Paolo Bitanga (B-Boy Pawi) on Play
Lee-Sean: We’re back with FoossaPod, a podcast about creativity, community, and the things that matter. I’m Lee-Sean Huang.
In this episode, David Colby Reed and I have a conversation with filmmaker, children’s book author, breakdancer and all around polymath Paolo Bitanga, also known as B-Boy Pawi. We talked about the power of play, pursuing creative careers across disciplines, and more.
Alright, let’s do this! [musical intro]
Paolo:: I'm ready to delve in. Alright, tell me when.
Hi, my name is Paulo Bitanga, AKA B-Boy Pawi. I'm a b-boy, filmmaker, and overall storyteller.
Lee-Sean: Thank you so much for coming onto FoossaPod. Why don't we start with how did you get into all of these things, right? And maybe they're intertwined or maybe they're just separate stories, and we can go from there.
David: Yeah. What are the things and how did you find yourself doing them?
Paolo: I took up piano when I was three, so that was my first musical hobby. And then I started drawing at the age of four. In first grade my parents got me into performance, and I would do elocution, like poetry and stuff. I would do competitions through like first and fifth grade.
Growing up in Manila and going to this all-boys Catholic school, that was kind of like my main jam. I would win these oral interpretation kind of things.
I would perform. We didn't really have like too many plays, but if we did, probably did some of those. And then I ended up doing choir. I played in a band in middle school. And then I think what really changed me and my life was when I discovered breaking or “break dancing” as a most people would call it. And maybe that's because that's something I found on my own. It wasn't something that was encouraged by my parents.
Actually, it was discouraged. It's still discouraged to this day. It's hilarious, in a way. I still like “sneak out,” quote unquote, just to go break dancing away from my parents. Or I don't tell them. They live in the Philippines. I'm in New York, and I'm like traveling to what you call jams, right? These are like huge competitions. I’ll get a phone call from my mom. She's like, “Hey, what are you doing?” I'm like, “Oh, you know, just hanging out with friends…
David: I’m responsible and trying to get additional professional certifications.
Paolo: I'm just like standing on the road in like Orlando outside of this huge venue. There's this booming hip hop music playing in the background. I was like, “Oh, you know, nothing much, just another Saturday night.”
But yeah, it was breaking that really got me into it. And then I think, professionally where I found myself at some sort of peace.
And again, at this point my mom cursed me. This is the first time I heard this, but my mom, like blessed me with a curse, and she dubbed me as “the jack of all trades, master of none.”
And now everyone says that. The first time I ever heard that, I was like, “oh, that's really profound mom.” But it turned out to be something that everyone says.
That's how I settled on filmmaking. What appealed to me about it was that it was this art form that kind of corralled, multiple art forms within it. And so, if I still wanted to practice my love for music, I could do it. Not that I score my own films, but like thinking about score when I make films, or doing music videos, or even editing. Editing is rhythmic in and of itself. It is music. Film cutting is pretty much the same as like music cutting.
Most of my film content is dance related too. So it in a way it lets me keep all of those, all of those pastimes that I feel very sentimental about, and I still want to keep close.
David: It sounds like you're doing breaking while you're doing other stuff, and some of that other stuff is film and editing related. Some of it is like writing.
What's your portfolio of stuff, and do you work on things across that portfolio like all the time?
Or do you find that like, “hey, this is a season where I'm spending more time on film stuff, or this is the season where I'm spending more time on break and do doing the circuit, as you mentioned, and going to these different competitions.”
Do you find that you're doing everything at once or switching through, cycling through?
Paolo: It’s kind of a mix. So career wise, you know, if you asked me what I do, I'm a filmmaker. And then, you get to know me well enough, then you'll find out that I go to these underground competitions.
I keep these separate. They both have a place in my life. So, I think I'm in a peculiar place where, both of these halves of my lives are actually arts. I mean, you can relate as well being designers and what not. You’re craftspeople, and particularly artistic craftspeople.
I always encourage people and my friends, especially if they burn themselves out at their jobs. I always encourage them to find THEIR breaking. What breaking is to me is yoga to other people or running, you know, or some sort of outlet.
‘Cause when you're asking how I manage my time with both, obviously the filmmaking has to take priority because that's my actual career. And I've consciously made a choice not to make the dance my career. Because it’s also the opposite, right? Because when one side becomes a career, it might become like a crutch at some point.
David: Crutch how?
Paolo: I never want to become dependent on it in terms of what a livelihood provides. Cause what it is to me is, because I love to do it, and so I don't want to fall out of love with it.
Not that I'm ever gonna fall out of love with my career, like storytelling. But like, you know, you guys can relate to this. So prior to this, I ran an independent production company here for five years. And you just got to do all sorts of stuff to keep afloat. Probably 80% of it is stuff that you don't necessarily choose to do. You have to do it.
And thankfully, in my life, I keep breaking sacred. I always get to choose what I get to do with my break compared to my filmmaking.
Lee-Sean: So nobody else can own it, right?
Lee-Sean: ‘Cause you own it. And there's no client for that necessarily who is dictating.
Paolo: I've lived in the same building for close to four years, and it was only I think a year and a half ago that my doorman realized that I was like a competitive breakdancer.
