Zoom, November 2021
One of UK's foremost B-girl's and founder of FLOWZAIC - the UK's first all female breaking crew; Sunanda aka ‘BGIRL SUNSUN’ has performed, battled, judged and hosted at some of the biggest Hip Hop and B-boy events including UK B-Boy Championship and Nike Dance Clash to BOTY and B-Supreme women in Hip-Hop festival at the South Bank Centre. She was co-choreographer for the NHS segment of the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony and is now Associate Director of Grounded who gave their début performance at Sadler's Wells Breakin' Convention's 2013 tenth anniversary. Sunanda continues to host and MC many dance battles and events in UK. Other credits include: choreographer on the Bafta Award winning film Fishtank working with Andrea Arnold; dancer for Mel B, Gabriel, Shy FX and touring with Take That as a featured rapper.
IA: Could you introduce yourself and describe what it is that you do?
SB: OK. My name is Sunanda Biswas and what I do is...I suppose, my main role is a professional dancer, choreographer, but it's sort of blossomed into loads of different things over the years. I'm a teacher in schools, I teach young people, I teach in university, in big events, that kind of stuff. I've been a bit of a rapper all my life, so I've ended up emceeing for battles and hosting battles as well. It's like the branches of a tree. My main thing is dancer, obviously a breaker. I'm also a lindy hop dancer, traditional jazz and authentic American jazz dancer as well. I trained as a dancer back in the days when that was the only option for people looking to get into performing arts - everything from contemporary to ballet to musical theatre to different styles of what they called Jazz and commercial. Dancing behind bands and things like that. I have quite a few strings to my bow.
IA: Crews, kinships and alternate families are really prevalent in hip hop. With your relationship with Flowzaic and other crews you've been in, could you talk a little bit about kinship and the idea of family that you've chosen?
SB: It is an important factor in hip hop, but also in performing and dance; because before I really started breaking, which was ‘98...it was just before ‘98 when I really got into the UK breaking scene. I was in a dance company with my lindy hop partner, Temujin Gill - I met him when I’d just left college in 93 and he was starting his own dance company. So over those next few years, I had a family going on there, it wasn't necessarily on the hip hop circuit, but it was a sort of a family. There was myself and five other girls and then Temujin; we all got to know each other's families and everything like that and we went on tour. So I already had a kind of alternative family going on. Then when I got into breaking properly, I found people that were on this scene and I found the Africa Centre. Don’t know if you know about the Funkin' Pussy at the Africa Centre. I remember going to the UK B-boy champs in ‘98 - that was my first champs because I missed it in ‘96 and ‘97 - I think I was performing on both those days somewhere. I remember a friend of mine, a tap dancer for America, said he's going to go to the breaking champs and I was like damn I can't go because I'm performing a thing. So I didn't get to the champs till ‘98 which and it was at Brixton Academy. I was blown away. I was like, woah. This was my breakthrough, I need to do this. I don't care how old I am, I need to do this because it's something that I've always wanted to do. Going on from there I actually found a class and there was somebody teaching a class in Pineapple of all places, which is not the place you would think, but there was a guy that had stepped in called Ace who was training to be an actor, but he used to break back in New York. I think the teacher hadn’t turned up and he stepped in. So I started doing his class Pineapple, at that time there was about three of us going to this class, so I was getting full attention from the teacher and I was hooked. I think I ended up going to the Africa Centre - and I'd been to that place before for another party years before - but I didn't realise they had this weekly thing going every Saturday night. When I went there, it was just like, wow, you know, this is like, it was like being back in the 80s, in the old school. It was a club night run by a guy called Hooch - who does the champs - and there was DJs and breakers and dancers in there. I'd seen breakers over the years, because the early to mid 90s was a bit of - it was what I call the dark era - an era when nobody really did it anymore, because times had moved on and everyone was Jungle and raves. A good friend of mine, Lil’ Tim...I met Lil’ Tim during that time and a Russian guy called Marat. A few others had been around breaking and they'd also performed with Jonzi D who I went to college with, so I'd seen it going on. But it wasn't until ‘98 that I really realised, oh my god, there is a whole scene. So I started going to the Africa Centre on a Saturday night, that was a club night called Funkin’ Pussy. Then I found a few spots where people would train and and that's when I realised, yeah, actually, there is something happening here. That was London. I'm from London. That was the whole London scene and I've never really looked back. That was when I met some of the guys from Foundation Crew, they're one of the longest running London crews, so you had some of that old school, but then there was some new schoolers coming up too. I hung out with them a little bit because they took over the class at Pineapple a couple of years later and they've been there ever since. I remember going to some training spots, I think they had a training spot at The Place - they hired out London Contemporary Dance School and I remember going to that quite early on. The Urban Games was in Clapham Common and it went on to be one of the biggest events of the year in the early 2000s. I remember going to the one in ‘99 and there was not many women - this is a whole other thing - but I remember someone saying, there's a girl that does breaking and her name is Paula. I realised she was in Foundation Crew, so I met her and I felt like there was a sense of there was people around that we used to go to classes with or who we used to go to training spots with that I started to get to know. That was the beginning of a family within hip hop.
IA: The idea of generations and generational hierarchies are really present in hip hop and breaking. Could you talk a little bit about your Hip Hop and breaking lineage?
SB: Yeah. I remember meeting Pervez, he was one of the first people I met at the Africa Centre. Obviously everyone knows Pervez, he’s one of the pioneers of UK breaking. But at the time, when I first went into the Africa Centre, I just saw this guy throwing down I was like, whoa, that's dope. I said to him, you know - that's great, and he said yeah, I’ve been breaking since 1983. I remember him saying that to me when I first met him. Over that next year I just got to know people. There was another time I went into the Africa Centre and met a guy called Dolby D - I met him and I didn't actually know who he was and what he'd done. And then I got to know who this guy was and we became friends; he ended up taking me under his wing and I was lucky enough to be taught by him from ‘99 onwards up to a certain time. It was at the era where a lot of people were jumping on their hands and air flares - that sort of thing - but he was showing me the real foundation of breaking. I'm very blessed that I met him and was able to learn. At the same time I realised there was a lot of beef going on between the old school and the new school; you learned all these stories, the history. He told me a lot of the UK history, because we all look at it, as it all comes from America, but there's definitely a strong UK history within breaking. Listening to him, because he's quite animated, he talks a lot and tells stories and so I not only got a good grounding and foundation in breaking, in how to battle and how to be a B-girl, but I got history lessons and all the beef that's been going on over the years too. I learned a lot and he was my main teacher. There were other people around too; I met Renegade - Kevin, DJ Renegade - who's one of the coaches now of Soul Mavs, at that time he was on the scene, him and Dolby were really good friends, he used to come down to a training spot and he was quite prevalent at that time, doing this thing. I think he wanted to get more involved in breaking. At that time it was a bit dissipated. There was a scene, but it wasn't as organised as it is now. Over the years it's got even...if we look at the UK champs, it got more and more organised, bigger and more commercial. More sponsors, blah, blah, blah. Whereas when I went in ‘98, it was just a few battles and anyone could jump on the stage. Over the years, it's turned into this...there's actually something going on here. It got bigger. I actually ended up accidentally teaching a breaking class, because I already taught dance - so I knew how to teach and I'm a gymnastics coach too. A friend of mine asked me, Oh, can you come and teach some of the girls in my group some tricks and flips and stuff, because they want to get more involved in that. I'd been breaking for a couple years, this is about 2001, this was at Urdang in Covent Garden, after college time; she booked the space and I came in and was teaching the girls a little bit of stuff. Then more and more people started coming and it turned into this breaking class. I'd started to work out how to teach from scratch because I remember how I got taught and it ended up being this big London breaking class that happened on a Monday and a Wednesday. Dolby was there, DJ Renegade was there and more and more people started coming...dancers from other genres. It ended up being a big breaking class and a training session as well for breakers. Across the road you had Pineapple where Foundation Crew were teaching as well, so we bonded. They came into our classes sometimes when their classes finished. That all happened accidentally to be honest and I continued with that until about 2002 when I had a big injury. But that's a whole other story.
IA: In terms of your networks and the people in your orbit, who are the three people who nourish, support and feed you?
