The inclusion of unconventional sports in future Olympics is creating a new breed of aspiring medalist. Sergey Chernyshev, a break dancer known as Bumblebee, is one of them.
Russian break-dancers these days, they don't know how easy they have it.
Sergey Chernyshev, 39, was reminiscing recently about starting out as a young B-boy in Voronezh. That was in the mid-1990s, before the internet shrank the world and the city still seemed a universe away from the wellsprings of hip-hop culture. Chernyshev's only lifelines then were the VHS tapes that trickled in from the West.
"Someone would get a tape from abroad, and we would make copies," Chernyshev said. "We would take something from one video, another piece from another video, and that's how we learned how to dance."
Things here have changed considerably, a point Chernyshev can illustrate today just by pointing across the room to his 18-year-old son, also named Sergey, who break-dances under the moniker Bumblebee.
Last year, Bumblebee won the gold medal for boys at the first Youth Olympic break-dancing event, solidifying his standing as one of the more promising young breakers in the world. When it was announced this year that break-dancing would be added to the program for the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris — a development that produced predictable snark and puzzlement in some quarters — Bumblebee suddenly had a new life goal.
In many ways, the story of the Chernyshevs, father and son from Voronezh, a former manufacturing hub of around 1 million people about 480km south of Moscow, is the story of break-dancing over the past three decades, with its unlikely journey from the streets of New York to every corner of the globe and to its surprising inclusion, pending a final vote in December, in the Olympics.
Bumblebee himself embodies a new kind of aspiring Olympian, excelling in the sort of niche, nontraditional sport that the International Olympic Committee has recently promoted: surfing, skateboarding, rock climbing, kiteboarding. Many of those events will soon be featured at the games, too, reflecting the interests and ambitions of a younger generation, and an Olympic movement eager to attract its attention.
Bumblebee has spent half his life breaking, with a style and a skill set nurtured by streaming video and social media, feeling every bit a part of, and protective of, hip-hop culture — a culture that has room, in his mind, for the Olympic Games.
"I want to make it," Bumblebee said, "and I want to win."
Break-dancing's ascent to this global platform has engendered the typical mix of emotions associated with any subculture's stride toward the mainstream. Many in the breaking community are excited to share its joys with a wider audience, to see just how big it can become. Others are wary of surrendering its soul to mainstream commercialism.
Break-dancing's heyday in pop culture, when it was a feature of urban sidewalks, nightclubs and even the occasional Hollywood film, had largely come and gone by the time the elder Chernyshev was performing his first windmills in Russia in the '90s. But by then it was attracting new devotees overseas and forming a firm, international foundation with annual tournaments springing up around the world — most notably Battle of the Year, which began in 1990 in Germany.
Michael Holman, 64, who founded the dance crew New York City Breakers, had always viewed the Olympics as a sort of promised land for break-dancing. A book he published about his crew in 1984 included a proclamation, signed by the members of the group, that read, "We see break-dancing as a future Olympic sport and ourselves as pioneers in making this dream a reality."
It was a sentiment some found absurd. To the Breakers, it made perfect sense.
"Competition is the basis of all hip-hop culture," Holman said in a recent interview. "The DJs compete: Whose sound system is the loudest? The MCs and rappers battled: Who had the better rhythm, was faster, more clever, more poetic? The graffiti artists compete: Who made the best burner on the side of a train?
"And, of course, the breakers battled: Who had the best moves?"
Throughout the 1990s, Sergey Chernyshev organised battles in Voronezh, at dance clubs and at a karate school that had a spare room. In 2009, he opened a school called Infinity Dance Studio. His son, then 9, was among his first students.
On a recent morning, a dozen small children wearing baggy T-shirts and tracksuits were scattered around a mirrored room in the studio, cavorting on the floor and spinning on their heads. Bumblebee knelt close by, offering tips.
At one point, Konstantine Dusnii, 24, a teacher who had been guiding the children through different manoeuvres, cut out the music.
"Who wants to battle?" he said.
The children all ran forward with their little hands raised.
Diana Damer, 30, who was waiting in the hallway for her son, Egor, 6, to finish class, said Bumblebee's success at the Youth Games last year — and the subsequent announcement about break-dancing's possible inclusion in the Paris Olympics — had given the children a new, grand sense of purpose,
"He looks up to Sergey," Damer said of Egor. "He told me, 'I want to go to the Olympics and win a medal.'"
When the class ended, Bumblebee and Dusnii turned down the lights, cranked the stereo to a deafening volume and practised some moves of their own.
"People think Russians can't make good music," Bumblebee said as he cued up a track by the Russian rapper Big Baby Tape, "but that's just a stereotype."
Bumblebee was nursing a sore hand, but his athleticism and blossoming swagger were evident. In many ways, he seemed a typical teenager, one who can walk and talk and shoot off a stream of text messages from his phone at the same time. But he could also sound like a grizzled professional.
"I don't understand parents," he said at one point, referring to the low turnout of students over the holiday weekend. "When I was these kids' age, I was here every day, for six hours, alone, all summer."
He continues to dance for hours every day. But now he supplements those sessions with workouts in the gym and swimming in a pool. He goes to bed early, wakes up early and avoids sweets. In important ways, it is a disciplined lifestyle as demanding as that of any other serious young athlete or aspiring Olympian.
Still, Bumblebee said repeatedly that break-dancing was not a sport but an art form. Sure, it requires physical strength and coordination, he said, but it requires much more than that, too.
"It's about feeling, and without this feeling, without this sense of art, you can't do anything," he said. "And you can't get that feeling if you're not part of the culture, if you're just doing the moves."
Many in the break-dance community, Bumblebee included, therefore held their breath as the Youth Games competition began last year in Buenos Aires. Was the IOC equipped to handle hip-hop? Would it be a cringe-inducing debacle?
By most accounts, it was a success. The World DanceSport Federation, which generally oversees ballroom dancing competitions and had no previous involvement with break-dancing before taking the mantle as its governing body, calmed many doubters by leaning heavily on established personalities within the breaking community for help.
"They were listening to everything we had to say," said Niels Robitzky, 50, a longtime B-boy from Germany known as Storm, who helped develop the one-on-one, battle-oriented scoring system for the Youth Games.
Robitzky expressed some indifference about the developments, saying that the Olympics "need breaking more than we need the Olympics." But he also argued that the games, as big as they are, would not change breaking culture.
He looked back positively on the communal aspects of the Youth Olympics. He said international B-boys and B-girls were meeting up all around the grounds in Buenos Aires, not just during the competition itself, to share ideas and laughs in a symposium-type atmosphere.
"The vibes were amazing," Robitzky said. "If you look at the Olympic ideal, that's what it's all about. And with us, with our hip-hop philosophy, it fits perfectly into that."
He warned that no one actually knew how things would look in Paris five years from now. But he said there was early reason to be optimistic. Bumblebee has taken a similar approach to his own development.
In the family's apartment, where Bumblebee's gold medal sits on a shelf in the living room, his mother, Oksana, 38, said she hoped her son would keep working to have a chance to represent Russia in Paris.
"From when he was 1, he watched his father training," she said, "so he was always around it, always close to it."
That afternoon, Bumblebee dug up an old videotape that showed his father dancing with his friends. He pointed, impressed, as Sergey — younger in the grainy footage, and with a fuller head of hair — did a one-armed handstand. His father laughed and sighed as he watched himself doing the Robot to "I Believe in Miracles" by the Jackson Sisters.
"I spent a lot of time back then doing that," the elder Chernyshev said, eyes locked on the video. "It's great that it wasn't for nothing."
Written by: Andrew Keh
Photographs by: Emile Ducke
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES