New York City phenom Grace “B-Girl Sunny” Choi gives Boardroom the insider view of the world of competitive breaking along the road to its 2024 Olympic debut in Paris.
During the day, Grace “Sunny” Choi embraces the neverending grind of corporate America in New York City. By night, Choi ditches the business casual blazer and transforms into B-Girl Sunny, one of the modern era’s most decorated and well-known professional breakdancers.
Surprisingly, Choi didn’t grow up dreaming of breaking. Growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, the option wasn’t even possible. Especially coming from a reserved, conservative household led by Korean immigrant parents. Kentucky’s slow, friendly pace was the opposite of New York’s signature bustle. There was hardly any breakdancing community or scene in the Bluegrass State. Just a tiny little breaking club with five members, one of those constituents being her little brother. Instead, her midwest surroundings drew her toward the world of gymnastics.
Until one spontaneous college night at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia led her to the event known as The Gathering.
That night changed her life forever. Fresh off leaving gymnastics due to a series of injuries, Philly changed a reluctant approach into seeking out a hip-hop event at the Rotunda, a community gathering place fueled by the belief that art is a catalyst for social change. Initially, the graffiti writers, MCs, and breakers appeared intimidating to Choi’s natural timid disposition.
Over time, however, her confidence grew. “I’m going to do what the guys do. I will do what I’m told I can’t do.”
Today, Choi is one of the best on the planet. She’s won the 2015 Outbreak Europe B-Girl solo battle, traveled to Japan, won FISE Hiroshima, and made it to the finals of the 2019 WDSF World Breaking Championships in Nanjing, China.
Now, her eyes are set on the 2024 Paris Summer Olympics, where breakdancing will be represented for the first time.
For women, members of the AAPI community, and New Yorkers alike, B-Girl Sunny Choi dances for respect and creative expression and to promote the message of allowing everyone to be comfortable in their skin — check out her conversation with Boardroom below.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Business of Breaking With B-Girl Sunny
The Financial Hustle
RORY ROBINSON: Boardroom is especially interested in what the business of breakdancing really looks like. How does a breaker monetize their skill to the fullest?
SUNNY CHOI: As of now, only a few key corporate players are endorsing and sponsoring breakers. I believe Red Bull and Monster are the big ones, but some other companies are starting to look in. In terms of like sponsorships, there are not that many opportunities, unfortunately, at least in the US. Most breakers make ends meet in various ways, but it’s definitely like you’ve gotta hustle.
RR: Would you say it’s similar to the life of a lot of UFC fighters, where you’re making your money in the cage, but perhaps you’re also teaching some classes, doing workshops, and earning appearance fees?
SC: Yeah, I think it’s very similar, although UFC gets more exposure than breaking, so there’s probably more dollars for them in that arena of competition than there is for breaking.
Many breakers have dance studios, teaching, or a side job. A part-time job. [Breakers will] have other side hustles or things to supplement, because competing for most people is not how they can make a living. Training for breaking can be like a full-time job if you’re taking it seriously, so that’s a hard balance for people. I think that will change, but we’re still in that spot of everybody just hustling.
RR: When we examine different sports or activities, some are relatively inexpensive to start, while others are more costly. Where does break dancing fall financially for somebody that wants to get into it and compete at a high level?
SC: Most of us started learning from our friends or at community centers. The newer generation [started] by watching YouTube, and all you need is a floor. In terms of finances for getting started as a breaker, it’s zero.
Even if you don’t have YouTube, get yourself to an event. It’s just going out there, watching people, and then trying it.
I think the startup cost for breaking is virtually none. To be a high-level breaker, you can still do it without having supplementary help. I didn’t start working with a coach until pretty recently.
The Competitive Scene
RR: As far as the competition circuit goes, there’s not really a season, right?
SC: Yeah. It’s basically always on. One of the challenging things about breaking is that your body never gets a break; it’s just breaking as you break.
But yeah, there are jams almost every weekend. If you choose to go to them, you can go year-round, battling at significant events. However, I think it’s stressful on people’s bodies to be doing that. So I think it’s on the breakers to decide if there are times when they can take a break and pull back from the scene.
