Breakin’ in a Virtual World – Creating Connection with Ian Flaws
By: Anita Solick Oswald
July 15, 2020
We met with Ian Flaws, founder and Director of the Bboy Factory, to learn about his dance studio and community center.
We talked about Breakin’, the challenges of being an entrepreneur, and teaching dance in a post COVID world. Ian shared his commitment to community, family, his students and his art form. And we talked about empowering and instilling confidence in students, the discipline of Breakin’, and what he has learned from dancing and teaching dance.
INTERVIEW WITH Ian Flaws
Q. Tell me about yourself and what you do. What’s your background?
A. I grew up in Boulder, Colorado. In high school I started drawing graffiti and breakin’. At the time, there were only a couple of us in Boulder doing this style of dance. After high school, I went to college and wasn’t very serious about the dance. But after college I returned to Boulder for a couple years and reunited with old friends. Through them I met others and became very serious about Breakin’ again. I was initiated into a local crew called Street Stylez in 2007.
In 2008, I found myself in my mid 20s with no real career direction. I decided to teach English in Seoul, South Korea. There were many dancers there I looked up to and they pay English teachers very well. Over the course of the next two years I spent 18 months teaching in Korea. While there, Hip Hop and Breakin’ became my way to meet people and find community. I got to study with some of my favorite dancers weekly. I also honed my teaching skills. In 2010 after saving a lot of money teaching, I traveled extensively to China, Japan and all over South America. Again, Breakin was a way for me to meet people and connect.
At the end of 2010 I travelled to Phnom Penh, Cambodia to volunteer at a nonprofit organization called Tiny Toones. They used Hip Hop arts to incentivize street kids to pursue a general education. When students completed a credit in math or computer science or language, they would be given a credit to study Breakin’, graffiti or music production. I taught English and Breakin’ for 6 months.
These experiences abroad inspired me to return to Colorado to open a Breakin’ studio. I realized that the Colorado scene was not at a very high level and very isolated. I felt I could use my experiences and connections to build a bridge between our dance community and the global community. In 2012, I opened the Bboy Factory with a mission to provide premier Breakin’ education and connect the local Breakin’ scene with the global scene. Since then we have had great success with students competing in World Championships and winning National Championships. I attribute that success to the culture provided by the studio. In 8 years, we have had an endless list of iconic names come teach workshops and residencies.
Combining my passion for Hip Hop and my background in teaching, I feel I was able to elevate the culture of Breakin’ in Colorado.
A. I do what I do because I love teaching and working with youth and I know how empowering dance is. Hip Hop gave me a voice and something to be a part of and I am committed to paying that forward. This dance is challenging and requires great discipline and dedication. Students who devote themselves do not just learn the dance but become empowered to take on any challenges that await them. I get to share something I love every day and that is incredibly fulfilling.
A. As a studio owner, I am in charge of developing all our programs. I am the head instructor and a lot of my time is spent teaching. I focus myself to teach what I have learned over 20 years in this dance. However, I am also a curator of art and talent. I have worked on many large events over the last 8 years. In that time, I have hired many dancers, artists and musicians. In all my work there is a pervasive motivation to preserve a culture that was precious to me. I think having a clear message and staying consistent to that has been very important to me. While my dance may continue to evolve, it is grounded in tradition and that tradition is the foundation that allows me to continue to build.
Q. What has been a seminal experience for you?
A. I believe the most important experience in my life has been travel. The new perspectives I have gained and the ability to witness the World class level of my dance have given me something to draw on. A fish can only grow as large as its pond and I believe the same is true for us. That awareness has helped me connect with artists from all over the world and bring something global to my own back yard.
Q. How has your practice changed over time?
A. I think my practice has changed as all things mature. I spend much more time observing situations, people, etc. before reacting to them. I am less eager to impose myself in situations and prefer to let things come to me. My teaching has been refined with a decade of seeing what works and what doesn’t work. I have become more focused on empowering a new generation of teachers who I hope will one day take my place. My dance has become simpler in many ways. I try to focus on doing the fundamentals really well. Even if that is not the flashiest style, I believe it is true to my path as a teacher.
