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Breaking New Ground: Meeting Berlin B-Girl Jilou, Germany’s top breakdancer

Berlin-based B-girl Jilou is leading the way as breakdancing shifts moves from sub-culture to professional sport.

Photo: Makar Artemev

It’s not an exaggeration to say that breakdancing will be the closest thing to a party at the Olympics. Also known as breaking, B-boying or B-girling, the sport is about to make its debut at the international competition during this summer’s Paris Games. The dancing is entirely freestyle, with a DJ presiding over crowd-fueled battles, as the competitions are referred to – giving the Olympics a whole new beat.

Sanja Jilwan Rasul, better known by her breakdancer name, Jilou, is used to a good battle – and now, she’s at the forefront of an internal one. An Olympic hopeful and a favourite to represent Germany in August, the 31-year-old is just a few power moves away from being tapped to represent breaking on an international stage at a moment when the sport is experiencing something of an identity crisis: its roots are in community and music, but its profile as a professional sport and a commercial enterprise is growing.

It’s great that a person like me represents Germany, but I always feel like I represent more than just Germany

Jilou is already recognised as one of the top female breakdancers in the world; in March, she won the coveted Red Bull BC One Cypher Germany battle and was crowned B-girl champion for the second year in a row. As a child, she dreamed that one day she might perform at an Olympics opening ceremony. Now, she might do one better, and come home with a medal. This summer’s tournament will be staged at La Concorde Urban Park, in the centre of Paris. Sixteen B-girls and sixteen B-boys will compete in the battles, though each athlete breaks solo. The breakers will be judged on six criteria: creativity, performativity and technique – which together count for 60% of the weighted score – as well as variety, personality and musicality. “Our judging system is very holistic,” Jilou says.

“It’s not only about the physical aspect, it’s a comparative judging system. So it’s not about giving you points for your performance and me points for my performance, and then we just compare the points. It’s really about who was stronger in the physical aspect, who was stronger in their execution, who was strong in their musicality, who had a bigger variation and who was more original to the style.”

Photo: Makar Artemev

Although not yet the forerunner in the competition – Jilou has one more qualifying competition in June – it looks like a German B-girl might be able to claim victory. “As for right now, they have 40 top B-girls and 40 top B-boys, and out of the boys, none of the Germans made it. So only the German girls are representing,” she grins. The 2028 summer Olympics, which will be held in Los Angeles, have not yet included breaking in their programme. “It’s very sad because Paris looks like it’s going to be a big success – it’s already sold out. I think everybody’s going to enjoy it,” Jilou says.

But despite all the buzz, Jilou’s motivation comes from more than climbing that podium on behalf of her country. “If I want to really win the competition, then it’s not about having that medal at home. Most of the competitions that I still have on my bucket list that I want to win are competitions where I really enjoy being there. And it’s not about the biggest stage or the biggest prize money, because money comes and goes.”

Potentially representing Germany at the Olympics is a huge chance at defining something, both for breakdancing as a sport and Jilou as a person, as a woman, as an athlete. “I feel like it’s great that a person like me represents Germany, but I always feel like I represent more than just Germany. The colour of my skin, my name, my story… I represent the whole Middle Eastern demographic, I represent brown people in general,” she says. “I feel like it’s super important to have role models that look like you, that move like you, that talk like you. And I feel like I have that responsibility on my shoulders. And I want to take that responsibility. I want to move right.” 


Jilou, born in Freiburg and raised in Cologne, began mastering her own movement at the age of six. “I did gymnastics when I was younger, but gymnastics doesn’t really give you the freedom of expressing yourself,” she says. At 13, she started looking for other ways to channel her athletic energy. She began practising circus acrobatics and silk aerial skills, and the club where she trained also offered a breakdancing class. “When I found breaking – actually, my mum found breaking – it was the perfect tool for me to break out.”

