A break dancer from Utah is competing for the chance to represent the nation at the world final

Francisco “Ali” Acuna Flores talks about “his passion” and the practice it takes to perform.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Break dancer Francisco "Ali" Acuna Flores shows some of his moves, on Monday, Aug. 15, 2022.

When it comes to break dancing, there’s no rhyme or reason. That’s according to Francisco “Ali” Acuna Flores, who’s been doing it in Salt Lake City for the past 20 years.

“When I break, I like to apply everything I’ve learned over the years,” Acuna Flores said. “There’s no specific movements.”

Acuna Flores recently applied what he’s learned at the South regional Red Bull BC One competition in Austin, Texas, and took home the title of “BBoy Champion.”

He won the competition on Sept. 17 and is one of two champions headed to Red Bull BC One World Final. Acuna Flores, along with BBirl Sunny, will represent the nation on the world stage. The U.S. finals consisted of a 16-bracket tournament. The 2022 Red Bull BC One World Final New York will stream live on ESPN+.

(Carlo Cruz | Red Bull Content Pool ) Bboy Ali celebrates after winning at Red Bull BC One Cypher USA in Los Angeles on Sept. 17, 2022.

“I feel really excited about winning the Red Bull BC One USA cypher so I can go to the World Finals. I’ve never been to the Red Bull BC One World Finals so this is going to be a first for me and I want to dedicate this to my dad who passed away recently,” he said in a news release.

Acuna Flores described the Red Bull BC One competitions as the equivalent to soccer’s World Cup or the NFL’s Super Bowl for break dancing. Acuna Flores, 35, has been “breaking” since he was a teen, starting in his hometown of Mexico City, and for the last two decades or so in Salt Lake City.

“I just saw a bunch of kids at school that were dancing and it really caught my eye,” he said. “Ever since, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

According to Red Bull, break dancing emerged from the “hip hop movement” from the early 1970s, and originated in the Latin American and Black communities in The Bronx, New York. It started gaining popularity when such artists as Michael Jackson used some of the moves, spreading it throughout pop culture.

In Mexico City, Acuna Flores said, the ‘scene’ essentially consisted of kids dancing out on the streets or in their neighborhoods. It’s much different than the scene here in Salt Lake City, which he describes as “unique” because of how secluded Utah is from other places with bigger scenes, like Las Vegas.

It’s small and intimate, and because of that, Acuna Flores said, he has learned a lot. “Because [we’re so secluded] we have to come up with our own content, so we’re pretty unique in that regard,” he said.

Back when Acuna Flores started breaking, there were no classes, like the ones now taught at The Hip Hop Education & Resource Center (HERC), which is owned and operated by 1520 Arts, a local nonprofit for hip-hop artists. It’s where he practices now. The center is named after DJ Kool Herc, the “father of hip-hop” according to their website.

It’s there, on a wood floor, among walls of colorful graffiti art that Acuna Flores practices. On the wall behind him, red script on a yellow patch of sky, above a purple painted skyline reads: Salt Lake City.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Break dancer Francisco "Ali" Acuna Flores shows some of his moves, on Monday, Aug. 15, 2022.

He’s wearing tennis shoes, a black beanie and sweatshirt, and purple nylon pants that make swishing sounds as he moves, bending his body into contorting positions, as easily as the wind blows.

Acuna Flores said he doesn’t have any signature moves, but you can see some common ones as he gets going: Toprocks, steps that are performed standing up, or applejack, where he jumps back onto his hands and kicks his legs out.

From a distance, one might assume it’s easy, the way he spins like a top from one move to another. Later, when he heads outside on the asphalt, there’s more focus with the terrain being rougher. But up close, one can see the concentration on Acuna Flores’ way, 20 years of work coming together as he moves along to the music he’s chosen — jazzy with a hip-hop flair.

When break dancers compete, most of the time they don’t get to choose their music, Acuna Flores said. Whatever the deejay plays, they make their own, a backing track to the main act of their improvisation.

“That’s kind of the beauty of it,” Acuna Flores said. “We just have to improvise.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Francisco "Ali" Acuna Flores breaking at the HERC Hip-Hop Education Center in Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 15, 2021.

Acuna Flores said his greatest moments of joy through his breaking career come from being with his crewmates, just practicing. There are different types of competitions in breaking: The classic one-on-one, and team stuff, like three-on-three, four-on-four, etc.

“Everything revolves around breaking for me,” Acuna Flores said.

In an art form so focused around improvisation, the bending of the body into quick-paced positions, injuries are natural. Acuna Flores said he hasn’t had any major injuries, but most breakers face shoulder, wrist and knee injuries.

“Because we bend our bodies in ways we’re not supposed to, we just come up with these moves that have no names, no structure to them,” he said. “It’s really just trial and error type of dance.”

If there’s one misconception Acuna Flores said he’d try to debunk about break dancing, it’s the idea that breakers just lay cardboard down on the street and dance.

“Breaking is so huge now, recently they just had a competition on ESPN, it has grown so much — but to this day people think we just lay out the cardboard and dance to certain [types] of music.”

For anyone looking to get involved in breaking, Acuna Flores’ advice is simple: Start with hip-hop, the love and skills for breaking will come naturally from there.

“I don’t say it’s a hobby,” he said. “It’s my passion. My lifestyle.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Francisco "Ali" Acuna Flores breaking at the HERC Hip-Hop Education Center in Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 15, 2021.

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