07 May 2024, 10:04

Courtnae Paul, the S.African chasing Olympic breakdancing glory

JOHANNESBURG, May 7, 2024 (BSS/AFP) - Moonwalking into the centre of a colourful gladiator-like stage, South African breakdancer Courtnae Paul warms up a Johannesburg crowd with jazzy bobs and a contagious smile.

She is competing in one of the last few events left before the sports' much-awaited Olympic debut.

In the blink of an eye, she's upside-down propped up by one tattooed arm, her brown-blonde ponytail swaying behind her.

Breaking, short for breakdancing, was added to the Paris 2024 Olympic roster after enjoying wide success at the Summer Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires in 2018.

"It's a mixture of martial arts, gymnastics -- all the cool stuff," Paul said of the sport.

Her pierced face beaming with a dimpled grin, the dancer bagged her second career trophy at the prestigious Johannesburg tournament last month.

Born in the coastal city of Durban, the 32-year-old is one of seven African break dancers -- known as B-girls and B-boys -- vying to make it to Paris.

Along with a fellow South African B-girl, she is hoping to catch a break in upcoming qualifiers in Shanghai and Budapest.

Paul said she got into breakdancing almost by chance, having previously practised gymnastics, kickboxing, Muay Thai and other sports.

After moving to Johannesburg dreaming of a professional dancing career, she started working as a choreographer as well as backup dancer, DJ and media entrepreneur.

The decades-old street dance style always appealed to her but she practised mostly as a hobby, "doing nonsense until it formed into something" thinking nothing much would come out of it.

"There was nowhere for me to take it -- no platforms existed," she said.

Then in 2020, the coronavirus pandemic hit with its lockdowns, giving Paul ample time to dedicate to her passion.

It was God's way of saying: "Let's get you back to the thing we want you to do," she said.

"I'd like to have been, you know, six years younger, but I'll take what I can get."

- 'Explosive, powerful lady' -

She developed a unique style, which she describes as a mixture of her self-starter "roughness", "education" and "South African flavour".

Her trainer, Jaco Claasen, described her during a session as an "explosive" and "powerful lady" who literally throws herself into her moves.

In preparation for the Olympics, he said much of the work will go to fine-tuning her stability and muscle connection to handle the force.

Forty other female dancers from across the world are taking part in qualifiers this month and the next.

Only 16 will go to Paris.

There they will battle it out for gold through four one-on-one clashes or throwdowns, lasting up to 60 seconds. A DJ will choose the beat.

Their performance will be ranked based on criterias including technique, musicality and originality.

Paul said she was astounded when she learnt Paris was on the cards.

"Breaking has been added as an official Olympic sport," she recalled a friend telling her. "I couldn't believe it."

But chasing her dream has not been easy as the nascent sport is yet to attract enough big sponsorships.

"Nine out of 10 times, everything is coming out of my pocket," said Paul, adding she can compete in only a handful of events a year, lacking the money to travel more.

"In a perfect world, I'd be a professional athlete and get paid to train, eat and sleep, unfortunately in South Africa, that's not my reality."

Olympic visibility is hopefully going to change that, making life easier for future athletes, she said.

"The circuits that have been built around Olympic qualifiers are game-changing," Paul said.

"I've worked as hard as I can, and I'm as ready as I can be. A self-assured person is a dangerous one!"

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