One of the really tough things about breaking is because it’s always on, if you’re not battling, then you become forgotten somehow. There’s that fear, it is kind of a reality for us. If you disappear for a couple of months, everyone forgets about you. It’s about the next person who’s killing it, you know? And that makes it hard for people to walk away from the breakdancing scene for a hiatus.
RR: Each sport has a coveted prize with the biggest money that every competitor is gunning for. One where you’re recognized as the top in the industry. What is that for breakdancing?
SC: [The] non-Olympic, one-versus-one competition is Red Bull BC One.
Other competitions are massive crew battles. Freestyle Session is a big deal. Battle of the Year is a legendary and legacy event that’s been around forever. There are mixed feelings about what Battle of the Year is today, but that’s still a huge one for crews.
RR: What Makes Red Bull BC One so special?
SC: I have to represent New York for Red Bull BC One, right? Red Bull events get more media exposure than a lot of the other events currently, so that’s definitely a big piece of it. I don’t even know if there’s a cash prize for winning Red Bull, but it’s just become such an iconic event for breakers, you know? So many people get into breaking thinking like, ‘I want to be in Red Bull BC One.’ It just has this iconic status for so many people. I don’t even know if everyone knows what you get, what you wear, ’cause I don’t.
Breakdancing in Paris 2024
RR: Breaking is coming to the Paris Summer Olympics in 2024 for the first time. What do you make of the format that will be used?
SC: As the system stands, you do a lot of rounds to get to the top, which I enjoy. It challenges me to create more, but it also shows the breadth of what you can do as a dancer — not just what you can do in four rounds where you must pack all of your crazy moves into those four rounds.
RR: Do you have a sense of how breaking will be portrayed or marketed at the Olympics?
I think that’s a tougher question because we haven’t seen exactly how it will be.
It’s hard because anytime you put breaking on a big stage, you lose so much of the culture and the community. Even the music has to be licensed and okay to play. Hopefully, by the time the Olympics roll around, [there will be] a better representation of the culture, but even then, you don’t have rap lyrics. You don’t have the hip-hop that we listen to outside while practicing on our own.
That piece [with regards to] breaking in the Olympics is a tough one to swallow for a lot of people because it’s so integral to breaking. You don’t have breaking — genuine breaking — without the culture. You don’t have it without the community. But how do you get the culture in the community on a stage? You know, that’s hard, and I don’t have an answer to that.
In some ways, it is good because people who have never seen breaking will have access to breaking differently. Maybe that sparks the creativity of what breaking is causing people to go check out local events.
I definitely have some concerns and questions about things, but, you know, we can’t have everything. I also understand and respect that you can’t have everything perfect exactly how you want it. Because honestly, the way I want it is not how someone else will like it right next to me or the other breakers that are going to be on that stage. I’m just rolling with the punches, and we’ll see where we land come 2024. We should all recognize some challenges, and by doing that, we can somehow work to counteract them.
RR: Do you feel the pressure and responsibility that comes along with representing breaking for the first time in the Olympics?
SC: In terms of like pressure, yes, I feel there’s so much at stake as the first round of breakers being in the Olympics.
It’ll be essential for us to fight for things so that things go as we’re hoping they will. I don’t know that everyone who’s organizing is familiar with breaking. They don’t know what we need. They don’t know what our expectations are, you know? Even to the most basic level, I think it will be hard because we all want to represent breaking as best as we can to the amount we have control over. There’s another added layer for me because I’m from the US and New York.
RR: NYC is the Mecca of breaking. What does that status mean to you, and how do you perceive your place in it?
SC: I think a lot of people here in New York are on the more aggressive side when they’re battling. And I do smile a lot, so [I’m] maybe not doing it exactly how everyone else would, but still showing my authenticity and personality.
I don’t freestyle as much as some other people, but I do some, so in that piece, I do want to show that musicality matters. I want to rep the US, right? So there’s that piece of pressure. I hope I can even go to represent the US, but also so people can be proud, like, ‘Hey, we’ve got a New Yorker up there.’
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