways to communicate and then more people will feel like this is a community...there's a lot of people saying that it hasn't been welcoming for them and this is something that people don't talk about publicly. I know a lot of people talk about this and I've been a victim of this and I still am a victim of this in some communities. More transparency is needed within Hip Hop, more honesty and less immaturity. Maybe the Olympics will help that because people are becoming serious and talking to organisations, they have to wear their good face, and put their good hat on. Maybe that will help, I hope. I'm just disappointed by Hip Hop of this decade. It's not what I expected it to be, at least as far as behaviour is concerned. As far as physical development, it's crazy, people are just superhuman! But to me, the competitions and who won and all of that, I'm over that. It’s really good for them because they work so hard and I don’t live that any more. But to me as Nefeli that's not what Hip Hop is at the moment.
IA: What is Hip Hop for you at the moment?
NT: I think it goes back to that first question you asked about family and crew. I'm not in a crew right now, but still, the community has to feel like a family. I spent so many years and so many hours in it, it's been part of my life, it helped me, it made me smile, cry and laugh, it gives me all of this. But then I also gave it so many things back and I'm still giving it back so many things. So why do I feel like it's not making me full as a person? Why do I have to distance myself to be happier? It means that something is going on. Maybe we need a Hip Hop dance theorist or psychologist to talk about this, because it's not my sector, but I know what I'm feeling. My vision is bigger than that, and I will keep going anyway though.
IA: You touched on it earlier, but in the last 18 months there's been a whole set of revelations around toxic masculinity, sexual assault and grooming in the Hip Hop and breaking scenes. Have you got any thoughts or want to share a response about that?
NT: I was part of the movement, with the sexual assault and stuff…we created this video of B-girls and other dancers from around the world saying a little quote about sexual violations. The video was out last year and I was part of some conversations. I have some personal stories too which I haven't told...I'm not going to, I don't need to. But I think the fact that people stayed home because of COVID, it made them bring a lot of things out...which was good. Things have to be out and it's part of the transparency and the honesty that I was talking about. There's no healthier environment than an honest and transparent environment. This is why most NGOs don't succeed because there's no transparency and then they fail and shut down. I support the people that have the courage to stand up and talk. However, I think people have to pull away from social media and understand what the point of their actions are. I think they need to have the strength to go to the people that have hurt them and tell them instead of being hidden behind the curtains of the social media. I support all the people that have come out and spoken. I hope they're all saying the truth and there's no exaggerations. That's my only thing, because we're messing with people's lives here. Both ways.
IA: This COVID period has been really heavy and really full of grief for a lot of people. It's triggered anxiety and lots of mental health things. But as a counter to that, could you talk about some of the kindnesses that you've received from Hip Hop?
NT: I'm struggling here. Give me a second. Can you give me example that might trigger my thoughts?
IA: It might be somebody did something for you that was totally out of the blue or somebody said...when an Indian B-boy who you didn't know just got in touch and said Breakalign was so amazing for me. When has someone offered you a random act of kindness in the breaking world? NT: OK. I was struggling to think because it's mostly been online life for me for the last two years. I do receive these messages from random people...that tip that you gave me at Catch The Flava 2016 I'm still doing it like every day and it has helped me so much and I don't get injured. I'm very grateful that I still receive things like that, messages like that on social media. I guess over the last two years, what has increased for me is that I have a lot of students who are studying medicine or physiotherapy - and they're B-boys or B-girls - and they always email to ask for help. When they're doing their thesis or some research...so I've been working with a lot of those and helping them as much as I can. In the last two years I've had so many - and they always send me this email with this introduction, saying, you're doing this amazing work, I didn't even know that this exists and I've been following you - there's somebody in Brazil who's reading my work and it's helping them because in Brazil they don't have that support locally.
IA: In terms of breaking as a language what is the part that you really nerd out on? What gets you excited? Is it the transitions? Threading? Power? What was it that sparked the love for you?
