The sour smell of rotting meat wafts from Karantina’s slaughterhouses down into a bomb shelter-like night club called B 018 , and mingles with the sweaty odor of 200 young people, mostly dudes amped up on free energy drinks.
B-boy Ralph stands back stage alongside 15 other semifinalists, a scruffy-faced lineup of young men in muscle shirts and fitted caps. They are vying for the title of Lebanon’s break dance champion in this year’s Red Bull  BC One Lebanon Cypher.
The emcee takes the microphone and tells the DJ to drop a beat.
“I want something thumping,” he says, and DJ Ceasar K starts the opening double beat, a remix of the Beatle’s classic “Come Together.”
Then the MC calls out Ralph and the rest of the b-boys one by one. With no reservations, he declares his favorite: B-boy Lil Ninja, the runner-up at last year’s competition and Ralph’s most formidable opponent.
The b-boys (break-dancers) know the rules: One-on-one battles will whittle the 16 challengers down to the final two. Three judges – B-boys Taisuke of Japan, Lamine of France and Roxrite from California – will judge on technique, creativity and flexibility.
Break dancing is a form of street dance that mixes hip-hop with gymnast-caliber strength in the form of flips and handstands. The b-boy who wins the final round will head to Egypt for the regional qualifiers.
The b-boys are sent backstage and Ralph awaits his turn in the first round.
The year leading up to Saturday’s competition was not easy for B-Boy Ralph, or 17-year-old Ralph Kabalan from Bikfaya.
One year ago, Ralph was named regional champion of the Red Bull BC One Cypher.
Before the Morocco regionals, however, Ralph tore a ligament in his leg. He ignored the pain until he couldn’t stand anymore and was forced to sit out the final rounds. Surgery and weeks of healing set back Ralph’s return to the gym and the cypher – the term for break dance circles.
“Now I’ve recovered,” he says. “’Til now, I’m just trying to think about all of my mistakes.”
Healed is right. The first round is no sweat for Ralph. He tops his routine with a spread-eagle headspin and gets a unanimous pass from the judges to the quarterfinals.
“I started b-boying when I was 10 years old,” he says. “I got to start break dancing at school and I started practicing a lot. I loved it. Then I got better than my coach, so I started practicing privately.”
He’s entered every major event in the country since 2007, competitions that brought the teen to Greece, Cyprus and Dubai, among other places.
“I lose a lot,” he says. “But every time I lose, I learn from my mistakes.”
Break dancing has become an increasingly popular pastime among Lebanese youth . At least a dozen child b-boys were in the audience, none older than 10.
In Hamra, hoards of teenagers who describe themselves as break-dancers prowl the streets almost every night. Ralph says the real competitors are training in clubs and gyms.
“These people who dance on the street, they’re showing off,” he says. “You can’t learn on the street.”
Back at the quarterfinal round, B-boy Lil Ninja takes down B-boy Roj and comes out a crowd favorite as pockets of onlookers start chanting his name.
When Ralph and B-boy Omar first enter the cypher, it seems like a closer round until Ralph offers one of the night’s most memorable moments. The music switches to the six-beat staccato of the song “Jump on It,” and, caught upside down, Ralph freezes his poses with the beat.
Break dancing, he says, is as much about dance and originality as it is about power.
“Break dance is never called a sport. I used to think it was all about power moves – power moves are like gymnastics,” he explains. “But it’s so different. You have to show the judges there’s something different about the way you do it.”
Adrenaline building, Ralph and B-Boy Shady face off in the semifinals. Ralph’s self-restraint becomes markedly clear in comparison to Shady – who removes his shirt mid-battle and offers a onslaught of sloppy flips as well as a puddle of sweat on the floor.
Music cues for the finals and Ralph is staring at a familiar face. Lil Ninja and Ralph are back in the finals for the second year in a row, exhausted but fighting for the national title.
Lil Ninja heats things up with a lotus flare, suspending himself on his hands as he swings his crossed legs around.
Ralph answers with a windmill, and Ninja throws two fingers up in the air to signal Ralph’s move is old news. The winner isn’t clear and the crowd tightens the circle as it waits for the final verdict.
“B-boy Ralph!” the emcee yells into the mic.
The judges hand Ralph his prize – a giant ticket to Egypt – and a second chance to prove himself on the international stage.
By Beckie StrumDo you break dance? Wish you were one of the B-boys? Share with us your comments about the B018 competition below.