You have to find your own style, your own movement

Here’s how learning to breakdance breaks down, according to her: “Breaking has two stages. There’s one stage where you have to learn the foundations. In the second stage, you have to train yourself. You have to find your own style, your own movement, your own kind of language in movement.” She would go a few times a week to class, but spent most of her time in community centres, learning by experimenting. Such spaces – in Cologne, Jilou spent time at OT Nippes and OT Quäker – are crucial, she says, to understanding breakdancing as what it was before being anointed an Olympic sport.

“Those two did a lot for the culture, for the scene, and they allowed us to practise there almost every day. They even allowed us to have the key to use the training room whenever we wanted,” Jilou recalls. “I feel like especially in Germany, the whole breaking culture only exists because of youth centres and community hubs.”

That adolescent energy, that eagerness to explore personality through movement – this is the idea that her B-girl persona is now built on. “I’d say in the beginning it was all about big moves, being creative and playing around… as a kid, it’s super important to be playful, and I feel like I’ve kind of kept this playful mindset,” she says.

In 2008, Jilou joined Cologne’s Nin10do crew, which at that point was only B-boys – including the likes of Mighty Mike, Shabba and Shepherd. “I feel like all these guys, they are like my big brothers. They raised me. They showed me how life works because I didn’t have older siblings,” she says. Later, a B-girl friend joined the crew, but being one of only two girls still brought unwanted scrutiny.

“I got a lot of attention because I already stood out by being a girl. But then at the same time, I was the little girl who was doing back handsprings and crazy phrases already, so I also stood [out] with my skill.” She stops and corrects herself. “Well, I have to say, my style, my form was not really great yet. But then again, I did have something that people respected me for.”

These years were the beginning of Jilou claiming her own space. “I always fought against being just labelled a gymnast. I always trained really hard to really say I’m a B-girl. I’m a breaker. I deserve that title. I love this culture. I know what I’m doing and I do have my foundation. Just give me some time to work on that.” But they were also tough times. “I live in a privileged country but I came from nothing. I started working at 15 teaching classes, sweeping the dance floor, serving breakfast at six in the morning in hotels or even work[ing] as a cashier in supermarkets,” Jilou wrote in a contemplative Instagram post in 2021.

She now refers to teaching dance as her “office job” – it wasn’t fulfilling. She was studying at Technische Hochschule Köln but took a gap year in Belgium in 2015, where she was offered a job portraying various dancing animals in a touring musical adaptation of the popular German cartoon Tabaluga, which she says, “was a childhood dream come true”. But the end of her contract brought a reckoning, Jilou says. She didn’t want to return to Cologne or her dance teacher gig. “[I realised] I’d rather be broke than doing something that I don’t like.” She had decided: she was moving to Berlin.

Photo: Makar Artemev


When Jilou began breakdancing in 2006, there were very few other B-girls. It was a dance form still dominated by men. Breaking originally emerged from Black and Puerto Rican communities in the Bronx in the 1970s, alongside the birth of hip hop – as the name suggests, breakdancing was what happened during the breaks of the song, with dancers incorporating freezes, footwork and a range of other tricks.“That was the time when the B-boys got down, when the breakers got down,” says Jilou. “You have everyone dancing and jamming, and then boom, the break came in with other super fast drums and obviously that was the time for the breakers, they were dancing on the break.”

They want me to be authentic.

Over time, the gender disparity began to change. There were a few other B-girls around as Jilou was coming up, some of whom kept her motivated, she told Red Bull in 2019. “I remember one night after practice, I was totally frustrated and crying, because I was the youngest in my crew and so they would always pick on me and make fun when I said something wrong. I think I was 14 or 15 at the time and one B-girl took me to the side and asked me what’s wrong? I said that they were all making fun of me and I didn’t know how to react. She told me that I needed to learn to answer back and get a thicker skin. Hearing that from a female who supported me really helped me, so even though there weren’t that many B-girls, those that were around were very supportive.”

Breaking was also becoming more visible in a bigger arena, largely due to sponsorship deals from the likes of Monster Energy Drink and Red Bull, and B-girls were appearing in those battles. “The first time we had a woman on stage at the big Red Bull competition was in 2017. In 2018, they implemented the B-girl competition. In 2019, I was invited and we had the semi-finals. There were only four B-girls and sixteen B-boys on that stage, so in 2020, it was the first time when it was equal,” Jilou says, referencing a competition she would go on to win in 2023. Still, Jilou says, things don’t feel equal just yet.

