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Breaking Ground

For “b-boy” HIjack, breakdancing is part art, part sport and all aloha.

a person in a red shirt holding his hat and standing on a sidewalk with a person jumping in the air
(ABOVE) Jack Rabanal, a.k.a. HIjack (seen opening spread, right), is one of Hawaii’s most accomplished “b-boys,” or breakdancers. His athleticism and artistry have taken him to national and international competitions, and he hopes to qualify for the 2024 Olympics—when breakdancing makes its debut in the games. 



The 2022 Red Bull BC One USA Cypher is taking place in the heart of Los Angeles, a few blocks from the Walk of Fame. By the time the doors open, the line stretches down the street, a crowd as diverse as Los Angeles: Black, Latino, Asian and white; men and women; young and old; single college kids staying up all night and parents whose children have set bedtimes. Proof that hip-hop culture is universal, if any were still needed.

Inside is a foyer with tables of merch: Red Bull gear as well as vinyls and cassettes of old school hip-hop. Inside the venue, you're blasted by Richter-scale bass and the smell of enough Red Bull to defibrillate your heart. Three thrones preside over a circular dance floor-one for each judge-the DJ booth towering behind them. Even before the competition gets underway, an impromptu cypher-when a crowd forms a circle and dancers take turns busting moves in the center-breaks out. The crowd, drawn to the excitement, gathers to watch. 

The hosts, rappers D-Stroy and MyVerse, corral the audience to explain the rules and introduce the judges: 2004 World Champion Omar Davila; b-girl pioneer Asia One; and 2010 World Champion Neguin Lopes. Sixteen "b-boys" and "b-girls"-the original hip-hop terms for breakdancers-will compete, some of whom were invited based on past performances, others who earned a spot by winning a regional competition. Twenty-eight-year-old Jack Rabanal from Honolulu, a.k.a. HIjack, was invited. A win here will earn him a spot in the Last Chance Cypher, an event where the national champions from other countries compete to earn a spot at the World Finals, arguably the biggest stage in competitive breakdancing. It would be the biggest stage a Hawaii breakdancer has ever been on, but first things first.

a person pointing at his shirt

Events like the Red Bull BC One USA Cypher bring out the young and the OGs (originals) alike.


two men standing on a street, posing in streetwear

(ABOVE) HIjack with Arizona b-boy Conrad. Above top. (BELOW) HIjack busts out some of his signature footwork in the quarterfinal of the Red Bull BC One USA Cypher national championships in Los Angeles last September.

a person doing a break dance on a round black surface with a crowd watchingThe competitors will face off in head-to-head battles consisting of two one-minute rounds. They'll be judged on control, aesthetics, rhythm and difficulty. Breakdancing has four traditional categories: top rock (the opening sequences when breakers are still on their feet), footwork, freezes (held poses) and power moves (maneuvers where the whole body is in motion). The judges don't deliberate; they just point toward whom they think won. 

In the first round, HIjack goes up against Supa Josh from Philadelphia. The two b-boys wait for the other to kick things off, then HIjack starts the battle with slick top rock in tempo with the beat, which sounds more Havana than Harlem. From there, he drops to the floor, swinging his legs around his body and propelling himself up into the air, ending the round on a smooth freeze, standing mid-stage and pointing at his opponent. "Hawaii in the house!" host MyVerse exclaims. 

Supa Josh bursts into his first round, going straight to the floor to start spinning and flipping. His moves are fast and clean, but instead of linking them together in a smooth flow, each seems added onto the previous one after-the-fact. After about thirty seconds, he retreats to the edge of the dance floor, signaling an early end to his first round. HIjack capitalizes, using the extra time to focus on top rock and footwork, categories Supa Josh neglected. At the end of the battle, all three judges side with HIjack, who moves up to the quarterfinals. 

"Before the battle starts, I try to think about the why," HIjack says. "Why I do this, why I enjoy this. How it benefits not only myself, but my students and friends. How it helps me to build relationships and connections. I look at my roots, little Jack dancing in third grade, trying to do the moonwalk and the worm in the back of the classroom. Now I'm here on the big stage, and it's just because I love it."

a person doing a handstand on the floor

When Rabanal is sliding his feet to a beat, or balancing on one hand while pretzeling his legs in the air, or spinning on his head, he could be one of two people. There's Jack Rabanal the artist, the playful discoverer in search of a flow state that can unlock new possibilities in breakdancing. Then there's Jack Rabanal the athlete, a dynamic and explosive competitor who drills with Michael Jordan-esque determination. 

When he's performing, though, Rabanal is something else, the artist/athlete hybrid he calls HIjack, Hawaii's most accomplished b-boy and a veteran of nearly every major international breaking competition. HIjack had a banner year last year: He won a Red Bull event in Boston and was a semifinalist in last year's Red Bull BC One USA Cypher. HIjack's performances have earned him a sponsorship deal from the billion-dollar energy drink brand. 

