When Jeffrey Louis heard that breakdancing—or breaking, as it is often called by its practitioners—was making its debut at the 2018 Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires, Argentina, he emailed the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to ask about getting involved.

The Houston native wasn’t hoping to compete. In fact, he was too old to participate in the Youth Games, which are open only to athletes fifteen to eighteen years old. He was just looking for a way to participate in the process that would bring the art form to the Olympic stage. At the time, he was on the cusp of graduating from the University of Houston and was trying to figure out how he might apply his degree in sports administration to breaking. Louis never heard back from the IOC.

But now Louis is 29 and has a chance to be one of sixteen male dancers who’ll compete this summer in Paris, when breaking makes its first appearance as an Olympic medal event. If he qualifies, he’ll become the second American B-boy to do so. (Countries are capped at a max of two dancers per category. U.S. breakers Sunny Choi and Victor Montalvo have already clinched their spots.) Louis, who competes under his B-boy name, Jeffro, has spent most of the last couple of years traveling all over the world to compete at battles sponsored by the World DanceSport Federation to rack up qualifying points. He’s currently ranked fifth globally and will be competing in Shanghai this weekend and in Budapest in June. 

Breaking’s journey as an Olympic sport began in late 2016, when the IOC announced that it would be on the roster for 2018 in Buenos Aires. From there, the event seemed like a shoo-in for inclusion in the 2024 Summer Games. Jeffro, like the majority of Paris contenders, was age-barred from competing in 2018, but he’s in the mix now, hoping to pick up Team USA’s final berth in the men’s one-on-one competition. 

Jeffro’s path to the Olympics started in Houston, specifically with arts programs in the Houston Independent School District. When he was about ten years old, he was introduced to breaking through his older brother. “He learned in school and he came back home and taught me as he was learning,” Jeffro recalled. When he reached middle school, Jeffro participated in the same program his brother had, with the same teacher, a B-boy named Nathan “Nasty Nate” Cano. “Him and his brothers, they were one of the main ones that were always asking questions,” Cano recalled. 

Jeffro would go on to attend Westside High School, where he joined the school’s Inertia Dance Company. There, Jeffro studied several styles, including hip-hop, jazz, contemporary, and of course breaking. “We got a lot of that experience dancing around the world,” he said. “Some of my first gigs as [a] professional dancer was through that. While I was a freshman, actually, we went to China.” 

Although most casual fans associate breaking with impressive power moves, such as headspins, windmills, and air flares (elements that helped breaking become an Olympic event), Jeffro holds a particular reverence for the subtler aspects of the dance. 

“The main thing that stuck out to me in breaking wasn’t the flashy moves,” he said. “It wasn’t the headspins, the crazy dynamic power moves. It was the dance aspect of it. My brother, he was really good at just dancing up top, top rock. And that’s what captured me.” Top rock is the part of the dance that often happens at the beginning of a routine, with the breaker freestyling to the music in an upright position, interpreting it according to their own style. 

“It was the freedom of movement and seeing them move through the music and all the intricate beats he was [working] with his dancing,” Jeffro added. “That was what kept me in breaking. I always wanted to move like that.” 

Jeffro’s early training in disparate styles and his love of top rock shines through in his competitive sets. While some B-boys do very little by way of top rock, preferring to get down to the floor and quickly show off their power moves, Jeffro takes his time. He plays with the beats before he drops to get started on his footwork. During his top rock routines, he moves as if he’s floating, with his feet barely seeming to touch the ground. “The main style I pulled from was house,” he said. “[It] really helped me get grounded and understand the different types of ways you can hit a beat.” 

His first teacher recognized that way back in Jeffo’s middle school days. “His strongest suit is pretty much musicality,” Cano said. Though music is foundational to the whole enterprise, some dancers pay only glancing attention to the beats while others make it more central to the sets. Jeffro falls into the latter camp. He says his style has been influenced by his Houston upbringing, which exposed him to many different types of music. “In Texas, there’s of course country,” he said. “There’s hip-hop. But then there’s a lot of Latin-based styles too.

“I had to touch a lot of different styles,” he went on, “from salsa, merengue, bachata, cumbia.” Even before its arrival in Texas, breaking was already deeply influenced by Latin dance and music. Many of the art form’s early New York innovators like b-boys Spy and Trac 2 were Latino and Afro-Latino and brought their music and traditions to the dance, and several of the most famous breakers, such as Ken Swift and Crazy Legs, have at least some Latin heritage. 

“And then at home, I’m listening to Kompa because my family’s from Haiti,” he added. “It’s just a wide range of music, and with every element, there’s history and there’s roots to it.” Jeffro brings everything that he is to the dance.

Breaking’s origin story is well known: as one of the four pillars of hip-hop along with rapping, deejaying, and graffiti, the art form was created in the early seventies by young Black and Latino dancers in the South Bronx. From there it spread all over the country and the world. (In an amusing twist of fate, one early spreader of breakdance was the movie Flashdance, which featured a brief, but indelible, scene of B-boys from New York’s Rock Steady Crew performing in the street.) In every documentary or book or article on hip-hop, particularly around its fiftieth anniversary, the culture’s New York City beginnings are analyzed in great detail.