Q. Who are your influences?
A. I have many influences. Locally, a dancer named Kevin O’Keefe was my first teacher and remains a big inspiration. He is 10 years my senior and is still teaching. That inspires me to focus on longevity. Of course, my peers inspired me a lot in my early years as we motivated each other to train. A lot of my inspiration comes from Korean dancers, Born, Physix, Ducky to name just a few. Today, my inspiration come less from how people dance and more from how people show up in their community. I am inspired by AsiaOne who runs a nonprofit in California called No Easy Props that organizes free events and provided after school Hip Hop education in LA public schools. She spent a few years in Denver, and I learned a lot from her. I’m also inspired by my wife who helps me stay passionate. She has an incredibly ability to summon great energy and focus it. I am also inspired by my parents who were entrepreneurs and gave me a great models for starting and owning a small business.
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Q. What themes do you pursue?
A. I always pursue the Hip Hop culture I don’t see in popular culture. The culture of Peace, Love, Unity and Having Fun. A culture that builds incredible masterpieces from nothing. DJs, MCs, graffiti artists and Breakers. A culture dedicated to uplifting and providing fun. The essence of Hip Hop has been coopted and lost. I always try to preserve it.
A. So far, I have never written a grant or applied for “funding.” I believe there is something powerful in the self-determined small business. That being said current times have made our business extremely hard and I am starting to learn more about grants and programs that help artists create and thrive.
A. My son. No explanation needed.
A. It is extremely hard to learn. It has a technical foundation and established vocabulary of movements that are integral. Beyond that, there is limitless freedom to explore and contribute new movements. The most important things is that the styles is preserved as new moves become integrated.
A. The music is mostly remixes of Funk, Rock and Soul. The reason it is called Breakin’ is because the DJ remixes and loops the break of the record and extends it into longer sequences for the dancers. Today, there are many producers that are making “Breakbeats” specifically for the dance.
A. The dance is traditionally done is social “party” settings in a circle, we call a “cypher.” Today, however, the dance has evolved into a competitive practice. Large competitions are primarily the focus of most dancers today. To excel, you must practice a lot. So “practice spots” and studios where people dance the most. You have to enjoy practicing and finding a social circle that inspires you and pushes you if you want to compete at a high level.
A. I love the athletic nature of the dance. It lets me express myself through movement and challenge myself simultaneously.
A. Many, but my story is now about providing a platform for others to tell their story.
A. I studied to be a writer in College. However, after graduating I didn’t really have a path before me to pursue. I fell into teaching, to pursue other things. But I found that I was a good teacher and really enjoyed it. Combining my passion with my talent as a teacher was just the natural path, I think. It wasn’t ever planned.
A. Having a family. But the studio is a close second. For many years it was my baby. In 2018, one of my students qualified for the Youth Olympics. That same year, my students performed in the Buell Theater for an international show called Breakin’ Convention. Today, many of my students have far surpassed me. The studio made all those things possible, like a field of dreams.
A. Covid shut us down for over two months. We had to move all our programs to Zoom. Adapting has been super challenging. Also, maintaining a facility that has been empty has been mentally and emotionally exhausting. But the studio is a cultural/community center and I know it is extremely important to a lot of people that it still exists when this difficult time passes. Staying motivated and sacrificing a lot of my time and resources has been a real struggle.
A. Community is many things to me. On a micro level, it is the local people who inspire me to work for something greater. On a macro level it is all the people around the globe who share the passion and love for the same culture as me. However, as I’ve grown and become a father, I’ve realized that community is also something to be curated and built. As a parent I seek to create a village of like-minded individuals who will surround my son and help him grown into the type of person I hope he will be.
A. Patience… and to always keep having fun even in the face of challenges.
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Anita Solick Oswald
About the author
Anita Solick Oswald is a Chicago native and author of West Side Girl, westsidegirlstories.com. Her essays have appeared in The Write Place at the Write Time, the Faircloth Literary Review, The Fat City Review, and the Avalon Literary Review. She studied journalism at Marquette University and holds degrees from UCLA and the University of Colorado- Denver. Anita lives in Niwot, Colorado, with her husband, Ralph, and their two cats.
Her book, West Side Girl, chronicles the adventures of a ragtag brigade of migrant and immigrant children finding themselves in rapidly changing community, Chicago’s West Side in the 1950’s and 60’s. All royalties from book sales go to Off the Street Club, www.otsc.org, a Chicago nonprofit that supports at-risk youth. Founded in 1900, the organization serves more than 3,000 kids in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the country, West Garfield Park, where Anita grew up.