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Breakin' Bab Al-Yemen.

Crowds gather quickly at Bab Al-Yemen, the bustling gateway to the picturesque Old City of Sana'a. So when a group of boys arrived with a sound system and began unrolling a large chequered mat on the ground in front of the gate, a huddle of intrigued onlookers was quick to follow. "I've got butterflies in my stomach," said Fares Masoumzadeh, 16, glancing nervously at the circle of jambiya-clad men forming around the mat. "Let's do it," replied Mohammad Al-Mana, 24, flicking on the boombox with a cheeky grin. Yet more heads turned as a shrill blast of hip hop music leapt out from the speakers and echoed around the square. Masoumzadeh readied himself before leaping out into the circle. A neatly delivered mishmash of spins, freezes, handstands, and flips left the onlookers in stunned silence. "What is this?" asked a Yemeni man poking his head through the circle of bystanders. "He's dancing!" cried one of the onlookers. It was not long before apprehension and confusion turned to elation. The crowd clapped and yelped as one boy after another hopped into the circle and displayed his moves.

Guys from Blast Boyz and RocknCity pull freezes in a square traditionally used for weddings next to the Sighla. The Old City of Sana'a is in full view in the background. YT photo by Tom Finn

You may not have heard of Yemeni breakdancers or 'B-boys' as they call themselves, but according to Iraqi Al-Mana they're a growing sensation in Sana'a. Dubbed the 'father of breakdancing' in Yemen, Al-Mana first began "breaking" in 2005. Within two years he'd formed a crew, Blast Boys, who were putting on regular performances. "I basically started [breakdancing] 'cause there was nothing to do around here except for chewing [qat] and playing football on gravel," he said. The first struggle he faced was finding somewhere to practise. "In my first practise spot at Fun City people used to just stare at me. Some would give me creepy looks." Today Al-Mana and Blast Boyz have found a home at the French Cultural Centre in Haddah where they make the most of a designated breakdancing area equipped with mats and stereos. In recent months a new crew has emerged on the Yemeni breakdancing scene. Set up by Faraj Abdullnasser and Nazar Fareed, RocknCity consists of 11 up-and-coming Yemeni breakdancers aged 15 to 17.

A local is cheered on by the crowds as he prepares to front-flip at Bab Al-Yemen. YT photo by Tom Finn

According to Abdullnasser there is a lot of competition between the two crews, but only when they dance. "We've had a few battles [dance-offs watched by judges] and we intend to have more. But off stage we are like a family!" he said. Dancing at Bab Al-Yemen was a first for all the B-Boys but their feelings about it were generally very positive. "It was a very different experience. It felt like we were mixing our culture with hip hop which made it very unique," said Abdullnasser. "When we first went in I was really nervous but once the music started and I saw the floor there was no turning back. So I started breaking not knowing their reaction. When I finished I saw that the crowd was cheering me," recalled Masoumzadeh. "I hope we keep on doing this because you never know how open-minded some Yemeni's are."

B'boy, Yousef Hamood, pulls a freeze in front of crowds at Bab Al-Yemen. YT photo by Tom Finn

Al-Mana says his proudest moment is yet to come: when guys he's taught go on to compete in regional competitions. He believes with some extra funding this is a real possibility. He's also confident that breakdancing as a hobby could spread in Yemen. "Breakin' is all about skill and how hard you practice. It's got nothing to do with money, which makes it more accessible than some other sports," he said. Masoumzadeh added: "It's a way to express yourself, but in moves, and I think a lot of people in Yemen would like to be able to express themselves more".

If you're interested in learning how to breakdance contact Mohammad Al-Mana on 712189396. He gives lessons every day for free at the French Cultural Centre. He also gives private lessons for those who are shy, but they're not free. Also check out the website of filmmaker Adam Sjoberg for an upcoming documentary about breakdancing in Yemen:

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Publication:Yemen Times (Sana'a, Yemen)
Geographic Code:7YEME
Date:Jan 27, 2011
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