HIjack is one of the world's most exciting breakdancers at one of the most exciting times to be a breakdancer; Red Bull hosts regional, national and world competitions throughout the year, and breakdancing is set to make its Olympic debut at the Paris Games in 2024. But if you ask HIjack about how breakdancing has changed, you get the sense that in some essential ways, not much-at least for him. He loves dancing for its creative energy and ebullience, and he still gushes over its possibilities with the same inexhaustible fascination he had as a kid. It's been that way since his older brother introduced him to breakdancing nearly twenty years ago.

"My older brother was the fire that powered me," says Rabanal. "When I was in third grade, he learned some moves from some homeless dudes at the park. They let him borrow a CD called Street Jams Volume 2, a megamix of electrophonic funk." Rabanal's brother showed him the moves he'd learned-a style called popping, a slower, smoother cousin of the more frenetic and acrobatic breakdancing. "Then my brother introduced me to this magical thing called YouTube," Rabanal says, "and I went in."

 Rabanal, then 8 years old, embarked on a self-directed online crash course in breakdancing, mimicking what he saw on the computer. But at that age, who can tell the difference between a budding lifelong passion and a passing childhood obsession? So Rabanal's parents signed him up for karate lessons to keep him busy. The martial art itself didn't stick, but its teachings-the discipline, the physical self-mastery-left lasting imprints. "I hated karate," Rabanal says, "but I took away a certain discipline from that experience. If I wanted to get to the next color belt, I had to put in work. I translated that into this art form."

a person in a red shirt and hat

When he’s not competing on the national stage, HIjack is cultivating the breakdancing scene back home by hosting events and teaching kids through his school, Keiki Breaks. “It brings hope to our community,” he says, “hope that if we believe in ourselves, we can do this. We got style and flavor and aloha.” On the previous spread, b-boy Gravity from Brooklyn performs a headspin at the Red Bull BC One USA Cypher.


When Rabanal was in eighth grade, his brother, fresh off of getting his driver's license, took him to a breaking competition in the Honolulu neighborhood of Kalihi. Seeing b-boys perform up close sent his mind spinning, and his body hasn't been far behind. "It was amazing to see local b-boys who weren't that much older than me at such a high level," Rabanal says. "And to see it in person was a whole 'nother beast." At the competition, he also met Skillroy, an Island b-boy pioneer, who would become his mentor. "I was so intimidated and shy," says Rabanal. "Skillroy was the first person I ever saw in a cypher, and he brought me into it. I was too scared to dance, but he brought me out." 

Breakdancing was born in New York City in the 1970s, one of the original elements of hip-hop culture (the others being DJing, MCing, writing (graffiti) and, some argue, beatboxing.). Hawaii was an eager and early adopter. Legendary crews from Los Angeles and New York made routine stops to perform in Honolulu in the early '80s, and in 1984 a local TV station aired a weekly breakdancing show, making Hawai'i one of the only states in the country to regularly broadcast breaking on basic cable. Still, the OG class of local b-boys and b-girls was isolated from hip-hop's cultural hubs on the Mainland and went mostly unnoticed by the broader culture. HIjack is an incredible talent, but he has also benefited from simply being born later, at a time when breaking has become a worldwide phenomenon sponsored by major companies and, now, an Olympic event. HIjack says he's grateful for the intersection of luck, skill and dedication that has made him an elite b-boy, but he's not content with just that. 

 "A lot of our OGs were never able to leave Hawaii," says Rabanal. "I feel like I'm here to do this for our community so that whoever is after me can take it even further." In 2016, Rabanal founded Keiki Breaks, a crew of local b-boys and b-girls between the ages of 5 and 16. Through Keiki Breaks, HIjack passes on what he learns. "Jack isn't just a breakdancing teacher," says 15-year-old Kaimana Domen, a b-boy in Keiki Breaks. "He gives us life lessons. The hard and challenging part of breakdancing is what makes it fun. You keep failing, but once you get it, it's the most rewarding thing ever." Domen had been breaking for a few years before linking up with Keiki Breaks. Since then, he's traveled with HIjack to compete in major events on the Mainland and Europe. "We're planting the seeds and seeing the fruit," says Rabanal. "Even if I go out to the US Finals and lose in the first round, I still take home some of that energy and give it to my students. It brings hope to our community, hope that if we believe in ourselves, we can do this. We got style and flavor and aloha."

two men standing in front of a wall

HIjack and Conrad in Los Angeles. Above middle, b-boy Sleepy Joe from Las Vegas, mid-freeze at the Melting Pot b-boy event in Honolulu. 


a person doing a hand flip on a stage

Keiki Breaks b-boy Elijah performs a freeze in the Melting Pot, an annual breakdancing event thrown by 808 Breakers.