He watches World of Dance and So You Think You Can Dance? And he's like, “Yo, dude, when are you gonna get on one of these shows?” And I'm like, “Dude, I've gotten the emails like every year and I just, it's not for me, man.”
I never want that. But I do want that for the people in my breaking community and my friends. For some of them, this is their life, livelihood, and that is their lifestyle. So that's for them. And I also don't want to take that from them by being, you know, just like, “oh, let me try this for fun and take this opportunity away from you.” You know?
David: So earlier you had mentioned that breaking serves as almost a yoga-like function. Excuse me, the function that yoga serves for some other people is akin to a breaking for you.
But how would you characterize that? I'm interested in all these different pieces that come together in your process.
Paolo: Well I do get this from my writing as well. This is the kind of high you get, I guess, from passion projects.
With breaking, lately I've been calling it like nourishing, nourishing my soul, you know?
There will be weeks where I'm just not gonna have time to dance at all. And you're going to notice a difference with me. There's like this internal imbalance.
What's beautiful about breaking, and what makes yoga a really good comparison to it, is that it's actually a physically demanding activity. So you get all sorts of endorphins released. And it's just like an outlet. You sweat and then whatever, that translates to psychologically and physically and emotionally. You get all of those out of it.
At the end of the day, for me, it's what I call nourishing my soul, really. I feel really good about it and it goes like beyond emotional. It's really spiritual for me.
David: Yeah, I’m thinking of this analogy: sometimes we think about nutrition like, “Oh, you've got to get these different vitamins and take this supplement and so on.”
But that’s different from eating a balanced meal. You know? There's something about the totality or the wholeness of a meal that is nutritionally balanced in a way that just supplements and Soylent can't get you, you know?
David: I'm sure there are these instrumental kinds of benefits of breaking for you. It's like, “oh, it's good for endorphins, it's fitness, it's whatever.” But it's also something that probably can't be reduced to its physiological effects. There's just something ineffable about the entire act, and I think that's an interesting idea.
And I wonder how you came to have this particular set of things that you do. And especially with breaking as you're describing as this good-for-your-soul, restorative kind of thing.
I'm curious about how it came to have that role. You were saying from the time you were a kid, you had all these different activities that you are pursuing as creative expressions. Some you chose to professionalize. Some you chose to keep quite apart from the professional. And how did it come to be for you with your current mix?
Paolo: I think that it's, it's really telling the stage in my life in which I got into breaking, which was high school. That's just such a formative time. Like really were asking me to try and to travel back like over 10 years and rationalize what I was thinking there.
But in general, let's just talk about the elements, right? It's a super competitive high school. It was a small school. This was in Manila, it was an international school in the Philippines, but pretty much 80% of the graduating class would go travel west and go to the top schools like in America or in Europe and stuff.
And, as you said, I had my role in that, in that class. Eventually it would manifest itself. I won the quote unquote “renaissance man” award, and I'm proud of that because I was salty for several years prior to that not getting acknowledged for any of the dumb stuff that I do, because I feel like doing it..
I think my version of teen angst in high school was actually believing that I was smart but never being validated for it. Because, especially in a school setting, that validation comes via grades. And I didn't get the highest grades. I didn't flunk anything. But also, I do like to think that I excelled at something, but I wasn't really getting that externally.
And so with breaking it was, you definitely can't rationalize this, but just probably like natural, I saw something cool on a video or TV, like a commercial. And then I wanted to imitate it. This was pre-YouTube era. I think YouTuve came like just the year after. So I would have to search on like, what is that? Those random sites that had like some video hosting, they would have like maybe three breaking videos total. And with those three videos and like maybe one of them was a music video that had a guy dancing for just like a few seconds, from those. I just like extrapolated. Like it was like, okay, I got this, move, this one with this one, with this move.
Mind you, this was in the early 2000’s and quote unquote, “the b-boy movement” was at least 20 years-old by then. So no one was doing it anymore. But I didn't care. This was just for me. I would practice this in my bedroom, realize I was pretty good, or maybe I was able to do some of the moves. And so, what had happened was, I was in an elective class, a dance class in high school. And every year we get special guest dancers to teach us. And the teacher brought in just so happened to be like the godfather of the underground street dance scene in the Philippines. And I owe a lot to him. Shout out to Jay Master. I owe a lot to this guy.
And he taught us a choreography piece. And he noticed I picked up quicker than my peers, and that I had like extra moves that were showing, you know, just like flashing. He's like, “Wait, wait, this guy actually knows some stuff.”
So he approached me after class. He was like, “Hey, did you know that behind the moves that you do, there's like this whole culture, this entire culture, this entire community. And if you want, I can show it to you.” So I was like, “Yeah, I'm totally down.” And he's like, “Great, there's like a jam next Saturday come through.”
And then sure enough Saturday rolls around. I didn't tell my parents. It was like in a really sketchy part of town, and it was like this run down basketball court. I thought it was in the wrong place, but like booming hip hop music led me into this poorly lit like indoor basketball court. And I saw 12 year-olds just like flipping around and stuff, and I was like, “Oh my God, these kids are crazy!”