SB: Oh wow. That question is quite hard. I've got to say my long term Lindy Hop partner Temujin Gil - we still work together now, 25 years later and we've done so much together. I look at him as my mentor, but I think we've grown together as well. I've learned a lot from him, but I think he's learned a little bit from me too. He was the guy that taught me the traditional jazz and lindy hop style. But then in the hip hop world we've blended those two styles together and created something that nobody else can do. We also choreographed the opening ceremony of the Olympics together - which was a crazy, crazy, crazy time. We've done a lot. So he's definitely one of my people that will always has been and will be there. I trust him. The second person is Lil' Tim. It’s crazy because I've known Lil' Tim since around ‘95, when he did stuff with Jonzi, but he was also breaking with this other guy that I'd known before I'd met him through someone else called Marat, they went on tour with the Freestylers back in the day. Lil' Tim was the king of the re-surge; I always knew him and over the years we got much closer and he started teaching with me when my class moved to different places. I've always had a regular breaking class and I started teaching at Studio B in Brixton and I was doing it on my own. But then it was really cool, because we started hanging out more, he started coming and helping me with the class and we began teaching together. That was back in 2006/7, maybe just after. We've done a lot together as colleagues, friends and we're actually together now - which is a more personal note. That was about two and a half years ago. But as work colleagues, we've really bonded and I feel like we do a lot of stuff and we help each other. I can't think of a third person. There's so many people. I've got to say my parents, even though they're no longer with me. I lost both of them in 2017 and 2018, my mum and dad were my rock. They had to put up with me all my life in my gymnastic days - when I still wanted to do gymnastics when it was snowing - and my mum hid my shoes. I stole pair of shoes and just went. No one was there. They had to put up with my teenage years and they were both very academic. My dad was a bit of a genius and I could have been...I still could be...but all I wanted to do was throw myself around, dance, sing. That was my thing and I think they saw that. My mum got me a prospectus for Lewisham College. They realised that's where my passion was and to be honest, they supported me all the way through this - not like with money - but they were always there when I worked with Temujin, when we first had our small dance company. They would come to all our shows. My dad would lend me his car if we're going on tour, helped me out when I hadn't got paid sometimes. I've got to say they were always there and bless them. They had to put up with my crazy lifestyle, doing what I do and what I've done in my life. It's got to be my parents.
IA: You've spoken about the 2012 Olympics and how it came about with Danny Boyle before, but I'm interested in what are your thoughts on it now? Nearly a decade later. What does it look like for you in the back of the archive?
SB: I've got very mixed emotions with the Olympics. It was one of the most amazingly big things I've ever done, or probably ever will do and I look at the footage, and I'm like, whoa, I was there. I can't believe I was there and I was also choreographing it as well, I wasn't just one of the dots, I actually helped to make this happen. I still sometimes don't quite believe that I did it and that it was real. People still ask me about all the things that happened - I mean it was a whirlwind of madness. Stories changing every day, dealing with so many people and dealing with so many different things. One great thing I will always remember is Danny Boyle. He's a legend. That guy is amazing. Obviously there was a lot of politics and this, that and the other going on. They tried to cut our section...because it was the NHS section. The powers above tried to cut our sections so many times and we had to go through a lot of stuff regarding that. So on one side it's an amazing thing. I did it. But on the other side, I do look back and when I remember it, I get this stress in my stomach, this kind of sick feeling in my stomach of like, oh my god. I used to go home and dream about beds, nurses and how many doctors...it was a mad time. I'd had to go therapy after that because it wasn't the easiest thing I've ever done. It was a challenge and it affected my mental health a little bit to be honest because it was so, so stressful. I'm the sort of person that likes to keep everyone happy. That's my role. That's me. I want to make sure that things go right and unfortunately, it wasn't always like that. So I do have some nightmares about it, my god, you know, I pissed this person off or this happened or this wasn't right. 10 years later is like...it's nearly 10 years and it's mixed emotions. The fact that I've done it is...I can't really always believe that I did that.
IA: Coming full circle with breaking coming to Paris 2024. What's your thoughts on that?
SB: Again, it's a difficult one. I think it's a good thing for the up and coming breakers...they've got something to...because I teach a lot of young people. I think having that ambition to say I can do this now, I can get to the Olympics. I was a gymnast, so that was always our thing. I was a competitive gymnast and competed for Britain once, but I started too late and I was slightly too tall. But I just loved it. I got to a certain level...but the Olympics was the pinnacle of that, it's always something to work towards. I think with breaking, you can aspire to be the world champion or the BC One champion...women didn't have BC One when I was battling, women only started battling in 2018. Can you believe that? 2018 was when BC One only had the women in it. In breaking our aspiration was, oh, I want to go to that jam and beat everyone, or I want to look good. So I think it's good now that they've got the Olympics to aspire to as well...although I'm worried that it's going to take a little bit of the soul away and the rawness of what breaking is within hip hop. I want to make sure that I keep myself and my team...keep the community going, so it's not just about the Olympics with breakers. It's also there's that sense of this is still Hip Hop, part of a culture. It's my role - or one of my roles - to keep that community and grassroots going and not be like, it's all about the Olympics. Otherwise it's just gonna end up being a cheerleading teams game. I'm quite happy so far, because I went to the GB qualifiers last Sunday and it was really nice. It's a shame more breakers didn't apply...there was 32 guys and 16 girls - maybe not even 16 girls in the end. I think there might still be a bit of stigma to it, a lot of breakers aren't sure about it. I’m hoping to see the right people there are organising it, so when it gets the Paris 2024 there's still that sense of the culture, of where it comes from and it's not just stripped away and a competitive thing with with no dance and the music's not good. I've noticed with the big - what I call the commercial competitions - I think it's because of copyright that they're not allowed to play certain types of music...which to me is ridiculous...how can you have a jam and not play James Brown? A lot of the old school DJs are saying the same. So I have mixed emotions about the Olympics, but I do think predominately it is a good thing. You've got skateboarding and BMX in there and I watched that in the summer. It was dope. The skateboarding was amazing and so hopefully it will continue like that. In my own way I’ve got to try and help to steer it so it stays true to the culture of what it's supposed to be. I understand that there's certain things you can't do when when it's becoming a sport, there's gonna be slight differences when you go to watch the Olympics to when you go to a jam down the road in Brixton - that's fair enough. If it's going to become a sport - I do think breaking is a kind of sport, it has a sport element because the way we have to train to do what we do. We are athletes - I think it's fair to give it a chance and see how it works.
IA: You said you trained as a gymnast...and the Olympics are about nationalism, they're about representing your country. Whereas Hip Hop is about representing your ends, it's hyper-local. You don't say, I'm an English breaker, you say I'm from Brixton. Do you have any thoughts about the idea of representing a flag, nationalism versus localism?
SB: I don't think that's a major problem for me. When I was out there doing my thing, I always said this is my London style. When I was in America...I spent a bit of time in Philadelphia because some guys in Illadelph Flave - another family of mine. They helped me out a lot, from 2003 right up until now. They're like my boys. They helped me a lot with regards to performance, dance, breaking...everything. Me being a Londoner, that was my identity. They'd laugh at my accent and we'd laugh at each other's ways and some of them love spending time in London; when I was out and about representing around the world, I always represented myself as...this is my London style. That rubbed off on me from Dolby; Dolby had this whole charisma of...I think he called himself cheeky cockney London style. He was a bit of a character back in the day and I tried to continue that with my...because I'm such a Londoner. So that to me, that was my identity. I think with the Olympics, there are people that are representing the UK that are not from the UK and they haven't been here that long...I'm a bit confused about that and is it kind of a stepping stone? I know there's a lot of tennis players that represent the UK, but they haven't been here for most of their life. I suppose it's an ongoing issue that's going to happen...it's nice that cats from the UK can go I'm from the UK...Kid Karam, Sunni, they're representing the UK. We've had a bit of a bad reputation over the last how many years with the UK not being that great at breaking. But now we've got some really good contenders. So I don't think it's a major issue, I think if you're going out and competing for your country, then yeah by all means, rep the UK flag, but then in the smaller jams, it does become...we had a jam a few weeks ago called It's Just Begun where I've started teaching in Brixton, it was really cool because we had people from down south, from London, people came from Newcastle and Wales, Kid Karam came down, it was nice because they were repping their crews. That works in the community and the smaller jams but if you're going out to the Olympics, BC One or the World Championships then I think it's a nice thing to rep. I don't really call it nationalism...because I grew up in Eltham, South East London. The Union Jack to me was related to skinheads and racist people because that's what I grew up with in 70s and 80s Eltham. We had the NF down the road and that was always ingrained and in the early 90s too. I think in this 20 - 25 years...there's still a lot of stuff going on...I feel like people of colour and people that are born to immigrants are able to say, I'm from the UK. We're more able to say that now, whereas before, I wouldn't have wanted to say that from my experience growing up in a very racist area...but then you see the footballers, you see people that are winning, the boxers and the runners, the UK is coming up a bit now in sports, so to me it's not such a bad thing.