 This is the motivation HIjack carries into this year's US Finals in Los Angeles. Last year, Rabanal was among the final four, narrowly losing in the semifinals to the b-boy who would go on to win the whole thing. This time around, HIjack is taking his preparation to another level: a strict exercise and dietary regimen on top of a rigorous practice schedule. "It's important to have both the artist and the athlete to raise my game, but right now, this is the job of the athlete," he says. A typical day of training includes waking early to warm up with light exercises before moving to strength training and calisthenics in the afternoon, topped off in the evening with a few hours of imprinting different maneuvers into his fast-twitch muscle fibers. "When I train, I'll practice a move forty or fifty times by itself. Then I put moves together in combos and drill them over and over. It doesn't feel fun, but when it's game day, that's when the artist gets to play."

 While HIjack is focused on athleticism, play is also vital to his preparation. "It can't all be competitive," he says. "I create, envision and dream like an artist, but I train like an athlete. It's two separate identities. There has to be balance between letting loose and letting go, focusing and getting lost in the moment and finding that flow and freedom." Playing gives him the freedom to fail-creatively. "You have to attempt things you're not ready for. In that vulnerability, you stumble across things. A lot of the signature moves I have are from screwups."

If he can perform at the US Finals with the freedom of an artist and the focus of an athlete, there's no reason he couldn't win it all. "A lot of dancers haven't yet found that separation of identity, or they aren't conscious of that separation," HIjack says. "Most b-boys come in with the athlete mindset, so they look like there's no feeling. They do amazing movements, but it looks like they were doing that two weeks ago in a gym. Someone who's completely free in the moment, they're also executing dynamic movements, but there's this feeling they give off. People remember how you make them feel, and that's my goal with my dance: have them remember how I made them feel."

a group of people sitting on the floor

B-boys and b-girls await the start of the USA Cypher in Los Angeles. 

In the quarterfinals of the Red Bull BC One, HIjack goes up against Mace from Arizona, a b-boy built like a gymnast whose aggressive power moves and high-octane footwork overwhelmed his opponent in the first round. The beat kicks in and HIjack starts rocking as if the DJ dropped it directly into his veins. Mace extends his arm, inviting HIjack to go first. He obliges, shuffling his feet in delicate rhythm, like he's trying to slink out the backdoor unnoticed. He corkscrews his legs, spins and drops to his knees, then bounds up like a hip-hop ballerino. Mace starts talking over the beat. "Look at me!" he taunts, gesturing to his eyes. HIjack smiles, tosses his red hat aside and hits the floor, posting on his hands and swinging his legs underneath him like he's preparing for liftoff. Then he lifts off, fully outstretched with his feet in the air before landing into a shoulder roll that somehow melts into a headspin. 

Mace steps out, dusting off his hands like he has to clean up what just happened. There's a reason these competitions are called battles, and Mace is letting everyone know he's here to fight. He jumps straight into his strengths: acrobatic headspins on the floor with his legs extended upward, mimicking some of the power moves HIjack just performed. He pauses for a brief top rock, then goes back to the floor, kicking his legs inches in front of HIjack's face. HIjack removes his jacket, revealing a red Maui Stingrays jersey, a now-defunct minor-league baseball team. ("I want to have Hawaii on me every time I battle on a big stage," he says.) 

HIjack drops to the ground, holding himself up with one hand while the other is tucked behind his back. He propels himself into the air, spinning into a cartwheel before landing back on his one hand, the other tucked the entire time. He gets up and thumps his chest. "I can do that," he says pointing at Mace. "Can you?" HIjack doesn't wait for a reply. He drops to the floor again, tucking his legs into himself until they reappear in the air behind or above or around him. When HIjack finds his groove, all prepositions are possible. 

Mace immediately gets in HIjack's face, fake-punching him and shoulder spinning right in front of him. When he flips to his feet, he gestures like he's putting out a cigarette. Without missing a beat, HIjack picks up the invisible cigarette and tosses it aside. Both b-boys deployed their best acrobatics with supreme swagger, but as soon as the battle ends they embrace, smiles stretching across both of their faces. Cockiness is part of hip-hop culture, but at the end of the day the best see in one another the love and determination they share. Up on the thrones, two of the three judges are pointing at HIjack. 

a person doing a handstand on a stage with a crowd watching

B-boy Minato from Keiki Breaks freezes while balancing on one hand in the Melting Pot.

"I like starting it off," HIjack says, "setting the tone and having people react to me. I like to go out guns blazing and hit you with my best shot, like, 'What are you gonna do about it?' When a song plays and both dancers don't go out, it's disrespectful to the DJ. If I'm confident in my skill, I'm gonna go in." HIjack was the only one in the final four who went first in each of his battles. Even in the exhibition crew battle that took place before the semifinal rounds started, both teams stalled to go second.  

