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This Philly b-boy is on the team planning breakdancing’s 2024 Olympic debut | We the People

“Breaking is responsible for developing me into the person I am today,” said Ben “BoxWon” Barnes McGee.

Meet Ben “BoxWon” Barnes McGee, a West Philly b-boy (or breakdancer) who’s on the leadership team planning for breaking’s debut as an Olympic sport in 2024.

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The first breakdancing competition Ben “BoxWon” Barnes McGee entered as a teen was held at the Municipal Services Building Plaza in Center City. His crew made it to the finals, but came in second overall.

“When we lost I cried and my best friend came to console me,” Barnes McGee recalled. “He said ‘The fact that you’re crying over this event means that you care and you’re going to be great.’ ”

And, over the next decade, Barnes McGee proved his friend right.

Now a world champion b-boy with nearly 60 titles to his name, Barnes McGee, 28, of West Philly, has joined the leadership team at Breaking for Gold USA, the branded name of USA Dance’s Breaking Division that’s planning breaking’s debut at the 2024 Paris Olympic Games.

“I feel like if we can create more environments for people to benefit from breaking like I did, that’s what makes being in the Olympics such a big deal,” he said. “I think the interest will skyrocket and this will lead to more after-school programs to produce more people like myself.”

Zack “Cracker Zacks” Slusser, vice president of USA Dance’s Breaking Division, who’s also a Philly resident and longtime b-boy, said Barnes McGee is among the top 10 competitors in the United States and his participation in Breaking for Gold USA is an “integral” part of bringing legitimacy to the leadership council.

“He’s a beacon for people. Ben is a good voice to represent the community on both stages, on the grassroots level and on this new terrain that breaking is heading,” Slusser said. “Not bad for a kid from the streets — and I know what streets Ben comes from because I used to pick him up for practice.”

Born in Philly, Barnes McGee moved to New Jersey and Delaware with his mom as a kid before coming back to live in the city with his dad when he was 16. In Delaware, Barnes McGee excelled at party rocking, which he said was a subset of breaking, but he wasn’t exposed to true breaking culture until he returned to Philly and attended The Gathering, the city’s longest running hip-hop event.

“That’s the first time I saw real breaking in my face and that blew my mind,” he said. “I’m coming from this world where I’m the best and I realized I had so much to learn.”

Barnes McGee began attending after-school breaking programs in South Philly, but it was during SEAMAAC’s Hip Hop Heritage summer program — where students learn the history of hip-hop, graffiti art, and breaking — that he found his mentors, Joe Son and Candy Bloise.

“In those times I wanted to give up, they sat me down and had those talks that I’d be traveling the world,” he said. “They always used to stress to us that the world is bigger than this. We had to focus on getting out and experiencing and seeing what life is all about.”

At first, Barnes McGee focused on learning the power moves of breaking — the spins, windmills, and flares — before he felt comfortable enough to freestyle with his footwork.

“I think the thing about breaking that makes it special is it’s all about learning the foundation of breaking and then breaking it,” he said.

After receiving his diploma from YouthBulid charter school in North Philly, Barnes McGee took a job at the Race Street Café, where he worked for five years as a busboy, a waiter, and a bartender while trying to make a name for himself as a b-boy. Sometimes, his coworkers would cover his shifts so he could go to competitions, but they’d stress “You’d better win,” in their own lovingly Philly way

“I learned a lot about life at that restaurant. They held me close and really cared for me,” he said. “The entire bar was invested in my career and it was great.”

In the spring of 2017, Barnes McGee got called up to join Monster Energy’s Breaking Team for a battle in the U.K.

“I was telling all my friends, ‘I’m not coming back, this is my only shot to get to Europe,’ ” he said.

After his team won, Barnes McGee stayed true to his word and stayed in London, crashing with a friend. To make money, he traveled to breaking competitions, taught classes, and busked for tourists in London’s famous Leicester Square.

“I became the American who could talk and flip and I ended up taking over there,” he said.

From London, Barnes McGee traveled to Denmark, Paris, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Japan, teaching and competing throughout.

When he returned to Philly six months later, he created his own satellite teaching academy, Bred2Burn. Today, he makes a living through breaking by teaching, competing, and judging. He’s also still with Monster Energy’s team and leads Illadelphlave, which he said is the longest-running crew in Philly.

Part of his mission, he said, is to change the social narrative of breaking.

“It’s a legitimate art form that requires practice and hours and hours of dedication, I am not just rolling on the floor,” he said. “People go to school to get a master’s. I’ve been breaking for 10 years. I have a doctorate in this.”

In his work with Breaking for Gold USA, Barnes McGee is part of the team planning the infrastructure for breaking’s debut at the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris. They have to figure out everything from coaching to judging, and from regional events to finals.

Slusser said conversations to include breaking as an Olympic sport began in 2015 and were solidified at the Buenos Aires Youth Olympic Games in 2018, when breaking made a trial run and blew away the crowd and the Olympic organizing committee. Its inclusion was announced in December 2020.

“They’re trying to revamp the Olympics so that it resonates with the changing landscape and the target audiences they are trying to reach,” Slusser said. “Breaking reaches a bunch of different socioeconomic backgrounds. I think it’s a really smart vehicle for the IOC [International Olympic Committee] to gain relevance and viewership with audiences.”

Slusser said he’d love for Barnes McGee to go after a spot on the U.S. team, but like some of his gravity-defying moves, Barnes McGee said that decision is still up in the air.

“Breaking is responsible for developing me into the person I am today, which is more important than any championship,” he said.

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