IA: I was gonna ask about Philly and Illadeplh Flav? What was it that drew you out there? What were some of those exchanges?
SB: A friend of mine Kwesi...I was teaching at Urdang around 2003...Kwesi Johnson who's a dancer and used to be in Candoco, I've known him for years and he gave me a call and said, I've got this group that I'm doing some work with from Philadelphia and one of the guys who helped me with the choreography said he’s interested in teaching a class. Can he teach your class one day? I was like, yeah, by all means...so he came in as a guest teacher. I'd already seen the guys perform or rehearse because they were in the same space, so I'd met them. They'd seen my poster at Greenwich Dance and they were like, we're gonna meet this girl, because it was advertising our breaking class. We ended up meeting each other and that’s when B-boy Ghost came and taught a class at my space…it was really fun because they all...after the class we did this cypher...I was like, right, come on, everyone's gotta dance. We've all got a dance. Some of the UK guys were there and then they went in and we had a whole vibe together...from then on we started to be friends. They were living in a place in North London and they had some crazy parties...I mean they were 22 year old American guys in London for the first time. I mean, say no more. I got to know them really well. A lady called Judi McCartney - the lady that started b.supreme who leased Studio B where I was teaching that for years - brought us together and she saw that there was this potential. She brought us together and I ended up performing with them. We called ourselves Hip Hop...well, they called us Hip Hop Collective, that was the first name we had. We actually did the first year of Breakin’ Convention in 2004. So I was the only girl at the time...I think what happened was...it was 2003 and I got to know them when we were going out, we would head to the Africa Centre; at that time there was a lot of jams happening. Zoo Bar in Leicester Square was a real dance night. A couple of guys, friends of ours, they organise this club night. Regular people went in, but there was loads of dancers. I went over to Philly in 2003 and stayed with them for about about five weeks...then another girl who you've already interviewed Yami...she was there for two or three months and we got to know each other there. It's funny because we didn't really know each other before that. So it’s because of the Philly guys that me and Yami got to know each other. We were like a little family. There were two French guys, Norman and Steve - they ended up dancing for Madonna - they were always around...so there was a whole group of us. So Judi made this group called Hip Hop Collective and we went and did lecture demonstrations in schools, did Breakin’ Convention 2004 and some other tours called Heroes. I think Yami was part of a couple of those tours as well...they're my lifelong friends now to be honest. A couple of them lived in London for a while and of them has had kids with a girl from London, but they're back in Philly now. But to be honest, they taught me a lot...even though I was older than them. They showed me that actually, you should use your talents and do what you do. Don't let anyone put you down. They really helped with my confidence because I just was recovering from an injury when I met them...an injury that changed my whole breaking career. They had a big imprint on my dance career or my breaking career
IA: Could you talk about how you think about and consider your own archive? How do you document things and think about your own legacy?
SB: I'm still trying to work that out. It's weird because people now call me an OG and I'm a bit like, OK. I'm 50 years old, so I feel old, but at the same time, I think actually, I have been around for a while. When I talk about 2004, it seems like the other day, but really it's a long time ago. When I actually do think about it and look back...I was doing things when a lot of these kids weren't even born. I've got some kids in my crew that are 20/21 and they weren't even born then when I started breaking. I‘ve been thinking about it on and off over the last two years, just how people talk to me or say things to; I was lucky to be around OGs and the old school...I'm talking old school as in Dolby’s generation and I've got quite a good bond with a lot of those guys that were at Covent Garden, the original graff artists. I've been lucky enough to meet them, be around them and talk to them...I've been lucky enough to spend time with Ken Swift and Alien Ness. I don't know what it is, I never liked history at school. I don't think I even did history at school. But it’s all these stories, all these things you think of as just having fun and talking about it. But actually, it's something really important that we can't forget. I'll talk to Jonzi D, I was 16 when I went to Lewisham College in 1987 and he was 18...we got to know each other at college and I always remember seeing him over the years. I was at London Studio Centre in Kings Cross and he was at London Contemporary Dance School and we used to bump into each other. This is around the dark period of hip hop, 1991, when nobody did that anymore. This is another thing that I try to explain to the youngsters now...there was a time when you did not break because that wasn't cool, even though I wanted to. Everyone was into new jack swing and then people started going raving. I remember bumping into Jonzi D and he was still on that Hip Hop tip and I was as well. He started doing his Apricot Jam stuff and I went to watch him do Aeroplane Man...I felt like he was always holding it down, himself and Benji Reid who's up north. They were there and I feel like I was as well. But I found my place a bit later because I was in my dance company with Temujin doing Lindy Hop and trying to break - not really sure what I was doing, but I really embraced it a little bit later. My brother had all the Electro Rock records, wiki wiki, wiki, all that kind of stuff. I even used one of them for my gymnastics floor music. I used to cut it myself. Music was a big thing for me and my brother. We started listening to music at the age of like three. My dad had one of those old Robertson radios and we listened to the Top 40 on a Sunday night. My first ever album was Blondie - Parallel Lines and I remember her doing The Rapture. I just remember all these things. So in those days, it wasn't oh yeah, I'm hip hop, we just did it because our peers were doing it. I remember watching Monie Love for the first time and realising, she's English, but she's rapping in an American accent and then you had Roxanne Shante. I always used to try and rap, but dance always took over. I feel like there is a legacy there...I've got a lot of knowledge, but sometimes it's just what we were doing. Now I’m like, oh, well, actually, this is something quite special...because I was there. A lot of these things that youngsters talk about, they might say, do you see that battle online? I was like, yeah, I was there. It kind of dawns on you when you get to my age, we were there and we were doing these things. We weren't really thinking about it as this is going to be something in the future that we will talk about for years. I remember getting into that new jack swing stuff, going up West End with guys with high tops. The dress sense sort of changed too. Years later I realised, because my Philly guys were telling me, when the music changed, I think the breakers wanted to dance with girls more...so they started to dress up more. So the history that was there with me, sometimes you don't really put a finger on it until years later. You don't really pay attention to that when you are doing it...so I think a lot of this stuff is accumulating now, in my old age, in my mature years. I'm starting to feel there is a legacy there that I can talk about. I do that when I'm teaching at the uni, I teach a breaking module at UEL as part of their degree course. Who would have thought, 30 years ago, when I was doing the running man with my mates in a club somewhere up West that I'd be teaching and explaining that this is where it came from. I enjoy doing it and have been doing it for seven years, it's actually quite a refreshing thing to do because it gives me that...it keeps my head going to talk about all the stuff in the UK. I talk about the UK identity as well, which I think is important.
IA: What was the first Hip Hop theatre work that you saw?
SB: It was probably Jonzi D’s Aeroplane Man...which was so good. I loved it and I think I saw another one of his couple years later, but I can't remember the name of it. Back then I did a few performances with him as part of his hip hop theatre because I used to do a lot of tap. He brought us in as tap dancers. One thing that does stand out to me and I remember this really well is ‘98, Rennie Harris puremovement came over to London and they performed the thing Cool Heat, Urban Beat at The Peacock. It was funny because I just started...I’d only just started getting into breaking and knowing people on the scene, but I remember going and outside the theatre, they were people that I went to college with. Jonzi was there, Ace was there...loads of hip hop heads. I remember a girl from college, who I trained with at Lewisham, she was like, I'm a B-girl now, I'm gonna get into this. It was similar to what I wanted to do...but going into the theatre and watching these guys, I guess it was hip hop theatre, if you can call it that, they were doing different scenes…so you had a guy that was doing capoeira and mixing it up, you had breaking, popping, locking as well. I think they were rapping. This group of guys from America blowing the stage away and it was like, wow. It wasn't like anything you'd ever seen before...they were actually doing the real, raw, hip hop culture, but on a stage in a theatre. You didn't that much. I remember sitting in the theatre and there were white middle class people and there were people that didn't normally go to the theatre - a bunch of us hip hop, rowdy people. I remember loving it and I think I went back and saw it about three or four more times. Thinking about that, I said to Jonzi the other day, do you remember that? When we all met up at that theatre and we watched that? To me it is quite a historical time because that was near the beginning of hip hop theatre of having hip hop up on a stage. People that aren't necessarily into hip hop...enjoying it and looking at and clapping for it. That's my big stand out...I saw B-boy Banksy from Swindon and Tim too at the performance. So it's a combination of the two, but that that was a ‘98 Rennie Harris puremovement - that really stuck in my mind.