And more so than that feeling inferior to everyone. I was just in pure awe at that this was just a thing, you know, there was like maybe 50 people total there. And I'm like “That many people are like into this” and like, you know, “they convene on the weekends and do this thing? Sign me up!”
So that's how I started. And going back to the initial question, how it became for me an outlet, it really is just going back to the school setting, being so demanding. I was in this full IB diploma program, and college wasn't even that hard compared to high school. And so sometimes I wonder if I would've survived the high school academic life without breaking
David: One of the things that emerges to me in this story is the role of different kinds of knowing or expression. I feel like we're good at identifying that in other domains. So if someone can recite poetry extemporaneously and, you know, novel poetry extemporaneously, we're awed. If someone can speak like that, in terms of oration or something, we're awed by it.
I feel like there's something akin to that with movement, and I think that encompasses dance and martial arts and so on. Especially in the high school context, there were certain ways of knowing that were privileged or valued, and you felt challenged in, in differentiating yourself in that way. I guess. Cause you mentioned that you're, you might've been more middle of the pack academically in this really competitive academic setting.
And another thought that just occurred to me while we're saying this: there's this whole literature around multiple intelligences, and some of which has been a discredited or is contestable. But the idea that we experience things differently through our different sensory modalities. I think holds up, certainly in my experience, and it sounds like yours and I would venture that it's generalizable, that there's an improvisational sensibility to dance. And in the way that we value people who can start orating extemporaneously or develop novel poetry or riff in jazz. And it's just something that's happening in the setting.
I think you described that when you describe like your mentor calling out your riffs or your proclivity to do that kind of variation. So it sounds like there's this expressive capacity and means of knowing that breaking represents for you. And are there things that from your experience breaking that like you've found to be formative as you go about other aspects of your life?
Paolo: Yeah. To the point of different forms of intelligence, and you briefly mentioned language as well. I think the most humbling thing that I really got out of breaking was the diversity in friends, you know? And like the community around me.
Sometimes I'm at a jam. I'm even just at a session, right? Like a practice session. Let’s say I'm in the studio in the Lower East Side, EXPG. And I look at the guys around me and, and the girls around me, and I'm just like, “who would've thought that we would end up in the same room?”
David: This motley crew…
Paolo: She's from Russia. This dude's from Harlem. This guy programs at Google. How would we have met otherwise?
I think there's a lot to be said about that. And I think that one thing that's truly humbled me is I've met all sorts of people who are prodigies at breaking. There's actually a vocabulary in breaking. I will be the first to say that I'm not the most articulate at it, actually. Like going back to my story earlier, I picked up on stuff quickly, but once you got into the actual breaking, like man, some of it isn't natural to me.
And then you'll meet like some people, who for them it just clicks. And I met some of those people. And because I've done documentary filmmaking, as you can imagine, there's a lot of overlap. So I'd talk to these people in depth about their experiences with breaking.
And surprisingly, I was interviewing this one guy. He's like one of the most aggressive battlers in the Philippines. He'll get in your face. And he's really sharp with his moves, and he's really good. And he's a friend of mine, but if you battle him, he's like a total dick.
But, he tells me that he's really shy, and he was a really timid kid at school. He would be shy to talk to people He'd be anti-social. And in breaking, he's a completely different animal, and I think that says a lot, you know?
I think that language is limited. And it's funny because not only is language limited in and of itself, like spoken language. But there are languages within language. So even like if I'm trying to trying to talk to a French person, that's an additional barrier that we have to hurdle over. And art, in a lot of conversations I've been having, is would fills that void of like really connecting to another person for lack of a good verbal avenue.
It's just better said without words. Sometimes it's through dance. Sometimes it's through painting. Sometimes it's through film. Even literature, by the way, this is this what struck me once I started thinking about that too.
I'm like, “Okay, language is limited. Cool.” An author is trying to tell a message to their reader. The best authors, their message is not in those words, right? So for example, you're watching a film scene, and a good film scene is like a dialogue between two characters. But the best films are not the characters trying to tell you as the audience in a sense, like breaking the fourth wall, what the writer's trying to say. It’s them having a conversation with each other, and it's a subliminal messaging that comes from that conversation. That's what the writer's trying to convey, the screenwriter, the director. Yeah.
David: No offense to fans of Ayn Rand, but like Atlas Shrugged, or books like that, that have characters monologuing 80 pages at a time to explain a philosophy, they tend to be laborious reading. There's a joy, and there's a subtlety in what you're describing in these other kinds of discursive modes, you know?
Lee-Sean: Yeah. I think it's interesting this idea of the limits of language that you brought up before. Right? ‘Cause it reminds me of the German philosopher Wittgenstein [correction: actually he was Austrian] and he has this quote and, you know, my German is horrible, but it's basically, “Die Grenzen meiner Sprache bedeuten die Grenzen meiner Welt,” which is “the limits of my language, or the borders of my language, mean the borders of my world.”
And so since you were talking about film as well, it's sort of like in those old musicals where there's so much emotion between these characters, and then it's like, you know, “The hills are alive!” Right? And it's like it rains and now you're singing and dancing in the rain in those Fred and Ginger kind of movies. I think there's something to that, like the limits of what we do with our bodies working in urban environments in like relatively white collar jobs. There's a limit to that and that sort of expressiveness that you get from something like breaking and how that adds to your language, both kind of filmic language and just everyday expressive language.