“The competition between women is very superficial, while the competition between men is more physical. If you compare the beauty standards between men and women, the beauty standards for men are about physicality, being strong and fit. But when you look at a woman, the beauty standard is not about being strong. Which is so weird to me. The beauty standards for women don’t help being an athlete,” she says, blaming a lack of visibility for B-girls at least partly on perception.“ What most people don’t understand is, if you don’t give opportunities for women to shine, you also don’t give them the opportunities to show themselves to sponsors.”

In October 2018, the sport made its debut at the Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires. More than a million people tuned in, according to NBC. Four months later, in February 2019, IOC president Thomas Bach announced that the sport would be added to the Paris programme. “Paris 2024 organizers said their aim was to include sports that can be shared on social media, sports that are a means of getting around, forms of expression, lifestyles in their own right, sports that are practiced every day, in the street and elsewhere,” The New York Times wrote.

As with all subcultures, breaking into the mainstream creates tension between the past and the future. “I come from an era where it was not really about being the best and winning the competitions. Competitions were more about getting together, exchanging, having fun. It was more like a party or a festival,” she says. Now you have breakdancers in Nike ads – Jilou herself partnered with them in 2021, appearing on billboards in Times Square and in promotions with the apparel brands Snipes and H&M. “Working with Nike, they’ve been pushing women so much. I feel like they helped me grow in a sense of really supporting who I am and not asking me to be somebody else. And I feel like they really want me to be the person who I am. They want me to be authentic.”

Her own profile has certainly benefited from commercial success as an athlete, but Jilou feels critical of the sport trending in that direction, worried that it’s going to leave its original ethos behind. “I feel like right now our responsibility is to somehow save this cultural aspect, because the kids nowadays, they don’t understand it anymore,” she says. “Honestly, I feel like that’s getting a little lost lately. Because a lot of dance schools started picking up breaking. On the one hand, that’s great, because it’s super easy to learn breaking now. But on the other hand it’s very hard to understand the culture behind it.”

Once, in conversation with a younger B-boy, Jilou realised that he didn’t know the history behind it. “He just wanted to practise, do the best moves and win competitions, and he didn’t even understand what a cypher means.” The cypher is a freestyle dance jam, where a circle formation allows people to take turns dancing in the middle. It’s central to the discipline.

“The circle is not only about showing that you’re the best in that cypher; it’s also about contributing to the conversation that is happening within the cypher,” she explains. “It’s really not about you, it’s about the whole thing. The cypher doesn’t work with one person dancing. The cypher only works with people being around, with the people being part of it. So if you’re standing in the cypher, you’re part of it.”

Photo: Makar Artemev

Jilou cites two reasons for this shift: “I feel like having the Olympics and Covid coming in at the same time was a huge change. Because due to the Olympics, the focus became more about performing and competition, and due to the pandemic, the focus was more about being on your own. These two aspects kind of broke the scene, because people don’t really want to go to competitions or to jams anymore – because if there’s no prize money, there’s no reason to go. I would still dance if I didn’t make money with it. Because I did dance when I was broke”.


Jilou arrived in the capital in 2017, low on cash but ready to start fresh. “Berlin was a city full of opportunities, full of self-expression and self-development. I felt like I was able to kind of start again here as a new person, because I had so much time on my hands again.” For three months she was able to live off the money she’d saved from Tabaluga; once that ran out, she started working in the supermarket. “Like I said, I would rather work in a supermarket than teach dance classes.”

Berlin gave Jilou room to grow. “I feel like Berlin has two [options] for people who come here with a goal. Either the city takes you or you take over the city,” she says. “You either get lost in the party life and the city kind of swallows you. But if you really know what you want to do, it gives you the opportunity to flourish in every aspect.”