IA: Did you go to a master class with Rennie Harris?
SB: No. I'll tell you what I did do though...because I was a tap dancer. I was chatting to the guys and this is really funny. I was chatting to the guys afterwards, the American guys, Rennie Harris's guys. There was one guy called Clyde Evans, we were all outside talking and I was saying I love this show...we were just sharing what we were doing. I think I was doing handstands out on the pavement, I remember doing handstands and freezes...but then I was saying to this guy that I do tap. I'm a tap dancer and Clyde said to me, would you come and show me some tap? Because in his show was a Dutch tap dancer and I remember because I was still really into my tap then. So I went backstage and I was showing him some tap steps the next day. I think it was them same guys - because a guy called B-boy cricket is in the show - I ended up going to the UK ‘98 champs with...a couple of them guys and cricket was on the stage and he jumped in with Second to None. After that I was hanging out with him and he was going on and on about jumping on the stage with Second to None and they were battling an American crew. It was intertwined this whole period of time, watching their show, I'd started breaking and then going to the UK champs. What's funny is Clyde Evans was the mentor of Illadelph Flave...can you believe that? So when I met Illadelph Flave in 2003, I already knew Clyde and I forgot to say this...he was actually over with them for the first part of their tour. It was just a really funny sort of circle.
IA: You spoke about Temujin and Grounded Movement. I'm interested in hearing how you've blended those two styles from the original work Lindy Break to From Ragtime to Grime.
SB: Temujin and I did the whole lindy circuit...we taught the social side of lindy hop in dance camps in Sweden in the late 90s...then when I really got into breaking, we went - not our separate ways - on slightly different pathways, even though we still did work together. He started working with a few more contemporary dancers, he's also trained in contemporary and he's got his own style. I was really getting into my breaking and my hip hop...so we did a few bits together, then I started the Flowzaic thing and he helped us with choreography for that. But we came back together because we did a lot of stuff for Greenwich Dance and they wanted us to do some sort of performance...it wasn't until 2010...people don't realise that top rock, tap, lindy hop vernacular American jazz are very connected - they are all from the same root and there's a lot of steps that are similar to each other. We just started to create and it was funny because I wanted to do more breaking in our shows anyway...we brainstormed and it just happened naturally, we started creating like a lindy hop piece that had the elements of breaking, top rock and tap in it. Temujin is quite an agile person and he can actually break a little...he still gets down to the floor and he can do stuff...so we ended up with this piece and decided to call it Lindy Break. He loves Dreadzone’s music...which I didn't know enough about...but when he started playing it, I was like whoa, this music’s dope, so we chose one of the tracks, came out with this piece and performed it at Greenwich Dance. We didn't actually do it that many times...we've performed it at the Big Dance Bus a couple of times, then we did it once for a PhD event, we did it at Breakin’ Convention. What year was that? That was after the Olympics, that was the beginning of new venture Grounded Movement, bringing in those styles that we've both been doing for many years. It happened organically...it wasn't like we're saying, we're going to mix contemporary with breaking and we're going to put ballet in this. We both had 20 years experience of doing these these dances and it happened naturally. Then we did the Olympics and I think from doing that and bringing in so many dancers together...we literally went through the phone book - old school style - brought all the people that we haven't worked with for years, that we'd met...our team was people that we've known Temujin was in the Jiving Lindy Hoppers. I’m in the breaking scene and we bought all these professional dancers together for the Olympics, so we were like...we've got to continue this. So we got a group together and decided to call it Grounded Movement, that was my suggestion, because Temujin always says grounded when he's teaching. Get down, get grounded. So that's where that word came from. I think it was the 2013 Breakin’ Convention - which was their 10 year anniversary - we brought a piece together which had a couple of tap dancers, we did a bit of lindy breaking and brought those worlds together on stage. That was a nice way of beginning our venture together. I was starting to teach my breaking class and I had a whole influx of younger people at that time...so I decided to create a crew because Flowzaic was not sort of Flowzaic anymore because everyone was off doing their own things. I decided to create crew and I called it Grounded UK - well Grounded. The reason I've called it Grounded UK is because there's a Grounded in Sweden. I met one of the guys and I was judging at a competition...one of the other judges or dancers was from a crew called Grounded. I was like oh shit and said to him, I've got a group called Grounded and he said that's fine... but I called it Grounded UK and I think they're OK with it. That was the beginnings of the crew Grounded UK which is still going - it's myself and Lil' Tim, a venture that we've got with young people in it. A lot of them are off...one or two of them are at uni now, they're 21. They're at UEL, he was actually in my class this year. Since then, my first love...I've always been a wannabe rapper/singer. That's what I really wanted to be in the first place. I've written songs and all that over the years and I noticed a lot of people were doing spoken word...or whatever you want to call it. I've always had this dream of doing rapping and dancing, it's something that I've wanted to do, but I never really had the chance to do it. So over the last eight years, the projects that myself and Temujin have gone into, we've started to add that element in. From Ragtime to Grime - I'm trying to think about when we started talking about it - probably about six or seven years ago and we're still we're still working on it now. When we started off it was gonna be about Christmas, Scrooge and A Christmas Carol - somebody who doesn't look back in the past and only talks about the future, they don’t recognise the past and their history. We'd done a lot of projects where we've learned about the old jazz dancers, we’ve actually met and danced with some of the old jazz dancers - Tem especially - he's met a lot of them...a lot of them are not with us anymore. For example, Frankie Manning, who was one of the original Lindy Hoppers who choreographed that Hellzapoppin’ section that everyone watches. I was lucky enough to dance with him. We got to spend time with him - so that history has always been there. Recognising where a lot of these dance forms have come from has always been in myself and Temujin’s minds. I feel like we've wanted to express that in our work...when you watch Strictly and you watch some of these TV dance shows I just say where's the recognition of where these dances come from? You've got to remember your foundations. I feel like over the last 15 years, I've seen a lot of street dance crews that have come and done stuff. They've got lightsabres, the breaking section, the locking section...but they haven't really done their research. I'm not knocking anyone. I'm saying that everything's evolved and the street dance movement is an amalgamation of what came before. But for myself and Temujin we always believe that it's really important to recognise your roots. Sometimes I hear the up to date rappers, grime artists or drill artists saying, this is not hip hop...but what they're doing for me is UK hip hop. They can call it grime, they can call it drill. Don't throw away your roots, this came from your ancestors, they built this identity for you. So Solid Crew - that was the first time I realised we've got a UK identity...because before we’d always copied America. We have to recognise that a lot of these dance forms that we're doing, did start in America, because of - going right back - two cultures coming together. That's how jazz started. It’s all these things that we've talked about for years and seeing people teaching lindy hop or breaking and not recognising the culture and where it comes from. It's quite frustrating. One of the things that we were trying to bring across in From Ragtime to Grime is about young people not recognising what came before. We have characters in the piece like Selfie and Blackout. People who were angry about certain things, but what are they really angry about? Do they really understand what they're angry about? I think that's why it's important to know the history. We realised that we're a good combination when it comes to writing. Temujin is a bit like Elton John and I’m his counterpart...what was the other guy called?
IA: Bernie Taupin?
