If there’s one thing Ian Flaws wants you to know, it’s that breaking is about so much more than dancing. On the surface, it’s the intricate, stylized contorting of the body to a steady hip hop beat. But at its heart, it’s an expression of creativity and community that goes back generations, and that’s what Flaws is all about preserving and promoting with his own studio, Bboy Factory.
The Colorado native has been building his chops on dancefloors across the globe since 1997, when, as Rule One, he began breaking under the instruction of Kevin O’Keaffe, aka KO. Having trained and taught in Korea, Cambodia and the USA, Flaws is now a leader in his own right, training new generations in the tradition of breaking and helping them evolve it in their own style.
Step inside the studio with Flaws as he takes us behind the scenes of how he developed his own breaking, how he started his studio and why he’s working toward getting breaking into the Olympics.
Red Bull: You do so much now with Bboy Factory and outside of that. Let’s take it right back for a moment—how did you first get started with breaking? Who or what inspired you?
Ian Flaws: "Growing up, I was writing graffiti and listening to Wu-Tang Clan and Nas, so it wasn’t just breaking for me, it was the whole culture. A girl asked me on a date to go to a dance class, and that was my first time learning any of the dance. I became friends with the instructor, Kevin O’Keaffe, and some other students. In our town there weren’t many dancers, so we became a crew—Natural Flavor. I was very much into sports (ice hockey), and the dance has this element of athleticism, but it’s also creative and artistic, and it just drew me in."
When and how did you get the idea to start your own studio?
"In 2006 I was initiated in a Colorado crew called Street Stylez, but I wasn’t really pursuing a career, I was just treading water. So in 2008 I moved to Seoul, Korea, to teach English. It was in Korea where I first witnessed breaking studios, and I got to study with a much higher level than what I had experienced in Colorado. That really opened my eyes, and helped me develop a lot further as a dancer.
From Korea I traveled to Cambodia, and I volunteered with a nonprofit organization called Tiny Toones for six months. They use hip hop arts to incentivize street kids to pursue education, and they have a reward system where if they complete a math class then they can take a breaking class. That was when I started to form a plan to return home and start my own facility and share not just the dance but also the life lessons I had learned."
That explains so much of the community-minded approach of Bboy Factory, how you say it’s so much more than a dance studio—it’s a cultural and community center.
"Traditionally street dances weren’t taught in studios, even until 10 years ago it was almost unheard of. To learn the dance you had to go find people through forums or community centers where people were training and ask them to show you. That’s how I learned. Maintaining that tradition was really important to me, so we continue that today. We have almost eight hours a week of open studio space that we don’t charge for. From a cultural perspective, it’s really important."
It’s great that you’re doing that now, in this challenging time. How have you been dealing with the shutdown? When did you start bringing the classes online, and how did you find that?
"We started bringing classes online pretty early, in March, I knew nothing about it, but I looked into it and just had to do something quick. My landlord didn’t give us any sort of relief or assistance, we never got any loans or any grants, so I just needed to try whatever I could to make it work. So March, April and most of May we were completely on Zoom. I moved all of my furniture and taught straight out of my living room. About 75% of our registered students stayed with us online. And then around June, we reopened the studio with limited class sizes, and I’m still live-streaming classes. I’m teaching a handful of kids in the studio and then there will be two or three kids on the computer at the same time."
How do you find teaching breaking online? Do you think you’ll continue it even when everything is back in-person?
"In some ways it’s very distracting. The kids at home can’t necessarily do the same activities as the kids in the studio. Their spaces are different, and they don’t have the energy of the other people around them. I feel my kids do a lot better in person. I’d way rather have them there with me in the studio, if possible."
That’s understandable. One benefit of streaming the classes is that it opens up your classes for kids who might not otherwise be able to come to the studio.
"Yeah, we have a couple of regular students out of state. At the moment we have students in California, Utah and New Mexico, and we’ve had others here and there."
That’s great! There are some videos on Bboy Factory’s Instagram of kids breaking in masks in the studio. How challenging is it to wear a mask while you’re breaking?
"The masks are hard. I think more for me, as an instructor, to project through a mask is challenging. And then, on top of that, if I have a kid on Zoom and the music’s up, it’s almost impossible for them to hear me sometimes."
It’s awesome that you’re keeping it up despite the challenges—it’s obviously an important space for people in the community. You’ve got kids as young as five breaking in the studio.
"Yeah, we have some really awesome young kids right now. A lot of my first generation of students from when we started in 2012 have moved on and are in college or university now. One of my first students [Imran “Run” Islam], qualified for the Youth Olympics in 2018, and was one of three Americans who went to the world youth championship!"
That’s amazing. And one of your main instructors, Ryan Sacker, started breaking with you when he was 12 years old!
"Exactly, he’s 20 now. He’s very level-headed, super disciplined. He’s developed into an awesome instructor."
You recognize how broadly the culture extends, and now you’re also working to get broader recognition of breaking within the sports world, as the VP of USA Breakin’.
"Yeah, that’s a whole other development. It’s like, how do you teach a philosophy of artistry and cultural unity and then also develop a sport out of a dance? A lot of Bboys and Bgirls don’t appreciate it being called a sport, and even 10 years ago, I was one of them. I would say, ‘It’s an artform, it’s not a sport.’ But I also think it’s inevitable, and the growth that will come from being recognized at an Olympic level is a huge opportunity.
I played ice hockey as a kid because I saw it in the Olympics in ‘88, and I think the same thing will happen with breaking. Kids will see this dance and see that it’s electrifying, and they’ll be attracted to it. Inevitably, it will provide a lot of growth for studios such as mine. But I think it’s important to make sure that, when a kid does come to the Bboy Factory and say, ‘I saw breakdancing at the Olympics and now I wanna learn,’ that I can still teach my message of culture."
Watching the videos on Bboy Factory’s Instagram, breaking looks like a really restorative and healthy thing to be doing, especially right now.
"Even pre-Covid I think that’s the message. There are a lot of negative portrayals of what hip hop culture is, so the empowerment and expression is important. It gives kids—and adults—a way to project whatever they’re dealing with, creatively and artistically. I think that’s what the message of breaking is: to break out of whatever you’re dealing with."
It’s personal creative expression, but also cultural heritage. What’s your favorite part of breaking and running Bboy Factory?
"The mentorship is very rewarding, but also the opportunities to connect with people, and that community building aspect. Also having ownership of your creativity—I’m still a graffiti artist, 20-something years later, so it all goes together. Within each element of the culture there’s been a lot of separation—you have graffiti artists that have nothing to do with hip hop culture, DJs that are playing EDM and other styles of music, and dancers who have no connection to hip hop. So I try to preserve that tradition of the culture and keep it all synched up. That’s what I love when I experience events that present the entire culture and bring all of those different arts together. That’s my goal beyond mentoring; it’s about preserving that cultural unification."
Check out Bboy Factory's Instagram to learn more about Ian and his studio.