Lilach Chen lets her fingers do the walking…and the dancing, too. Shod in miniature comfy crocheted slippers and tiny Adidas trainers, they bust some amazing moves in videos watched by million of YouTube viewers.
Chen, who lives in Holon, Israel, is the founder and biggest star of a new dance form called “fingerbreaking,” which is essentially breakdancing done only with the hands with two shod fingers as the feet. To Chen’s amazement, something she invented on a lark a decade ago, has gained global popularity.
“I actually call it ‘fingers breakdance,’” says Chen, who prefers a less violent name for her talent, in an interview with The Times of Israel.
Red Bull, the Austrian energy drink brand, coined fingerbreaking (a term unfortunately reminiscent of loan shark tactics) when it sponsored the first international fingerbreaking tournament in November 2013. Chen, 26, was asked to help organize the event, which was an add-on to the 10th annual Red Bull BC One breakdancing championship that took place in Seoul, South Korea.
It’s a sign that world-class breakdancers are giving fingerbreaking some respect.
“I feel bboying and bgirling [male and female breakdancing] is all about creativity and originality, so to me doing it with your fingers is just an evolution of the ideas which the culture was built on,” Jewish competitive break-dancer Michael Prosserman (aka Bboy Piecez) tells The Times of Israel.
“I mean it’s clearly not the same as the true dance, but I think it’s fun to watch the extra creativity you need to make it work,” says Prosserman.
Since fingerbreaking was still relatively unknown before the 2013 Red Bull tournament, Chen and a French champion Bboy named Lilou (legal name: Ali Ramdani) provided video tutorials on how to perform key tricks.
Chen and Lilou chose eight finalists who submitted video entries from 10 regions around the world. The final stages of the competition were carried out in one-on-one online battles until the winner from each region was invited to Seoul to watch the finals of the main breakdancing competition in-person.
Back in 2004, Chen had no idea that she would be starting a worldwide trend when she posted a video her sister Adi made of her trying out a breakdance routine with her fingers.
“I was at home doing nothing and started thinking about a dance routine and tried the moves with my fingers,” recalls Chen, who became a Bgirl at age 15. “I saw that I could do quite of few of the moves, so I asked my sister to film it.”
This was back before the advent of YouTube, so the sisters just showed the video to a few friends. A year later, they uploaded it to the then-new video-sharing site, and it went viral.
In the past ten years, Chen, who no longer breakdances, has made some twenty fingerbreaking videos. Her ability to make her fingers do moonwalks (think Michael Jackson) and windmills (the breakdance move where a person’s upper body spins on the ground while their limbs are in the air) to a hip-hop beat are legendary in fingerbreaking circles.
While she hasn’t given up her day job as an editor of wedding and bar mitzvah videos, Chen has developed a second career in advertising. Her slender dancing fingers have been hired to sell everything from mobile phones to chocolate to wristwatches.
“I usually travel a couple of times a year to go shoot commercials,” Chen notes. “I’ve been to countries like Turkey, Norway, England and India.”
All the travel and public appearances are an impressive accomplishment for Chen, who suffers from social anxiety and shyness. She was diagnosed with and began treatment for the condition only at age 21. Now, she works as a group facilitator at a non-profit organization helping teens overcome social phobias and anxiety.
“Flying abroad was very hard,” Chen admits. “But it has gotten easier and I have become more communicative.”
Chen’s digital moves have inspired young people (mainly male university students) from places like Singapore, Italy, Croatia, Georgia and China to try their hand at fingerbreaking.
“I found the competitors to be really creative in the Red Bull tournament,” Chen says.
In judging the competition, Chen was looking for how many moves a dancer used during their two-minute routines, as well as the level of difficulty of the tricks. She was also watching for whether fingers were keeping rhythm with the music, and for how much creativity a competitor could generate using the diminutive background set and tiny shoes provided by Red Bull.
Chen’s own dancing fingers are often recognized solely on the basis of the signature miniature red-striped Adidas running shoes at their tips.
“Those shoes are my thing,” Chen says. “I got my first pair from a keychain my sister got in an Adidas store in Germany in 2007. I lost that first pair, and then others I got after that. I keep going to eBay for replacements.”
Red Bull copied her preferred shoe style, producing a knock-off for the breakdancing tournament competitors to use.
As strongly as Chen is now associated with her signature sneakers, finger footwear played no part in her initial success.
“I had nothing on my fingers in my first videos. I didn’t even think about adding any costumes or scenery at first,” she says.
As fingerbreaking has evolved, sporting the right look has become just as important as it is on the full-body breakdancing scene. Chen warns, however, that handsome decoration is useless unless a person’s digits can actually walk the fingerbreaking walk.
‘You’ve got to make it like the real breakdancing. It’s got to look like a tiny person’
“You’ve got to make it like the real breakdancing. It’s got to look like a tiny person,” Chen insists.
“It’s not hard for me to do that, but it can be hard for others. Your hands need to be flexible and be able to move to the beat.”
Chen thinks the fact that she played piano for ten years has probably helped her. She didn’t grow up to become a professional musician, but her fingerbreaking stardom proves that all those years of lessons paid.