SB: Yeah. He writes all the songs and Elton puts it into a musical form. They've been doing that for over 30 years. Tem's really good at writing. He writes, sometimes he overwrites and he'll come out with these words...then he'll give it to me and I'll put it into rhyme form. We've realised this is a way of working that really works for us That's why, at the time, I didn't mind stepping into more of a rapping role. I'm getting a bit older now and it's harder to dance and throw myself around. So From Ragtime to Grime is an amalgamation of these stories of young people not recognising what has come before us. We were lucky enough to work with Ty - who unfortunately passed away back in 2018 - he wrote...Temujin sent him some stuff, his version, and then Ty would put it into this rhyme form, which I then delivered. I tweaked it a bit and made it how I wanted it to be - which he was fine about - because he saw one of our R and D projects. We're going to make it into a bigger because we’ve just been doing extracts this last year or so...we're hopefully going to get another funding application and try to build on it. I'm stepping into a slightly different role. On the mic which I like it. I love being on a mic. I've always wanted to do that, but I didn't realise until we were doing b.supreme. Judi McCartney who started b.supreme, her daughter Holly it took over and wanted to do a women in hip hop festival. I think she got a bit sick of dealing with arrogant young B-boys. Can I say that? She said it was so male dominated and felt like look at these women around that are so talented. So she said in 2004/5, I'm going to do a women in hip hop festival and came to me and said...can you make a dance company? She said to me and Yami, can you get a group of girls together and make a crew? That's why we did it...I never wanted to be a crew of all girls, I was quite happy to be with guys. But she came to me and Yami and said can you do that? So we did and she created b.supreme which was quite a successful event over a few years at the South Bank and Purcell Rooms. There was a time when I was part of the dance, I was doing all the dancing and helping organise it...then at one point she said, do you want to get on the mic? I think you'll be quite good at emceeing...because I sort of do it when I'm teaching and I've done a few events with Temujin where I've been on the mic. So I became the MC of b.supreme and kept doing it over the years. I really enjoy that and would like to MC more breaking events actually.
IA: This segue nicely...you hosted Kings and Queens of the Cobblestones earlier this year, you MCed a b.supreme event in 2010, you've done some VR battle hosting during lockdown as well. However, it's still quite rare for anyone who isn't a man to host/MC events. Could you talk a little bit about that and some of your experiences as the host/MC?
SB: I realised as a host, as an MC, you've got to know what the hell's going on. You have to part of everything...so over the years, especially when you're organising battles...that's why Jonzi brought me in to do the Covent Garden one...he had Dolby on the mic too...a lot of the old school guys and judges haven't really done the organisation of battles. Jonzi even said he's never really organised a battle, he’s always done Hip Hop theatre, which was like...yeah, that makes sense and so I helped out with the organisation of the battles. Being an MC for battle events, you've really got to be on top of things. You've got to know what's going on, in touch with the DJ, in touch with the judges, the dancers...make the notes of who's gone through, how long they've got left in their round. I've been hosting and I've got my clipboard, my timer, my pen and I'm on the mic as well. I'm doing all of those things at the same time...but not everyone knows how to do it. I've had to do a crash courses in it and it's just happened as I've gone along. I got a lot of inspiration from Kimberly J...she was always at Jump Off when Jump Off used to happen back in the day. There was a big battle event scene in the early 2000s and Kimberly J was on the mic. It's good to see a woman up there doing it...I ended up working with her quite a lot over the years. There was a guy called Charlie...have you ever heard about Throwdown? It was a big battle event that happened over 10 years at plan B in Brixton...that was another that we really miss as a scene, as a culture...I think that event brought all the London dancers together. It was called Thursday Night Throwdown and it happened once a month, over 10 years. Then Donna D, who's an old school DJ, but also B-girl as well, she started Throwdown, but then Charlie ended up being the main host. Charlie Blue was like...how do you explain him? I worked with him a lot over the years and he really inspired me. He's a straight guy, but he was quite camp and he cared. He used to wear pink, he's a Buddhist and is easily the nicest guy you'll ever meet. But he has the quickest brain you've ever heard. He's like Eminem...but he's more white middle class. He's so intelligent and would be on the mic and sometimes somebody would say rap about this, and he could do it. Not only was he was a dope rapper, but he was a really good host. And he had to put up with all the B-boys and dancers when they're moaning or whatever...I was really inspired by Charlie as well. I learned a lot from both of them, Charlie, and Kimberly. When I started doing more MCing, sometimes it didn't always go to plan...in fact, most Hip Hop jams don't go to plan, so you've not only got to be flexible, you've got to ad lib as well. MCing for battles is probably the thing that I like to do the most...I’ve been bought into MC theatre shows, which is cool as well, but that's another side of it. If things go wrong, you've got no...you've got to read it in a sense, you've got to be a bit of a stand up comedian, I know how a stand up comedian can feel sometimes. I mean, that's got to be the hardest thing on earth. When you're on the mic everyone comes to you. Can I do this? Can I put my name down? I’m trying to do 10 things at the same time and they'll come to you because you're the one on the mic, they won't go to the organiser. Or if anything goes wrong, they'll come to you...so it's about having so many different hats on. I really enjoy it and would like to do more in the breaking scene; I feel it’s still a very male dominated side in the breaking scene...they’re not really bringing many women in to do that role. I'm trying to push a little bit, but not too hard. I want to do it, but I don't want to force myself into it. If people want me to come and do it, then I will.
IA: What do you want to dismantle in Hip Hop?
SB: Oh wow. That's a question. Dismantle. I think some people's perspective on what hip hop is. I do still feel that. We're all in our own world and we're part of this thing...I live this, even though I live a normal life. I'm around mainly hip hop people or people that are into what I do. Obviously I know people that aren't...but I feel that the word Hip Hop still scares a lot of people, people look at it and they're like, what is hip hop? They still think it's associated with violence and guns and cars and girls shaking their booties. Sometimes watching Cardi B and Nicki Minaj I can see why people still think that...because there is still that sort of thing about. If you're into hip hop, you're going to be a gangster. I mean, honestly, my kids say that sometimes and I have to correct them. But I hear people saying that, normal people, Joe Public saying they're not too sure about this whole...it's a hard one. Somebody said something to me once which really made sense...Rokafella, B-girl Rokafella...she's one of my mentors. I love that lady. She said Hip Hop is like the branches of a tree. There's so many ways you can go and if you look back and see where where it came from, there was oppression, there was people that didn't fit in and there's people doing bad things, fighting and whatever. But it's a positive thing that came out of a not so good thing. To me it's a little bit like jazz. These two cultures coming together for a really bad reason became something that people could aspire to. But I think there's so many things to dismantle...there's so many good things about hip hop, but there's a few not so good things, but I think that has to happen, because that's life and life is not perfect. I'm not always keen on the whole...I'm not a feminist or anything like that. I've always gone with guys and I've been around boys all my life. I didn't go into breaking saying, I'm a woman, I can't do this, this and this. It's only now with all the talk of #MeToo when I look back and I think of certain things...and I think actually there are challenges for women and it's not something that I've always worry about or deal with...because I knew I was good and I could do things that men could do. So no one could tell me nothing. That's that was my mentality. I do see there are hold backs for women. Sometimes the older generation of UK hip hop can still be quite sexist without realising it...because it's in the way they've been conditioned. That's one thing I would like to question and challenge to see where where we could make things better. But it's going to be hard because it's something that men have been conditioned with all their life. A lot of these old generation, they're in their 50s now and it’s a shame that they’re passing this sexism on...I can't think of the right word for that...to some of the younger generation. I'm a bit worried about that. It's a hard question and I'm trying to think about anything else in hip hop that I would like to dismantle. Sometimes people in the scene...we're all like, oh yeah, because we're hip hop, we're all family and we're all together, we're all friends...it’s not actually like that. I know we're trying, but everyone disagrees and that's part of it. I suppose it's like being in the Houses of Parliament. You're always going to have a drawback, you're always going to have difficulties and I think sometimes people don't want to address that. I try to teach and try to preach that hip hop is a peaceful thing...it should be a peaceful thing and it's about people expressing themselves and coming together. But expressing yourself isn’t always a nice thing, sometimes you've got to express yourself in other ways and that then becomes toxic within our scene. That's another thing I would like to try and dismantle. I'm a real democrat...I like to bring people together, that's why myself and Lil' Tim, we like the peace. Obviously I can be fiery and battle and I like that, but when it comes to people talking about people, people pushing people out or eradicating history, then I'm not happy. One thing I would like to change is I hope that people can recognise what has come before and not try to be a god in their own right and be it's all about them. It's not a one person thing. It's a team thing, everyone's got something to give and I think that's why hip hop has carried on because it wasn't just about one person dictating, it was about a collective of people coming together. I think that's so important.