NT: 1990s sparked the love for me. It was my favourite move when I first saw it. I could do like a...I could do a turn before my surgery...my surgery was in 2008, but I haven't managed one after that. Ever. Since my surgery I hate power moves on my body, because I cannot do most of them or they hurt me too much. I stopped because my body says no don't, so then I stopped because I have so much trauma in my body. My nerdy thing is top rock, maybe because I've been dancing standing for more than 25 years, maybe I'm more comfortable with it and it hurts my body less. It's all about funk, rhythm and musicality - which I think is my strong thing. I'm a style dominant dancer. The other thing I love is technique, having clean footwork is something that I love, but it just hurts me sometimes on some of my chronic injuries. So I would put top rock, footwork and then nothing else.
IA: You started doing a bit of research around house dance after the breaking. Where are you in that process and analysis?
NT: A few years ago Aline - who was the lead researcher in the house dance research, who was my administrator for Project Breakalign. She was a very important person who helped me a lot. When she left she went on to do a physical therapy course, so that study was part of her thesis to get her degree in physical therapy. As a thank you I basically funded that research for her through Breakalign, to investigate dynamic balance in house dancers. It was basically her project and I was assisting and funding it as Breakalign. We haven't done anything else on house dancers. I would say we're more interested in Hip Hop dancers at the moment, I recently finished a study on breakers and Hip Hop dancers here in Cyprus, mostly looking at the category of Hip Hop and other styles rather than just dancers.
IA: Was that within the club and party scene or in the theatrical Hip Hop dancers? What is the context?
NT: In Cyprus they're all the same scene, because there’s not that many. I got data from 63 people and just so you have a number, I found 95 Hip Hop dancers in total in the country.
IA: The country?
NT: Exactly. So it's good data, but the same people who do the battles are maybe doing theatre as well. I investigated lower back pain, chronic versus acute lower back pain on these dancers. I interviewed each of them individually and did a couple tests. I'm presenting that data at the end of the month in Monaco at the Olympic conference, the International Olympic Conference. Then after the conference I’ll be writing up the data to publish. I have very good data from this.
IA: Is there anything else that you want to talk about that you've not spoken about?
NT: I’ll talk about restructuring Breakalign. Since I left the UK in 2016 - I actually left with the goal to move to the USA, but that didn't happen - I realised that the last few years (because I’ve finished my physical therapy degree which took me four years) Breakalign has been a bit on the back seat...and now has to come back to the front seat. There's a lot of demand globally, all these organisations are asking for my help because of the Olympics, so I'm restructuring how Breakalign works. I'll be the manager, but I need people in my team. I need people not just for the research because so far the people that I've had were for the research - I need staff. Breakalign is going through the process of becoming a not for profit organisation and I will need staff members here and there to do various things from graphic design to administration. A lot of things. I will try to recruit people from the scene to help and give more opportunities. I think it's something that will help the scene as well to have people who are relevant, instead of irrelevant.
IA: What is your strongest memory of dance?
NT: I will say the biggest, biggest experience with the biggest emotion was when I was performing, I was like this, even though you couldn’t see my face properly, because I was wearing a mask, was the Olympics. The opening ceremony in 2012. I was in the breaking team and it was probably one of the best jobs in my life. Probably most paid job as well. That feeling when we got on the stage and all those people around...that stage and that group - because if you don't work as a group there you’re dead. Working with all these people that I know and looked up to and liked and trained with for years. I think it's one of the moments I'll never forget. I'm saying it now and I'm still feeling and seeing how it was back then. We were in the beginning of the NHS section, we were where the beds and the kids were, we were the nightmare of the kids basically, we were wearing black clothes with green eyes and were scary. We were going on the stage with these things plugged in our ears so that you can hear the comments and so that we can all be a group, even that made you feel like this is a big scale thing. Then just seeing all these people around and not being able to see the other side of the stage because it's so massive...all these people flying around like Mary Poppins. I think the process leading up to that, the professionalism, we had an in house physio...whenever my nail would hurt I could go and get physio. Everybody was abusing that (in a good way), they were going every day. So that professional environment that we were in, the respect that you felt and you were getting paid for actually what you were working for once, you weren’t just getting peanuts. We got good food, everything.