In the semifinal, HIjack is up against Ali from Salt Lake City, Utah. Ali steamrolled his opponent in the first round and won a competitive battle in the second. When the beat kicks in, both wait for the other to start. Ali paces, crossing his arms in front of him while HIjack bobs to the beat. The DJ loops the beat as MyVerse chirps in every few seconds: "Who's going first? Who wants it the most? Is it Ali? Is it HIjack? Are we doing this?" After nearly a full minute, HIjack goes.

He sets the tone with a little running-man top rock before jumping in the air and landing in a shoulder slide. He moves to footwork, kicking in the air before freezing in a backbend and looking directly at Ali. Ali seizes the moment and waves off HIjack as he steps onto the floor. His top rock is fast and aggressive, setting him up to baseball slide across the floor into a series of shoulder rolls before freezing while balancing on his head. He pops back to his feet, holding HIjack's gaze, arms open as if to say "come and get it." As HIjack steps in, Ali fakes throwing a Muay Thai elbow in his direction. After the first round, it's anyone's battle.

HIjack immediately grabs his left foot with his right hand and somehow twists through the space between them without letting go. He shoulder rolls right in front of Ali, who responds by waving his hands close to HIjack and stomping his foot right next to his head. This is allowed, so long as you don't make contact or interfere with an opponent. HIjack spins back to the middle of the floor with some intricate footwork and ends his round grinning at Ali. The crowd reacts with oohs and aahs and "Did you see that?" It seems like HIjack put the battle away, but Ali still has one more round.

Ali jumps close to the judges, whipping a bandana in front of him like he's carving calligraphy in the air. He tosses it aside and finishes the round with clean, technical footwork. It's a solid if not spectacular performance. The biggest response in the room comes from HIjack, who claps approvingly before walking across the stage to embrace Ali. 

A breakdancing competition feels a lot like a sporting event. The competitive intensity and reactive energy from the audience is the same as in any sport. Everyone is there to be entertained and surprised, to see top talent compete at their peak. But breaking is in other ways decidedly not a sport, with winners selected only by judges, without points and without an objective system of evaluation. Even the structure of breaking competitions, where some have to compete for a spot and others are simply invited, lacks the meritocratic process we expect from sports. "Art is subjective," HIjack says. "It's not for everybody's taste. We just hope it's what the judges prefer. The real opponent is myself." 

When the judges decide, two arms are pointing at Ali. 

a person holding a red hat

“People remember how you make them feel, and that’s my goal with dance” says HIjack, seen above before the USA Cypher in LA. “Have them remember how I made them feel.” On the facing page, b-boy Lyric from Keiki Breaks executes a headspin in the Melting Pot in Honolulu.


Ali goes on to win, earning him a place at the Last Chance Cypher and a shot to compete for the World Championship in New York City later this year. For HIjack it's a repeat of last year, losing in the semifinals to the eventual champion. But even when history rhymes, it's still history: HIjack was the first Hawai'i b-boy to make it to the semifinals of a national finals event, and now he's the first Hawai'i b-boy to do it twice. His career is far from over, so he still has plenty of time to create a legacy beyond the history he's already made. Kaimana Domen draws nothing but inspiration fromHIjack's performance. "Whenever I see Jack compete, it makes me so happy," Domen says. "I see him beating all these people and I'm like, I could do that. I just need to train more, become better. If you train with the best, you get better. Jack is one of the best."

Still, a loss always stings. In the weeks after the event, HIjack guesses he reviewed his semifinal rounds "at least four hundred times," he says. "I'm a great freestyler, listening to the music and playing off of it. What I lack is the organization. I have a lot of moves but they're not quite organized." One of the big takeaways, he says, is to be more patient and strategic. "The person who goes last, the judges remember him more. I'm learning now that it matters, there's a whole strategy to it. Let the other person go first, let me see what I'm up against." 

It's hard not to think that maybe just a little bit more here or there would have been enough. It's frustrating, but it's also hopeful for self-tinkerers like HIjack. Now it's about learning from his defeat. He's not slowing down: He's flying out to Belgium and Switzerland for other b-boy competitions, and then to the World Finals, even though he won't be competing. Next year the Olympic trials begin, and of course there's always next year's national finals, too. Breaking might feel like a sport, and the dancers are definitely athletes, but in the end it's about art: creating something beautiful for everyone who witnesses it. 

"My main intention was to make a statement for Hawai'i, and I feel like I repped Hawaii well," HIjack says. "I want to take this as far as I can take it, so that whoever is next up after me will take it even farther and let the world know that Hawai'i got soul. And Hawai'i can win."

Story By Eric Stinton

Photos By Adam Amengual

a person surfing V26 №1 December 2022 - January 2023