IA: In the news and media there is a lot about climate change, environmentalism and sustainability. What are your thoughts on degrowth or slowness - not being more faster, bigger, better. How might that manifest in Hip Hop, breaking and your practice?
SB: It's funny you say that because I feel like the younger generation - especially because of social media and technology - people want everything now, they don't want to put the work in. That's one of the differences between my generation and a younger generation, they've been lucky enough to get everything on a plate in front of them...if they want to learn breaking, they can go to a class, you've got people like me teaching this, this and this, there’s YouTube. This amazing thing that has grown over 40 years. I feel like a lot of that generation want things so quickly and they don't take the time that we had to. That's why a lot of the time they can do a routine, they want to do a routine and be done with it. Go do a class, do a routine, move really quickly and then go home. That's not how it works with with these styles that we do. You know? It takes years to learn and nurture. You need that time and space to get it into your body. You can't come to a breaking class once and learn it. That ain't gonna happen. It's the same with lindy hop. I did a five week course in lindy hop recently and I said I’m teaching a tiny bit of icing on the cake here. The person that brought me in said, maybe you could do some air steps with them...that's not going to happen, because they need to learn the form and where it comes from and they're only doing five weeks of an hour and a half. You can't learn this massive dance form in that amount of time. They've got an understanding of it, a beginning...I do notice that my younger counterparts want things to happen really quickly. It's up to us to make sure that they actually take that time and spend that time...I suppose that's where degrowth comes in. Sometimes in life, especially in London, we're rushing about, everything's happening so quickly and you don't get that time to step back and say, actually, we need, it needs, this needs to take time. The mentality of each generation is getting worse and we've noticed that at uni...from when I started in 2015 to now, a lot of these students will come, might come, to one or two classes...you've got an opportunity to learn a real style and they should be every single class. We just didn't have that back in those days, we were finding it ourselves and not even realising what we were doing. I was teaching dance in the early to mid 90s and doing a hip hop routine, I didn't know what I was teaching, but I was teaching what I loved to do. Now I look back and go I was teaching a street dance class. Being patient is a thing that us older ones need to keep relating back to the youngers. That's degrowth. I'm also a great believer in pen and paper. I didn't get email till 2005 and it's not because I'm old. Technology can sometimes crash and burn. If you've got a pen and paper, sometimes it’s saved the day, you know. Whereas Tim, everything is on devices, he says why don't you do that? Why are you writing it down? I've always had this thing in my head that it's not just about computers and technology or having the latest phone. Why is there an iPhone 13? It's ridiculous. I love the old Nokia...still got my old Nokia. I will go with the flow because I have to, because of my job, but at the same time I've got a strong feeling on that and it is related to the environment. We don't need all these things...I'd like to be a bit of an activist or advocate but I'm not sure how. I guess with hip hop, when I'm teaching my classes or putting it out there I always take my time on things. So I think one of my forte's in teaching is breaking things down...I've got that from Temujin...when I'm teaching a breaking class I don't assume that - I've seen other people teach breaking and they say, right, let's do this, move on - how are they supposed to know what that move is, when they've never been to a breaking class. You have to break things down and say, get into B-boy crouch. That's the first thing you got to do before you even do any footwork. I've tried to guide some of my counterparts when when I see them teaching it too quickly. Maybe sometimes I'm too slow, but I like to make sure that people are looking after their bodies as well so that they're going to still be doing it when they're 30+. I'm still doing it at 50. That's my job, to be able to pass that on to the younger people. I'm not a purist, I understand that...when I first started and met the Electric Boogaloos, I loved them guys - they're like my mentors as well - and I've done a lot with Suga Pop and Popin' Pete and Wiggles and Tony Go Go. they were real advocates for foundation and history. I know people are always arguing online but I always said, I'm not a purist and you need to evolve, but you have to have your foundation. When I'm dealing with young people, of course they need to evolve, they need to do something that feels like it's theirs. I'm not going to force...that's not how breakers are and that's not what we do. The younger generation are going to evolve and change it. There's certain things...OK, at the moment a lot of breakers don't dress fresh. They don't dress like they just got out of bed...to me this is a real big thing - hip hop style, how you dress - not necessarily the most expensive clothes, but colours, colour coordination and looking good. Some B-boys are going against that moment, on purpose. I find that really annoying because it's like, you're amazing breaker, but you look rubbish. What are you wearing? People like Pervez, and even the next generation in their late 30s we've got something here and we've got a pass our knowledge down. I feel like I have got a job to do so it doesn't turn into this commercial venture of a cheerleading show. It's not just a show, it’s a culture.
IA: You’ve mentioned teaching a lot and it's a massive part of your practice, that sharing of knowledge. Recently, your work on The Spirit of the Estate programme, with the Freestylers. Can you talk a little bit about what you've been doing?
SB: Yeah. The Spirit of the Estate, I really enjoyed that. Myself and Temujin did another project just before that called Hopes and Dreams with Greenwich Dance...it was project where we did similar things, we did wordplay as well as movement. We used a bit of that with The Spirit of the Estate...it was about the young people coming up with what they enjoy. We give them a word - school - and then we get them to write as many words as they can, word association, that reminds them of school. One of them said coffee breath...over the weeks we worked in three different estates in Norwood. It was a challenge, because you can't get some of these kids to come, sometimes we had to be out trying to find them. The lady who curates it, Noreen, she's amazing, she the director of the Crystal Palace festival and she was on that role trying to get people involved...we ended up getting kids from most of these states, but one of the main estates Kingswood. They were amazing and their parents were really...we were in this shop during the sessions, it's on the estate and you've got people walking past, one of them lives across the road. We had to go out and find so and so because he hasn't come today. It's that kind of thing. We did a launch show in middle of this estate and everyone was there. Sometimes the community police were there. In one of the estates, I think a young kid had been stabbed the year before...we had the whole estate stay out there, we had a DJ, we performed and did word association with the crowd. It was one of the most satisfying projects I've done. It was amazing because I felt like we were doing what we love to do. We were doing our work, we were sharing our knowledge with young people who wouldn't normally get that opportunity to do these kinds of things. There's not that much going on for everyone around them areas still. It was really great to see them up on stage, enjoying it and doing their thing and watching us perform an extract of From Ragtime to Grime at all the estates. That was interesting because it's quite a deep piece and we touch on a lot of issues, gangs, racism, what was going on in America. I would say a few things that's quite - not controversial - but you know, so it was great seeing everybody's reaction to that. The Freestylers. I love these guys. So. When I used to work at Studio B there was a class going on before. A lady called Andrea who works... she’s done a lot of stuff with SEN, they call it neurodiversity now. I used to see them there and they got Tim into teach them a couple of times, but I know one of the guys in there, he's 33. I can't believe it. I've known this kid since he was 19. He’s called DJ. Everybody knows him, because he's been everywhere. He's been at Breakin’ Convention and he's like, louder than me. He's like talks to everyone. Studio B's studio had closed and we hadn't seen each other for ages me...but this girl, Andrea, contacted me earlier this year and said, are you interested in working with a group called The Freestylers that a guy called Roly has put together off the back of a couple of different organisations. They're all neurodiverse people and I would say the youngest is 20 and the age group goes up a bit. There's their supporters there as well. I touched base with the Roly and came down to one of the classes they were running out Siobhan Davis and he explained to me that him and his counterpart, Francis, who's a guy with down syndrome - this guy's one of the most amazing dancers you've ever seen, he is a character - Francis is the funniest guy and he can dance. He said that him and Francis decided to put this group together called The Freestylers. I laugh because the freestylers was the group that Tim toured with like 20 years ago. So Roly used to break in Birmingham for a few years, so he knows the breaking scene a little bit, and I went to one of their classes and it was one of the greatest things. It was like a class, but it wasn't a class, it was like...he puts the music on and we just dance. He goes to different people and says have you got an idea, so somebody might do a little thing where they get people to dance at certain times, or do their own choreography, or whatever. It's not choreographed, hence why it's called The Freestylers. I think I did a cypher with them, got them going and I did a soul train with them as well. They got back to me after that class and they said they want you to be part of this. So I've got this job and it's been amazing. It's been like a breath of fresh air...because sometimes being in the hip hop scene and dealing with all the stuff that's going on at the moment, it can get quite challenging and toxic. But being around these guys, it is the most wonderful thing, because it's just about dancing and expressing yourself...to me, that's what hip hop is about. I did seven sessions over the summer and then we've done a tour. I've been to Glasgow with them a couple of weeks ago, I went to Glasgow with DJ and Roly the week before and did a workshop. We recruited some people and got them to perform with us and a couple of them came to the show the week after and did the show with us. We're going to Newcastle this weekend to do two more shows there. It's been a really nice project to do, and to keep doing, because sometimes in my career or my time of life, I've felt like giving it all up. You get to those points and you're...I'm the sort of person that likes to do different things. That's why I didn't really audition for West End musicals...I did in my early years...but then I thought to myself, I don't think I could do the same thing every day for two or three years. I did pantomime...the only pantomime I've ever done was in 2014 and I played the hip hop cat in Jack and the Beanstalk. I did 36 shows over that period and it was like Groundhog Day. I don't think I could do that. I like to be versatile and do different things. I like to have a few organised things that I know I've got, but then I like to do different things and this is something that's come up, out of blue, and I've been involved in it. It's actually brought back some joy into my life lately. I've learned a lot from them as well, about how and when we work with neurodiverse people. It's dawned on me that actually, we're all going through things in some way or other, especially with COVID and everything that's happened. We've all got some sort of mental health issues, we've all got needs and I've learned a hell of a lot from these guys.