Paolo: Yeah. We, we have this one dude in my crew, I podcast and him too. He has a recreational podcast. Check it out. It's Colon Slash. It's spelled out “Colon” C-o-l-o-n space “Slash” because when you use type it with the symbols, it looks like a confused face.
David: We’ll put a link in the description.
Paolo: Yeah, it will be great. But he’s in my crew here in New York. Sometimes he gets really insecure about his breaking because he doesn't move the way that the rest of us do. And he's been doing it for not as long as some of us do. And my crew includes people who have competed internationally, like myself. And sometimes he's trying to do a move we do, and because of the way of how different his body is from like say mine, it might swing him farther or he might spin out of control a bit. It's frustrating for him. This is a regular conversation.
He’s like, “Dude, I can't do it.’ Or like, “I can't do it like the way you want me to.”
I was like, “No, that's exactly the way I want you to do it because no one else can move like that.” I can't even move like that if I want to because like my arms are like this long compared to my body compared to yours, and the way that you move, especially when it's accidental. I think that's, that's the beauty of, and that's something we s we talk a lot about in like various art forms, like the happy accidents, right? Those are like moments that a filmmaker that I follow, the late Robert Bresson, would refer to as truths. He would call those the real truths in art.
You try to do move. He'll try to do it. He'll do it slightly off and lose balance, but he couldn't have planned that. Right? And that's, that's like a genuine expression of his body.
I’ll give you one more. I’ll give you one analogy in the dance world, it's very interesting. Locking, the funk dance of locking, you know, where they wear the striped shirts and stuff. Locking was invented by a fellow named Greg Campbellock Jr.Back in those days there was a dance, the funky chicken, and he couldn't do it. He was like, too awkward. It's like if you tried to do like the floss dance right now, which I can't do by the way, but if I tried to do it…
I'm sure a lot of people make fun of him, but he accidentally invented a new dance style because he couldn't do it. And that's how locking was birthed. And just the angles that he hit by not hitting the angles he was supposed to, and because of how his body reacted appealed to some people on a spiritual level, like the aesthetics of it. It just like struck them, and they were like, “Hey, that's it's own dance and I want to learn that.” And that's how Locking was born.
David: Much in the way that we can talk about language as being subjective, words have different valences or meanings depending on the context and who's saying them. You know, if you are the president of the United States saying something, it's different from a guy on a soapbox on the corner saying it. There are different contexts to language, and language is subjective.
It sounds like there's some of that same idea that is applicable in terms of movement as well, that movement is a subjective expression of some kind of state. And in those subjective differences in movement, you can discover new forms of expression, which I think is pretty interesting.
Paolo: It's really interesting, especially in a breaking context because what tends to be the ultimate form of breaking is the battle, right? And the whole point of the battle, which it's so ironic because in many ways it doesn't inherently belong there. When you think of competition, it's a game and it's like a zero-sum game, right? Like someone's got to win and someone's got to lose.
But ironically, like within breaking and street dance, the whole message is that there is no necessarily right or wrong or like good and bad, and who's to say that you're doing a move wrong because that's the way that your body does that move. In many ways that's your original way of doing that move. And it's, it's really interesting…
David: And actually before you do that, can you explain what a typical battle looks like?
Paolo: That's true. A battle looks like…it's close to what you see in the movies. Like Step Up and like whatever.
Lee-Sean: Save the Last Dance
David: Unsurprisingly, I have not seen those.
Paolo: Exactly, but they obviously take some creative liberties with it and stuff. But the, the general principle is the same. You go one by one, and let's say it's a one on one battle. And I'll go and do my thing. The music is completely whatever is playing in that environment. So it's a freestyle dance first and foremost. Breaking is. That's why a lot of b-boys tend to be horrible when it comes to following choreography, including myself.
But okay, I'll go first. I'll do my thing. It's usually like 30 to 45 seconds, not that I time it, I just started to measure these things by observing other people, and then you do your thing. Then I do my thing. You do your thing. And depending on like what the battle format is, we go that many rounds.
And there's a panel of judges. These are for formal competitions, and they'll judge based on rounds. They have a certain criteria. But in terms of the original battle aspect of breaking, we'll go back until like late seventies, early eighties, just the natural, how battling came about was like, okay, these kids on the street, they discovered breaking. They kind of invented it actually, you know, like you have like the early crews like Rock Steady and NYC breakers and all that. Incredible breakers. It was a matter of like, “Look, I dance with my friends and then, oh, down the block there's like another group of kids dancing. We want to prove that we're better than them.” Right?
So that's naturally how it occurred. And we continue that ritual these days. So I gave you the formal dance battle, but also we have what you call cyphers. These are my fave. These are what a lot of people say is the true b-boy way.
So a cypher is a circle. For those of you listening, you might call it like a “dance circle,” right? You're in a circle, and then maybe you're at a wedding, it's usually whatever. And one by one, like your drunk uncle goes in, and then your cousin goes in like whatever. It's one by one.
In breaking, we do that a lot. And that's what happens at the jams too. And what's really fun about ciphers is, some people have different opinions, but I like the battles that come out of there.