Train like an athlete, but think like an artist

Unlike Cologne, which has a smaller breaking scene, Berlin has various different independent communities of breakers, Jilou says, “I feel like it was not really about entering a community but building your own community. So I found the people that like to train the way I train, that like to take breaking seriously.” From then on, Jilou and the breakers she resonated with started training at Flying Steps Academy in Kreuzberg.

Today, her coach is Fatima Yazici, a former B-girl who was active in the 90s and whom Jilou describes as being “always about the art form itself”. “She’s a very holistic coach, and it really works with me because I feel like everything really goes together,” she says. “She really takes care of every aspect. She’s my mental coach, she’s my physical coach, and she’s my dance coach all at the same time.” Yazici says the pair have a special relationship. “Working with [Jilou] is very special and fulfilling for me, as she is very open-minded in the journey of her development and we can implement and even invent new methods to reach the next level as an athlete and artist,” the coach says.

Their approach to developing her style is twofold. “There’s a saying that we implemented in our community – I have no idea where it came from, so I’m not taking the credit. But we’re saying ‘Train like an athlete, but think like an artist’. By training like an athlete, I look at my nutrition and I look at my conditioning and strength. But then the artist part comes in.

To think like an artist, it’s really about taking care of yourself, taking care of your soul, knowing what do you want to develop? I’m 31, I’m trying to be realistic. I’m not going to learn movements as fast as 16-year-olds. I have a different type of recovery. I need to take care of my body differently. I think having the mental state on top of your game is way more important than having physical abilities,” she says. “If my mental is not right, then [my] physical is not right; if my physical is not right, then my creativity is not working.”

Photo: Makar Artemev

There’s no more questioning who I am, and there’s no questioning of my appearance

Creativity plays a big role in breakdancing; arguably far bigger than in other athletic disciplines. “Breaking has two elements. One is sports, and one is arts. We need the stamina of athletes, but we also need to be artists, and express our feelings,” Japanese B-boy Shigekix, who won bronze at the Youth Olympics in 2018, told Olympics.com. Jilou attributes her own creativity to her parents. “I come from a family of artists. My father is a painter, and my mother is more into the spiritual shamanistic area. My father’s really telling the story of Kurdish people in Iraq through his paintings.” From an early age, she was encouraged to explore all areas of artistic expression. “We had a lot of conversations about art and expressing yourself. I feel like I definitely didn’t want to do the same as my parents, and I was very drawn to moving because I was a very active kid.”


On a deeper level, breaking has allowed Jilou to embrace her mind as well as her physique. “I feel like my relationship with my body changed… I feel like it got more harmonic in a sense of accepting yourself, being proud of yourself,” she reflects. “There’s no more questioning who I am, and there’s no questioning of my appearance. When I was younger, I thought my legs were too short, and I had really big boobs. I was really insecure about that. I didn’t like the features of my face. And I feel like with all of this, the person who I am now, none of this matters anymore, because I learned through breaking and through expressing myself that there are things that make me the person that I am other than my appearance.” It’s a rallying call for the transformative power of art.

In the remaining training time before the Games, Jilou has a packed schedule, trying to balance her intense training routine with day-to-day life. “The last few months have been so up and down. Normally I’d say my training is three to four hours every day. But after my last competition in December, I kind of stopped that schedule… I feel like almost every dancer was very close to burnout.” Over the last six months, she’s been travelling nonstop, competing in Belgium and Hong Kong while doing her best to stay grounded.

Photo: Makar Artemev

“I journal, I macrame, I listen to podcasts,” she says. “I feel like a big thing as athletes is we’re never good enough, because we can always do better. We can always train harder. A big part of my practice is just reminding myself that it’s okay where I am. I see everyone posting pictures on social media and everybody’s, like, so perfect, and I need to remind myself that everybody has to move at their own pace.”

Ultimately, she says, it’ll be about a confluence of all these elements. “When breaking, I feel you can just turn on the music and move and let the music move you. There’s a moment of just letting go and seeing what happens. And I feel like the trust in your body, the trust in knowing what your natural movement is, that feeling of a flow state – that’s really that moment where you feel free.”