Battlin’by Andy Davis / 11.06.2013
Night time in Soweto, long hours past the daylight curfew for whiteys, we navigate the M1 South to the Nasrec turn off and then the Golden Highway, jamming right into Union Street and following it all the way down to the turning circle where it ends, directly in front of Waler Sisulu Square in Kliptown. Increasingly, areas of Soweto are starting to look positively suburban. The Square is bustling with traffic both automotive and pedestrian, girls in high heels and leggings, showing off dangerous curves, perfect hair, hoop earrings and tastefully painted faces. Men in a range of semi-smart hip hop and hipster attire, sneaker convention shoes. The crowd is bustling and some of the locals are hustling, forming impromptu dance cyphers where distinctive and divergent dance styles are represented from ispantsula to sbujwa and the newer moves of skothane. People whistle and floss, posing for selfies or for the many cameras. The queues are flowing in, people being frisked professionally by the security, while the alleged VIPs and media grifters crowd the trestles looking for their willy wonka ticket; a name on the sheets of printed paper or on the screen of an ipad. But the whole procedure hardly even causes you to break stride. This is clockwork Austrian precision in the kasi. It’s hardly even a hiccup before we’re standing at the bar, ordering a beer (they only serve Castle) and a double vodka Red Bull. And then, eish, this is the pay bar. Our free drink tickets are rejected. “That’s the upstairs bar, majita.” Says the barman matter-o-factly. Cash is begrudgingly cut from the wallet and exchanged for the drinks with a sigh. We head upstairs where our coloured wrist band says we can bask in the glow Red Bull’s magnanimity. The good life.
Being a professional dancer in Mzansi, is precarious at the best of times. The fact that these cats are dancing ‘street’ styles ranging from hip hop to sbujwa and pantsula, just brings their existences, and their art, a little closer to that knife’s edge. Over the last three years, the Red Bull Beat Battle has quickly established itself as the go-to event for original South African dance culture. Forget the factory-like turnover of tv shows like Jika Majika and the almost out of reach (sight and mind) theatrics of the FNB Dance Umbrella, Red Bull Beat Battle is the definitive showcase of that kasi jiva street movement brought to you, via a series of regional qualifying events, to the big stage in Walter Sisulu Square, Kliptown, Soweto. From the 170 different dance crews that entered the qualifying events in Cape Town, Durban, PE, Tshwane and Jozi, only 7 were chosen to go up against last year’s winners the Reptilez, to claim the coveted Beat Battle drum.
But while the winner always gets the big prize and most of the Red Bull support and PR, all the crews tend to benefit from the association and the attendant media focus, to the extent that many go on to enjoy a sharp increase in work and collaboration offers, leading to more publicity, work and collaborations, and the cycle of media, fame and money spins outwards until suddenly dance crews are living the ‘impossible dream’ of not simply surviving but flourishing from their art.
To succeed at the Beat Battle each crew has to prepare and drill at least four dance routines that will take them from the opening showcase, through the different rounds and into the finals. Each routine is scrutinized by the judges and the crowd alike, then voted upon with the double-sided red and blue card we were given on entry. Judges Somizi Mhlongo, Lorna Maseko, Vouks Nojokes and Tumi Tladi all get a vote and the audience, flashing either red or blue, counts as well. It’s not a perfect system, because often, in the tightly contested battles the crew that goes last tends to benefit from the audience’s 3 second memory. So if you get the opening slot, you best destroy the competition. And the hard thing about the Beat Battle is that every crew has at least one routine that if judged on its merits alone, could win the whole shebang.
From the beginning it’s clear that the Reptilez are going to have to fight tooth and nail to retain their title. And in the three years Beat Battle has been running, none of the winning crews have ever managed to hold onto the drum. And despite their incredibly tight and precise synchronisation, tonight would be no different. The first crew to really stand out for me, was the Brooklyn Brotherhood, mixing elements of hip hop with b-boy, the only crew from Cape Town came at the Beat Battle hard, with a series of routines that mixed the athleticism of b-boying with hip hop and even some parkour shit, and in one instance used an old plastic garden table to maximum effect, holding it up as a mini-wall for the crew to do back flips off. The all female hip hop crews of Ace and 8 One Oh Meninas took radically different approaches to their battle. While Ace went for a precise and technical approach to their hip hop routine, the 8 One Oh girls hit that Britney Spears school girl sex sells thing, to good (if not somewhat predictable) effect. Both of the crews would win most dance competitions with those moves, but this is the beat battle. They came unstuck in the second round against IDA and The Reptilez respectively.
You could tell early on that IDA were the crew to beat when the crowd started chanting and singing along to their routines. Hands down, these guys had the audience in the palm of their hands, dancing a hybrid style rooted in Sbujwa but encompassing everything from isPantsula to hip hop and even krump and some old school traditional elements.
Kempton Park breaking crew Beauty and the Beasts also seemed destined for the finals podium with their acrobatic, kung-fu infused b-boy styles. This is a dance crew that puts you on the edge and you only realise you’ve been holding your breath when the lights come down. Serious talent on display. And it’s hard to judge these guys in comparison to dance crews who specialise in keeping all 10 toes on the floor, because it’s such a radical departure and in many ways so much more athletic. There was a nice juxtaposition between Brooklyn Brotherhood who are a hip hop crew with B-boy elements, Beauty and the Beasts are the inverse, a b-boy crew with a wide array of different, albeit athletic influences.
It was kind of unfair when they come up against tapsula crew Via Volcano in the semis, as it seemed that two of the most exciting and original crews would invariably cancel the other out, when in the previous battles we watched hip hop take on hip hop with both Ace vs the Reptilez and Clinch vs Brooklyn Brotherhood. But that’s not how the battle works. Judges tally up all the scores from round 1 & 2. Crews that won the audience vote in round 2 get an extra 5 points. And the top 4 crews that went through to the semi-final were the Reptilez, Brooklyn, IDA and Clinch. In that order. Brooklyn scored high in Round 1, which meant despite losing out to Clinch in round 2, they still went through at the expense of both Via Volcano and Beauty and the Beasts. Which was kind of problematic for me, because I thought those were some of the most exciting and original dance crews at the battle. But I don’t know from the technicalities of dance. I am not a judge, I just peddle the opinions.
In the 3rd round the crew with the top scores battled the crew with the lowest. That was Reptilez vs Clinch. And to most everyone’s surprise Clinch took it easily, eliminating the defending champs from the competition. Ouch. Brooklyn up until this point had been unstoppable, fresh choreography and some very tight and exciting routines, but they came unstsuck against IDA’s hybrid Sbujwa styles. And you knew IDA had it in the bag when the crowd started chanting everytime they performed. And that chanting of ‘oh and ay’ while they danced morphed into a repetitive ‘I! D! A!’ while waving their blue cards and waiting for judges to drop their scores!
Clinch stormed into the finals, but IDA seemed to have accumulated enough goodwill through their four routines to keep the Jozi hip hop crew at an arms length, despite what looked to me like a final routine that was a little flat. But for the first time in Beat Battle’s short 3 year history, a crew dancing original ‘indigenous’ South African styles took the crown. And in a country where people literally strive to dance their way out of the dire conditions they’re facing, in unique and original ways, inventing new moves every day, along the way, well that is indeed something to celebrate.