So let's say you have a formal battle happening where you enter and stuff, and you have to qualify. In ciphers, anything goes. So if you and I are in the same cypher, and I'm like, “You know what, I want to see if I can beat David at a battle.” I'll call you out.
David: Probably pretty easily..
bro. Yeah. Well, I wouldn't know that if I just saw you there, but I look at you and then I'd do some sort of gesture or it'd be like whatever. And then it's a battle.
And battles a really intense by the way, you know? And like sometimes they lead to fights and stuff. Some of the most vitalizing moments I've ever had in my life came from a cypher battle, specifically a cypher battle.
Last time I was in Boston, two people called me out cause they didn't know who I was. You know, it's like a territorial thing. And my friends are like, “Dude, people hate you here. And I was like, “No, they love me here. That's the point.”
And I called another dude out there, and you know what? Me and that dude, we went like eight rounds. I accidentally hit him several times. It got pretty intense. And then you know what happened after?
We talked for like 20 minutes. We found out that we watched the same TV shows and anime. We’re like nerds and stuff. And we became Facebook friends, and now we're friends, yo! Those are some of the things I think about when I tell people I'm like, “Yo, find your breaking in your life. Cause like, how else can I meet these people that kind of space, you know?”
David: It's one of the things that strikes me, as you're talking about the battles. I'm thinking, Lee-Sean, you can talk about this if you'd like, but capoeira…Lee-Sean teaches and practices capoeira. And there's this intense dialogic exchange when you see people playing capoeira together. Like you might have practiced particular moves or strings of moves or something, but when you're getting to that exchange, it's putting all those moves in a different context. And I see parallels to other traditions too and ways of knowing.
Since we're calling out other podcasts that we like, one of my favorites is Harry Potter and the Sacred Text. It features these two Harvard Divinity School grads talking about Harry Potter and using methods of analysis that are applied in religious studies to Harry Potter.
And so one of the techniques that they use is this Jewish tradition havruta. And it's typically practiced with the Torah. You sit there with someone. You read a passage. And you ask a question about it and supply an answer and the person that you're reading with also supplies an answer and you go back and forth.
And the idea is that in, I'm quoting someone here and I can't remember who it is, but it's “In argument truth is born,” that there is a truth that you alight on only through this dialogic exchange. And I wonder whether and to what degree that parallels some of the capoeira or breaking experiences. You know that in this conversation, or in the breaking battle. It's an argument maybe, but there's some kind of dialogic dynamic there. Does any of that resonate?
Lee-Sean: Yeah, it actually reminds me of this apocryphal Plato quote. So it's not actually Plato, but it’s on the Internet so it's real. (Giggles) But it’s basically “you can learn more about somebody in half an hour of play versus like hours of dialogue.” Right? And so regardless of the provenance of this actual quote, I think there's some truth to this in capoeira, right? Because there's this idea that looks can be deceiving, and it's amazing having practiced a capoeira for about eight years, almost a decade now. For example, people who don't look like that kind of fitness model version of a capoeirista, which you often see, right? It's usually like very tan, eight-pack abs, can do back flips. And there are people who look like that.
There's also people who you wouldn't expect to do amazing things. I was at this capoeira festival in Brazil a few years ago. I was still very much a beginner then, and it was a game, sort of like the equivalent of a battle in breaking. It was a graduation, so somebody was getting his next cord of contramestre, which is like almost master, right? You're next to a master. And he was playing a master who was this middle-aged woman, kind of heavy-set. So she basically had been playing her whole life but was on the older side. And this young guy, he was getting, his cord was literally like doing flips in mid-air, around her. And she was just kind of moving around, evading him.
And then all of a sudden, she just takes him out.
Lee-Sean: Like he landed wrong, and it was just like the most subtle, basic flick of the foot, and he fell. And the crowd just started roaring. Because that's like this sort of finesse and the poetry of this, right? Yes, you've got youth and acrobatics on your side, but she's still a master. And that there's something almost zen about that and like minimalist, right? It was like you've done all of this stuff and all I had to do was put my foot in the right place at the right time and like sayonara.
David: So she Hemingway’ed him.
Lee-Sean: I guess so.
Paolo: Just going off you guys. And we are in essence practicing exactly what we're talking about right now. This is like a cypher in and of itself.
And also, I'm not going to go into detail, but last time I heard from a guy, he's from another dance style called Light Feet. It's a younger dance style up in Harlem. He told me that cypher actually originates from an Islamic practice. So I'd like to research into that. And it's basically like a form of conversation. That's what I thought about when you mentioned the Jewish practice, which sounds really dope by the way.
But you Lee-Sean, you mentioned, you mentioned play and you mentioned games. I apply play thinking, I guess, to so much of what I do.
And just going back to the idea of the battle, and why I had to distinguish between a formal competition battle with judges and rules versus a cypher battle, which happens organically. The latter is more of a zero-sum game. And I dunno if you're familiar with this book, because at NYU they made a bunch of NYU kids read it, but it's called a Finite Games and Infinite Games.
I'll sum it up for you, but the idea of a finite game is a game that you play to win, right? It’s zero-sum. And an infinite game is a game that you play to keep playing. You actually need both in your life, of course.