IA: Is there anything that you want to talk about that you've not spoken about that you want recording or putting down? It might be a memory, an event, a person...
SB: I guess I wouldn't mind talking about the injury that happened to me in 2002 at Urdang - where I was teaching the class that I told you about - I was at the point where I was ready to conquer the world as a breaker. I was really fit and ready to go...I’d come back from Freestyle Session in America where I'd seen some of the girls coming out and doing their stuff. I was like, I hadn't quite come out yet, if that makes sense. I was ready and then at the end of the class, when we were having a little cypher, the guy that I was teaching with, decided to jump over me when I was upside down in a handstand...for no reason. He landed on top of me and my elbow dislocated completely...and went out in front of my whole class, in front of my teacher Dolby and in front of Renegade. I'm lying on the floor with my elbow hanging out and that one second completely messed up my breaking career. It was not only having to get my my arm back - it will never go straight - I had to have keyhole surgery a year later. People were arguing around me, because this guy did it to me. People weren't happy. I didn't have insurance and I ended up having to borrow money from my mum and dad and my friend to go to physio. I was nearly 30 by then and being told by the doctors, you're 30 years old, why are you breakdancing? The stress of it, my tool got...my dance got taken away from me. 20 years of work, of training, got taken away from me in that one second...having to deal with that mentally, physically. 18 years later, I still suffer from it. I watch and I'm like, I could have done this, this and this. And I didn't. I couldn't. However hard I tried, I went Rocky training and tried to come back - and I did come back to a certain extent - I still got on the world stage and did stuff but I never did what I wanted to do as a breaker. That was a hard time, a challenging time in my life. But maybe it’s a blessing in disguise, I suppose I learned a lot from that. I learned how to do different things, because I was really good on my hands and upside down and doing like a lot of power moves, I met the guys in Philly and I had to change the way I danced. I had to mention that because that's something that I feel very strongly about, especially when I watch battles and I see people jumping over people. You can't mess with your bodies like that. I'm very, very, very particular and careful about when I see people doing partner work or doing routines, I'm really on that as well. If I see someone touching in a battle or pushing or doing something really stupid - it's really important not to do that.
IA: An entirely different part of your history. Take That. You're in there as a rapper and a dancer, Robbie is leaving and you rewrote some lyrics. Tell me about that.
SB: What a madness. ‘95. I was with Temujin Dance Company, we’d just got a gig at Edinburgh Festival through a guy and I get a phone call from my mate, Kevin Mathurin - who's actually in Emmerdale now - who I went to college with. He called me at my boyfriends house in Shepherds Bush, he must have got the number from my mum. This is back in the days of landlines...he called me and said there's a group and they're looking for a rapper that can dance. At college I used to be the rapper...everyone used to call me Susie Q Biz Markie. Everyone knew me as this girl that can rap a little bit and I was like, alright. I had to call this dude. I think he was the choreographer, Kim Gavin. I remember calling him from a phone box. He said come down and see me and give me some of your lyrics and do a rap. So, I went down to see him and I had to rap to him, it was quite a hardcore rap and to be honest, I was not into boy bands. This is ‘95 man, it's all different now. Take That - I knew who they were, but I was really not...so I did this rap to him, he said come back on May 1st - I remember that date - come back with something a bit more...low key, probably with no swearing or bad words, or a bit more positive. I had to go to this cattle market audition - you know these auditions - where they make you line up, or they make you do this ridiculous routine and there's a million girls there...and one guy. I remember I had to go through that whole rigmarole, doing the whole routine and I remember Jason Orange was there actually, he was there sitting on a panel. I'd asked my friend which one was which, and she told me the wrong person. So I thought Robbie was Jason...when I met Robbie...anyway, in this audition, they lined us all up and because he knew I was a rapper, he said can you rap to this? I said, can I rap to my own music? So I did this whole rendition of Ladies First, which I thought would be quite a nice one and then in the middle, I did like a back flip and a little dance break. Jason Orange was quite impressed and he said I was really good. I went away and they didn't give me an answer...it went on for a while and then I ended up going up to Hull because I was working with Temujin Dance Company and I was in Hull living in this student house where we were rehearsing. I had to go to the phone box and keep calling this guy saying Am I doing it or not? Then they asked me to come to Gary Barlow's house in Manchester, so I'm in Hull and had to get a train to Manchester...then this chauffeur picked me up and took me to Gary Barlow's house. I remember seeing fans sleeping outside his house. What the hell? I went into this house and there was a butler...I went into this room and it was the most amazing room with piano, keyboards and an acoustic guitar - a music room. Then Gary comes in and he's with this girl, I think it’s his girlfriend before Dawn and he was really nice and friendly. Then the butler asked me what I wanted to drink. It was the craziest time. Then Robbie Williams came in...he had blonde hair at a time and his mum was with him. He was moaning about the fans are cussing me because I've dyed my hair blonde and then he started talking to me, saying Where are you from? I said, I'm from London, but I'm living in Hull. I actually had got a bit confused because I thought he was Jason. I'd said to my friend, who was a Take That fan, what are their names? Anyway, so I had to ask what Robbie Williams name was. Anyway, we were talking and he was like, I've written this rap, but they wanted me to record my voice, so I recorded my voice on this thing and then they’d go away and decide what to do. A few weeks went by and I'm still up there rehearsing in Hull. I'm like...am I getting that job? Am I doing this? Because if I was going to do the job, I would have had to leave the dance company. So I was going through this pressure of like and then they told me, I've got it. I've got the job. But you've got to do this, this, this. We had to find another dancer...so I went up to do the first leg of the rehearsal in Stoke on Trent in a military base. Because Take That were the biggest group around and the fans were...they would always find them, so they had to do in a military base. This was the hip hop section, there was five dancers and myself rapping. We got to meet the group and I was talking to Robbie on the first day - this is the morning of the day he walked out - this is just after he'd gone to Glastonbury. You know he done that whole thing with Oasis...I don't know...he was telling me how many gin and tonics he dropped the night before and then said, I've written this rap. He handed me this piece of paper with this rap, it was meant to be a duet type rap. Boys versus girls. So we're doing this dance face off sort of thing with the girls and the guys - it was sort of a Snoop Dogg type track - but they added their own thing in. Lunchtime came, we all went out to lunch and when we came back I remember one of the choreographers said to us, Robbie’s left, he’s walked out. Something's happened. So we went back in, and they were acting like nothing had happened and we'd already started working on the dance routine and where I'm going to do the rap. We’d just started working a dance routine, but the rap bit hadn’t started on yet. I went we went back in and no one was standing there. Robbie wasn't there. Kim Gavin came over and said you're going to have to do to rap on your own now. I was like, OK. I said to the guy, where's Robbie did? And he said, he’s gone to phone, his dad's. They took me to this room and said can you rewrite these lyrics to make it just you? So rather than me saying to Robbie in the rap, I've got to do it, as I'm saying it to the whole group. I had to rewrite the lyrics and I literally did it there and then in front of this guy. I had to do it on my own. It wasn't until the Monday that it all came out - this was a Thursday - in the newspapers. But they said to us that Thursday afternoon, thank you guys for not saying anything. We had a feeling that it was that something's going on. Anyway, it all came out on Monday and we did the tour without him. It was interesting and the biggest buzz I've ever felt in my entire life. They weren't cheering for us, but that first day of the first tour we're in London - we did London and Manchester - no, we did Manchester first and I've never heard that amount of noise, screams. I'll never forget that. That was a real experience. After the whole tour happened, and it was all over, they sent us a letter saying, we might do a tour in February - this was August - and then they came out with their last song and then they broke up. But on their last song, on their CD, I was told I was on it. I bumped into