But there’s been less attention paid to how breaking scenes developed in other parts of the country. “Whenever we teach history, we never talked about Texas history,” Jeffro said. “We talked about the history of breaking in hip-hop, but we’ve never really specialized, like [the] Houston breaking scene or Texas breaking scene. It’s always the East and the West.

“I feel like there’s a lot of lost history in Houston or just the Texas scene in general,” Jeffro added. “Even now, if I was to ask somebody about history, B-boy history, or just breaking history in general, it’s all over the place.” But disputed accounts of who did what first, when, and where are common throughout the history of breaking, even in scenes as well documented as New York’s. Very few jams and parties were recorded in the early years. 

Before the internet and social media made it easy for dancers anywhere in the world to access videos and information on breaking, knowledge of the dance trickled out of New York to other locales. Cano recalled watching video tapes of famous dance crews like the New York City Breakers when he was first getting acquainted. 

“We used to call top rock Skittles,” Cano said. “And footwork was not footwork; it was ground effects.” While Cano described their unique terminology as “horrible,” it was also in the spirit of the dance and the culture to invent and reinvent, to make the dance your own. Those terms didn’t stick, but the Texas breaking scene made its mark in other ways. “A lot of innovators came from Texas, as far as power [moves],” he said. Cano recalled Texas dancers performing some extreme elements, such as double air flares, back in the nineties. “People were just trying to elevate each other,” Cano said. 

Texas B-boy Omar, from Austin, was the winner of the inaugural Red Bull BC One competition in 2004. Prior to the announcement that the Olympics would include one-on-one breaking battles, the BC One was one of the most prestigious individual titles that a B-boy could win. Another key figure in Texas breaking is Moy Rivas, who was one of Cano’s compatriots in the renowned Houston dance crew Havikoro, which was formed in the late nineties. 

Jeffro, while not a member of Havikoro—he represents RAD Crew and sometimes Monster Energy—is certainly part of the lineage of great Houston dancers. And while many in the scene were initially skeptical of the attempt to translate the art form of breaking into an Olympic sport, Jeffro quickly got on board. In 2021, he attended an “unofficial” training camp held for top U.S. prospects outside of Philadelphia. “Some breakers, they didn’t want to show up,” he recalled. “You don’t want to train with your enemy, your opponent, and this is a one-on-one event so you don’t want to help them out. I just kind of embraced it and I took it as a learning opportunity—to learn from people outside of just my normal circle.”

A key part of the preparation for Olympic breakdancers is endurance training. To reach the final of many of the WDSF-sponsored events, which serve as qualifiers to the Olympics, dancers need to get through upward of twenty rounds of head-to-head dance-offs, or battles. Jeffro said his experiences at Texas battles have helped him prepare for the Olympic-style competition, describing a particular event that demanded participants face off against everyone. “It could go fifteen, twenty rounds for each,” he said. “I don’t know why I do it.” 

Beyond the endurance factor, Olympic hopefuls are tasked with the challenge of coming up with as many as twenty distinct rounds, each one a mini performance with different moves and composition. Very few dancers have that many original rounds in them. The serious tone of Olympic qualifying events can also be a buzzkill for dancers who are used to performing in more free-flowing, party-like settings. Nationwide breaking events like Southern California’s Freestyle Sessions typically last for a few days and offer dancers ample time to socialize and battle for fun, in addition to hosting tournaments and crowning champions. But the Olympic events are all business. 

“There’s no cyphers,” he said, referring to the informal dance circles that typically spring up whenever dancers and DJs come together. In the context of an Olympic qualifying event, though, competitors are less likely to join cyphers and often prefer to conserve energy for their official sets. “You just sit, wait, wait, for your round.” Even so, Jeffro said he and the other U.S. dancers still manage to have fun during their downtime: “We have a good vibe with each other. We’re always just lively.” 

The physical self-preservation Jeffro observed at the qualifying events seemed to extend to the grassroots level events. “At first, people weren’t going to the local events,” Jeffro said. “The Olympic events were out there so people wanted to save themselves.” But recently, he said he’s noticed a course correction. “People are showing up for the smaller events . . . and just enjoying it because these larger events, like the Olympics, it is draining and you don’t get that social aspect.” And for nearly every dancer, the sense of community was a crucial factor that drew them to breaking in the first place. 

That local element, Jeffro stressed, isn’t going anywhere, despite the sport’s inclusion in the Olympics. Using basketball as an example, he pointed out that while there’s a professional level of the sport in the NBA, people also play the sport streetball tournaments and adult leagues. “There’s a lot of different facets to everything.”

Jeffro hopes that through the Olympics, sports fans around the world will gain a better understanding of the dance and culture he’s committed his life to. “I want people to see that there’s a lot more structure to this dance than people think,” he said. “People think we’re just kicking and rolling—there’s a lot of discipline. There’s a lot of creativity.”

It remains to be seen what the Olympics will mean to breaking, especially in the medium term, since the IOC has already announced that the sport won’t be an event in the 2028 Los Angeles Summer Games. This came as a surprise to almost all the dancers preparing for Paris. But even if this Olympic experiment ends up being one and done, this summer remains an opportunity to showcase the art to the biggest audience it has ever had.

“When I was younger, my parents worried about what I was gonna do [when] I told them I wanted travel the world doing this,” said Cano, Jeffro’s first breaking instructor. “But now parents can actually see a product on the world’s biggest stage. It’s better for everyone.”