And so I'm not saying that I'm an infinite games guy. And whatever. No, I play finite games as well, but it's a way of perceiving your life, right? Maybe infinite games is like your long-term paths, and finite games are more of your goals in life.
But going back to the cypher and the battles, I find ciphers to be an infinite game, like literally you want to see how many rounds you can do against each other. And also, with each round, the narrative changes, right?
So I'll give you a sample verbal account of a cypher battle. Even before the battle starts. One guy goes in and…okay, we'll use myself as character.
I'm standing at a cypher. I'm at a jam. I watch one guy go in, and he does a move that I can actually do better, right? And then he ends his round, and he's going back to the side of the circle. But then I tap him on the shoulder, and like, “Hey, let's battle!”
And then I one-up his move, and he was like, “Okay, so this guy wants to do this now.” So he'll throw on another move, and then I respond to that move. And then he doesn't have another response to that and move. So then he'll do, let's say he'll do something not acrobatic, he'll do like footwork something to do with rhythm.
He'll be like, “I can like listen to the music that's playing.” And I'm like, “okay, so I'll change it up.” And then I'll dance to the music that's playing.
He's like, “okay, fine. I can dance faster than you.” It's like, okay, I'll try to dance fast.
So the game changes within the game, and the conversation evolves within the larger conversation. And I think that that's like the beauty, that's what you find also in capoeira, by the way.
And I've, I've been dancing house also lately, which is like a neighbor of breaking. They're not related. They come from different communities historically. But in house a lot of dancers do quote unquote “contact,” and it's really like what capoeiristas do. Actually a lot of house dancers do capoeira, but it's like the same thing and you're dancing at the same time, and you're trying to move around each other and through each other without hitting each other. These kinds of exchanges are really conversations.
David: Lee-Sean, I'm curious about like your response to some of this. Can you talk about your movement workshop and your Thinking Body piece?
Lee-Sean: Yeah, this conversation is actually reminding me of an essay that I wrote called The Thinking Body. It was part of this anthology, this book called Wisdom Hackers that came out a few years ago, and we'll post a link to that.
But basically I talk about some of my own movement work but also like health issues without primarily sedentary job. You know, sitting at a computer all the time and then having to go to a doctor and physical therapy and then just kind of having that time to reflect on all of these ideas, right? And how people bear their stress in stiff shoulders or things like that. But also, could we flip it and think about our bodies, even if we work in kind of white collar knowledge work, as vessels for creativity and not just like brains attached to hands that type on keyboards?
And so doing some of my research, there's stories from Albert Einstein, who talked about how before he could articulate the equations for the theory of relativity, he kind of just felt how it made sense and worked in his body in this kind of hard-to-describe way in words, right?
Or there's also stories that I've since learned about since writing that chapter in that book about George Soros, the financier, who also talks about being able to like feel the market and what the market will do. It's an intuitive thing, but it's using the body as a vessel for different ways of knowing that have to do with science or finance or whatever that is.
So I think that kind of cross pollination is certainly interesting. It's something I feel like in capoeira too. Because I think I'm, I don't come off as this way, but I am naturally shy, but capoeira has helped me be better at social interactions, where I realized the metaphor of “I’m just trying to continue the conversation” or “I’m just going to do something or say something to get a response and then move on from there” and kind of think about these things as a call-and-response versus something that I have to over-strategize.
And I guess that also reminds me, Paolo, of what you said in our prep meeting where you said you often overthink things. But can you overthink things when you're in a breaking battle and it's so immediate?
Paolo: Yes, you can. And it's, it's like at my stage right now in breaking it, it really, is a matter of omission actually. I actually want to talk more about this in like a broader sense later, but I'm starting to be more zen kind of a flow state, like trying to find that flow state because, it changes almost every year, right?
Dance and athletic ability is about muscle memory, but while it happens when your muscles become like too automatic or too dependent, so then you have to find ways to refresh yourself. And that's, and again, it goes back to the idea of playing and games. So there's a common point of debate right now in breaking battles called “sets.” Making sets versus freestyling. And sets is like choreography, right?
I've been a big proponent of sets. So think of sets as like sentences. And you structure certain moves to make a combo, and that's a sentence. You've practiced this combination of moves several times. And one can interpret it as less genuine because it's not in the moment, but in many ways, that set is the move itself. So they do connect that way. But how you use that set and how you morph it within the moment is what interests me.
So first of all, I want to go back to Robert Bresson again. The iconic French filmmaker who proceeded, the French New Wave. So he was who Godard and Truffaut all watched and stuff. And he was very peculiar. His approach to directing actors was that he would make them rehearse their lines like a hundred times over. Right? Before they would roll to the point of is just like getting banal and stuff, all the lines had lost all meaning. But that was kind of the point. His idea is that a language, genuine human interaction, especially with language, is automatic.
The way I'm talking to you guys right now, I didn't rehearse any of this, right? But like my muscle memory of like speaking in this kind of way and like being comfortable talking to you guys is something that's automatic to me.
And so when filmmakers like Bresson rolled the camera, they ask the actors to deliver lines as neutral as possible. And in searching for the truth, it's those little gestures or those little twangs that occur in their voice that they don't constantly think of. That's the truth for them.