one of the dancers a couple of months later, and they said, I've heard you on a CD, you should go and check it out. And I'm actually on their CD, rapping. They recorded the live tour and I'm on there. So they've got their little Bee Gees song that they did as a foursome and then they put me on that CD. I've got the CD, I've got it here. This girl said to me, you should do something about it because your name's not on it. Your name’s not credited. So I got it, listened to it and I asked my cousin who was studying law and I said, have I got a case here? Could I do something? He said, Yeah. It took years...but I went to a solicitor and this woman sat on this case for years. Then I met another girl who was in the singing business and she introduced me to her boyfriend at the time, who is a music solicitor and he said, you've got a case here. Two years later, I've got something like 10 grand. I got less than my solicitor. But in those two years interim, The Sun called me and asked me if there was any animosity between me and the group. I said, not at all. Apparently Gary Barlow had been moaning about, she's suing us for not putting her name down. Then funnily enough, my friend who was a stripper who was in a lap dancing thing...should I be saying this? I can’t say who that involves. However, I saw Jason - not at the strip club - I really got on with Jason, he was a real dude man. He was a really nice guy and gave me a lift home during rehearsals in his open top Cadillac. He gave me a lift to the station in Manchester and was really nice guy. I realised years later he was one of the top breakers, but I realised that after I'd worked with them. I remember him and Howard used to do their breaking routines and I tried copy them. I used to try and do what they're doing. Years later I realised he was in Street Machine with Evo. I went to watch him in a two man show - because he went into acting - this was when I was starting to go to select a solicitor, sorting out the case of that and he apparently knew about it because somebody had told him about. He said, you won't get much money out of it anyway. The thing is, it's not something that I tend to do, I don't go around suing people. But it just happened, they recorded me, I’m out there, they're making money off that CD. I realised how cut throat the music business was and I think it put me off actually, because I did want to be in the music business. More so than a dancer...working with them was a really good experience and being on a mic and rapping live every night. I'm not that pushy, I'm not one of those people that pushes myself forward for things, I'll stand back a bit...now in hindsight, I should have got in there when I could, I could have got a step in the door. But it's just me. I loved the guys, the guys were amazing. I think their manager was a bit...he didn't talk to any of the dancers during that tour. I'm quite a down to earth person and I didn't feel the vibe was that great in that commercial side of things. I think that's why I went more into breaking...the hip hop scene seemed way more friendly and more positive at the time.
IA: This year, COVID, lots of grief, lots of anxiety that's really real, it’s heavy for a lot of people. So as an inversion to that, what are some of the kindnesses that you've received through Hip Hop?
SB: What was interesting was...I'd been saying I need to take some time off, I need to take a term off of teaching. And then COVID happened. It was funny because I got a natural break. I know it’s a bad, bad thing and I actually got ill at the beginning of lockdown - I had a chest infection really bad. It wasn't COVID, I don't think it was anyway. That knocked me off a little bit, but having that time out really helped. I realised the work that I was doing with kids, sometimes it gets monotonous because you go in and you do the same thing over and over again, you teach for years and I realised that they really missed it. I had a lot of parents say, we're really missing it, when are we going to start again? Obviously it was unpredictable what was going to happen over COVID - we thought it was going to stop after six weeks, then we went on for like nearly a year - that was an interesting thing, I felt like I was needed and wanted, what I'm doing means something. You know, you go day in day out, struggling, I'm not really making any money, in fact a lot of the time I'm paying to do my own classes...but I'm doing it because I want to pass my knowledge down. It's one of those things that I've kept pushing to do, even though I lost money - a considerable amount - over the years. I think having a timeout gave me time to step back, I don't think we’ll do that again in our lifetime. This is something that's never going to happen again and the fact that we had to live it...I would never have taken a term off. Because that's just me. So actually having it forced on me was quite positive on my side, because it made me do things that I needed to do that I hadn't done for years. It gave me time to think, it gave me a rest. It put a bit of pressure on my relationship with Tim, as we weren't living together, so it was quite hard to combine people, because you don't get to see a lot of people...but I had to learn how to use Zoom and how to do technical things. That was a good thing. Some of the projects that were coming up with Temujin we had to do online instead. We had to change the way we're doing it and I ended up doing more spoken word or rap stuff and I was recording my voice. I also felt like, it's a weird thing, because I hadn't been going to so many jams, running up to lock down, I think I'd taken a step back a little bit - losing my parents as well, I was still grieving - I think I wasn't so much in the scene as such. But I I got more involved in the scene during lockdown. One of the reasons is a guy called Ed, who runs something called Ground Zero. He started it during lockdown and I was part of that and so is Tim. I hosted and Tim was the judge. We did loads of events and projects with Ground Zero and it was all online. We did battles, went into people's lives in different countries and I actually got to see people that hadn't seen for years. Online. I got to know who's around, who's battling and what breakers are out there here. Sometimes when you step out, you don't always feel part of that. So to me, it was a real eye opener, because I felt a new scene had begun. Even since lockdown. I feel like there's a new a community, we're all trying to bring it together. There's some guys from a group called Epic Jam, a guy called Savan who's trying to bring the community together in London. I feel like there were a few pros to lock down because I felt like it brought me closer to the breaking and hip hop community. I was asked to judge for Break Mission which I was really happy about because I feel like I'm not utilised enough as a judge. That has to do with politics and a lot of things that's happened over the years...and Tim, we both feel like that. I felt like because I was asked to judge a big competition alongside B-boy Mouse and B-boy Machine who are two people that I know quite well…I've known Mouse for years, I felt like actually, I am part of this scene and I am useful. I don't know how to say it, but somebody that means something to the scene. I feel like having contact with the guys from Epic Jam - they've asked me to be part of a team, a part of the Epic family - it's kind of brought me back to life. I've been on the scene for a long time, you have your lows and you have your highs, but I feel like this last year and a half I feel like there's a community and we're starting to come together again, as we should be. That's one of the good things in hip hop that we've got to make the most of.
IA: What is your strongest memory of dance?
SB: Oh my god. My strongest memory Oh, wow, that's a hard one. I've got so many. I suppose if I go way, way back to my gymnastic years, remembering...there was a guy in gymnastics called Tony who used to come and train. He was a real character. He still is, he still trains and he's in his 60s I think. He was sort of doing a...this dance routine. I wouldn't call it locking now, maybe back in those days I thought it was locking. it was a UK version...I used to always copy his routines and he used to teach me. We used to do it in the mirror. To me, that's a real strong memory because that's what I loved to do. It was me, going with my passion and feeling that in the gym. We were training as gymnasts but I used to love creating my own floor routines and using my my own music...I used my brother's Scratch Symphony Beethoven's Fifth Symphony scratching version in 1984. Keele University. I went up there to do a competition and everyone was like, what the hell is this? They'd never heard it. I used to put little waves into my gymnastics routine and tried to break little bit - not that I was breaking - but you know. I guess that was one of my strongest memories, being in a gym and just creating my own dance. There's many moments over the years that I've loved and I've done performances I'll never forget, but if I can only choose one memory, that is me copying Tony, getting the routine and doing it together with him in the gym in my leotard and shorts. I did go to ballet classes when I was three, I did all that, but I didn't find myself until I started doing that stuff. Even though after that I went to college and I had to train and do dance forms that I found really hard for my body, I remember having that in me, that I love to do and luckily, I was able to continue with that in my career.
Photo credit, Martha Cooper