So for instance, when I was just talking to you right now, and I'm looking at my hand right now in my hand, just opened up. I was pointing to my head earlier. I didn't rehearse like how I'm moving my hands right now, or if I lean back in my chair as I say this, that's truth, right? That's what comes when I'm comfortable because of automation.
So tying back to breaking, I'm a big proponent of like learning sets and practicing your combos, but once it comes down to game time in the battle, anything goes. So lately in the way that I've been approaching my rounds and battles, my opponent goes around, or the battles about to start. I'm going to go first. What do I do? I only play one game with myself. And that is, I do a very simple combination, and I tell myself, “if you do this combination, the rest of the battle is yours.” Because, as you were saying, you overthink.
I've been performing for like majority of my life and I still get stage fright. How do I overcome that? How do I get rid of the looming anxiety that my friends are watching me or my parents will find out that I am part of this this underground scene?
How do I get that out of my head? Well, I play a game. I'm going to do is when the music starts, and we're going in front, I'm gonna put my right knee down on the ground and I left knee on the ground, my right foot on the ground and my left foot on the ground. And I'm going to do a pose and it's going to be on beat.
And after that, all of that goes away. And then I can just freestyle the rest. It's like a ritual. You know? (Chuckles)
Lee-Sean: It’s sort of like the advice the coaches give to people who do public speaking. You're not supposed to memorize your whole speech, but you're supposed to memorize your opening line in your closing line. And what happens in the middle is sort of the organic thing. I mean, this is assuming that you've done all of your rehearsal, practice, all of that sort of stuff, right? But that if you know a set way of starting, and you know where you're going to end up, if you know your material on down, you can figure out the middle.
Paolo: That goes back to one principle that I hold dearly. And my crew and I, we just practiced this last night. So one of the most life changing b-boy lessons I've learned from one of my other mentors, Dizzy. Shout out to Dizzy from Canada. He just moved to Taiwan. No matter what you do in breaking, you got to get up and get up with confidence. And that has won me so many battles, by the way. I can't count how many times where I fucked up in the middle of a round, and I'm beating myself up over it internally, but I'm never letting that show. And then at the end of it, guess what? I picked my feet up, and I do like this really hard b-boy stance like my mug face, and I look at my opponent like that because that is me telling them, “yeah, I meant to do that.” And true enough, my mistakes never show. Right? It's like, “Oh yeah, you meant to do that.”
And when you asked me earlier what are principles that I carry throughout life that I've learned through breaking? That's probably the biggest one. It's all about the confidence, you know?
David: It sounds like another one might be this idea of learning something, getting that muscle memory, but then also figuring out how to reset. Is that something that you've noticed in other aspects of your like creative practice writ large?
Paolo: Yeah, this is great. So besides getting up with confidence, another thing that you learn, inherently through breaking, is how to learn, right? Cause that's how most people learn breaking. They see a cool move and they're like, “damn, how did I do it? It's so technical. I didn't even know my body could do that.” Right? And then you from there, you get addicted, and you want to learn new moves.
You asked me earlier how the hell do I even get into all sorts of mediums, right? And until now I'm picking up a different one. We're doing a podcast now. I have my own podcast as well. You can find it, The Small Break on wherever podcasts are found. I started that last year and it's just this, uh, this passion for like constantly learning. You know, learning is a skill, and you can actually get better at it. I was beating myself up over not being good at picking up b-boy vocabulary earlier, but I'm getting better at it. And through breaking, I've gotten into all sorts of various mediums where I didn't feel like I was starting from square one.
David: When you talk about how breaking can help you learn to learn, I'm reminded of this activity that I often do in my classes and to a lesser extent in some of our workshops, but I’ve loath to even share it now in case future students are listening. (Chuckles)
What we do is this exercises, you can look this up online, lots of other people do it. It's hardly a novel thing. But you give participants in this workshop some rudimentary materials, and they have to make a structure. And so you give them string, raw spaghetti, like uncooked spaghetti, and a marshmallow and sometimes tape, sometimes not. And the idea is that you have to build a structure and the only rule is that it has to have the marshmallow on the top, and the team with the tallest structure wins.
And you see this enormous profusion of different types of designs. You often you give ridiculous time pressure. So it's 17 minutes, and people will try different things. But the teams that end up doing the best job on this tend to have something in common, and it's that they learn from the activity itself. They have to have enough psychological comfort to try and say, “Oh, this is terrible. Scrap it. Start again. Oh, this too is terrible and shaky.”
And by trying something, several times, they figure out different or infer different principles for spaghetti and marshmallow design of buildings. Because we don't necessarily know how to build with spaghetti and marshmallows. And so this is an opportunity to try something out. And this particular exercise has been done with all kinds of folks like corporate executives and lawyers and engineers and architects and kindergartners.
The people who perform best on the task tend to be architects and kindergarteners. Architects and the kindergarteners outperform lawyers and design masters students at Parsons and other people who have vast subject matter knowledge. But just because they're open to learning, and that's what the kindergarteners get right every time. So there has to be a certain level of comfort with trying something, failing, scrapping it, taking something from it and trying something new. I'd be curious to hear more of your thoughts about how this has helped you learn and learn differently.
Paolo: The first thing that I recall listening to that analogy is that there is also a popular experiment in which 40 different preschoolers were given a paper clip and asked like how to use it, and they got 40 different answers. Right?
And I think that's a testament to children. But like beyond that, it's a testament to having a child like playful mentality in which you humble yourself and you try to forget what you know and try to start off with a blank slate. And I think that is integral to learning, like what you're saying and how we teach ourselves to learn better.
David: One point that just came through in the first part of response though was the importance of play for learning, and how play can be instructive. This is one of the things that we see and we try to build into our practice, but oftentimes people are uncomfortable with play because it's not “serious.” The connection to discreet outputs is more attenuated. But it seems like this is something that you've grokked. I was curious about that, but other things that you might've learned from it.
Paolo: Exactly. To piggyback off the play-like approach, for me, it’s really the child-like approach. I very much consider myself atuned with my inner child and manifested it most especially by the fact that I published a children's picture book. And that taught me so much. It's not only delving into a new industry, but a new medium.
I mentioned earlier about the art of omission or being in a space of omission. Like what better way to really rattle your writing capabilities than to be limited to 34 pages with one to two lines per page. Right? It's crazy.
And even more disruptive, oh my God, man. I was working with my illustrator and her notes for a lot of my lines just destroyed a lot of my more sophisticated language, you know?
‘Cause you know, when you write, you start to fall in love with your own writing, and you want to be smart, and you want to cater to your in intellect, as opposed to like say your readers’ emotion, which you should put in priority one. And so you start to write all flowery and you have like all these flourishes and she's like, “no, no, no, no, no. just say, oh he went to his dad's room. That's what this page is. Jamie went to his dad. That's it.” I was so humbled by that experience.
So I work a lot with kids on sets. And if you've ever been on a film set, it could easily turn into one of the most intense and work environments. You know, like see Christian Bale, like that viral moment where Christian Bale went off against that DP. But like that's a real thing. Right?
And I've shot short films and music videos with kids, and with a crew that, you know, they probably don't like working with kids as much as I do. And sometimes it gets late on the set, the kids get restless, and that's when I put on my other hat, the one that is childlike in and of itself. And the kids saw me as a director at the start of the day, but then I'm like, “hey man.”
I meet them at their level and I'm like, “look, I’m one of you, man. We're going to do this thing together. It's going to be great. You've been working hard.” We play all sorts of games. We joke around. I act silly on set, and I know my limits too, of course, but I think there is something to be said about turning on a childlike approach to things every once in awhile.
Lee-Sean: So Paolo, we're reaching the end of our time together. We ask other guests this as well, but what are you consuming right now in terms of what are you reading? What are you watching? And then, what's next for you creatively in terms of projects?
Paolo: You saw my backpack. And I just went on a shopping spree. So tomorrow It's gonna be a different book, but I'm am reading a nonfiction Tolstoy book. I'm almost done with it. It's “What is Art?” It's like a long form rant.
Lee-Sean: So what is Art?
Paolo: Yeah. Oh Great. This is a big takeaway. I think we kind of pretty much said it, but in short, the real art, to which he spends like a hundred pages, like he spends a hundred pages telling you what counterfeit art is, which is basically most of the art.
He invalidates most of the art we see. But real art to him is communion of souls. Right? And that's what we talked about in terms of language being limited. It's my soul trying to reach out to yours and using language as the medium. Whereas art is a nonverbal form of trying to make someone feel what you feel, and that's empathy, right? We use that word in all of the industries that you and I are part of. Empathy, right? In design thinking, filmmaking, we all want that, and we all need that to to execute properly.
Counterfeit art on the other hand, has four characteristics: it's a borrowing, imitation, affectfulness, and diversion. And that's basically kind of what I mentioned earlier about when I was writing like children's book, adding all sorts of like affective language and like trying to sound like I knew what I was talking about.
And a lot of filmmakers do this all the time. I was like, “Oh, I'm going to pay homage to Akira Kurosawa by shooting the scene in that way.” But real art, the true art that Tolstoy is getting at, is ones that are specific to YOU personally. because it's a feeling that you felt without those filters, without outside influence that you're trying to convey.
The more specific you can get and the more clear you can get at that emotion to convey and make accessible to other people, that's what he calls a good art. So anyway, he rants about a lot of stuff that I disagree with. That's the main gist of it.
Lee-Sean: And what is next for you in terms of creative projects?
Paolo: Oh Man. Well, I'm actually really glad we didn't talk about it the whole time. Maybe for a future podcast. (Chuckles) No, cause that means we had a good conversation.
The main thing that's happening in my life is I'm about to head to the Philippines, my hometown, and I'm going to shoot with my first ever feature film that will be my directorial debut as a feature director. And proud to say it will feature a cast of both known Filipino talents and American talents. So it's very ambitious and that regard, it looks like it's happening. I mean, I have my plane ticket, so wish me luck!
Lee-Sean: Good luck and thank you for coming and doing this podcast with us on your last day in New York before this, a flying off to do this project.
Paolo: Thanks so much guys. This was really a fun.
David: Thank you. This was awesome.
Lee-Sean: Take care!