Tuesday, April 26, 2011


The first time I ever heard about breakdancing, I was living in England and was at the house of a friend for an evening. Graham Ballard, an English kid who lived down the street, was trying to describe to a group of us about a recent American dance he could only describe as the "shock." He was actually trying to ferret out of us more information about the dance. But because nothing he said or demonstrated rung a bell, we had no idea what he was talking about. We were amused at his assumption, too, certain that Americans would not invent a dance so aimless.

We quickly learned that not only did the dance originate in America, but that we American kids were expected to know all of the intricacies of the dance. This I learned while I attended a little church in Lechlade that was held in a village "hall" (which was used as a dance club on Sunday nights. Many a Sunday morning my father would take us to church early in order to mop up spilled beer and puke before the services began). A group of English kids were always lurking around before or after church services with their "boom boxes", blaring the latest of Grandmaster Flash, Run DMC, and the Sugar Hill Gang. These British kids, we learned, wanted to challenge us Americans to a breakdance battle. To figure out who was best. To vindicate each other's country.

At least amongst the British and American kids, this cultural rivalry existed. Whenever things got heated between us, whenever disagreements loomed, whenever tempers flared, the subject incessantly came about that America was a renegade colony, that America originated from England, that America had no business having troops in England, and (in general) who did we think we were? This was especially true on July 4th when we typically rented English facilities to have our July 4th picnics (We caustically referred to July 4th as "Independence Day"). We were constantly asked by the British who walked the green what we were celebrating, and we would respond with an air of superiority ("We are celebrating our independence from the English" which always resulted in words back and forth and one time resulted in my good friend, Robbie Perez, throwing his hotdog at an Englishwoman. She told him he was "cheeky" a conclusion I agreed with). 

So even though it was 1983, the breakdance battle was about 1776. We used to visit a military outpost called Little Rissington which seemed the equivalent to low-income housing. My parents made friends with a family (she was Italian, he was Black) who had three wild boys. Because their parents had marriage problems, we visited them often, being made to leave the house while they were counseled (I figured out what at least a part of their marriage problem was rather quickly, because the boys revealed to us kids that their father had a three-feet high collection of The Sun newspapers in an upstairs closet. The Sun was notorious for featuring nude women on page two. Or three. I cannot remember, haha). The boys would take us to the "rough" areas of Little Rissington where we observed breakdancing from gritty Army kids. It was here that my brother and I learned the art of fluid body-popping, machine-accurate robotic motion, and floor moves like backspins, "scrambling", and windmills.

We showed up our English counterparts. What we did not realize was that the British kids wanted to beat us at breakdancing, at our own national past-time. We thought beating them fair and square would end the rivalry once and for all, but it didn't. They incessantly worked at it until they got better and better and even invented moves we could not easily imitate. They eventually put a kid against us who had a mean headspin (He was an American living with his English mother, so we didn't think it counted and considered him to be traitor). To be quite honest, I was happy when our church moved from Lechlade to Langford. Langford was a proper chapel with its own graveyard and a quiet road. The only thing we had to worry about were the rowdies stumbling out of the bar down the street (one of its inebriated regulars flashing one our church members).

Over twenty-five years later as I look back on old-school breakdancing, I am intrigued at how very Modern it was. It imitated industrialized culture by an infatuation with hydraulic motion, robotic movement, and wave theory. Precise mechanical imitation and the most number of rotations exploited from an efficient move were two basic criteria for determining the best breakdancers. One overriding, cultural criteria seems to be that you have to be a member of an industrialized culture in order to appreciate or properly execute the dance. The impetus of the dance came from industrial culture. I watched a kid from Liberia recently who fancied himself a Hip-Hop dancer. He gave about sixty of us a demonstration of Liberian Hip-Hop. I could not tell the difference between what he showed us and the many tribal dances I have seen on the National Geographic. Oh, but of course, much of Liberia has yet to join the ranks of industrial culture (and he had grown up in a refugee camp).

In the following clip check out the predictable circular motion of the floor moves. Notice the "waves" and "machining" of the popping moves. Also, notice how the breakers dance, synchronized to the music (not against it) indicating the staged or mechanistic choreography. Perhaps, the most obvious Modern, industrial convention is that the dancers are spaced apart or "alienated" from each other at generous distances, but that they each act as little cogs in the wheel, contributing to the overall flow of the performance. 

Since the late 90's, breakdance fell out of media favor, giving way to more "disorganized" Hip Hop genres, eventually ending with the latest: crumping. Breakdancing was predictable and machinelike. Crumping defines itself by its impredictability and seeming absurdity. It is a quantum version of breakdance where each predictable dance move is exponentially sectioned into small portions and reframed into a stream of glitches, aesthetically imitating Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. In the crump documentary RIZE, it is said that no two Crump dances ought to look the same. Supposedly, the "ghetto ballet" was born out of the 1996 L.A., and clearly, crumping was in revolt against not only local oppression, but against the precision of its breakdancing ancestor (Youtube breakdancing vs. crumping, and you will see that the two Hip-Hop dances have no love for each other). 

Undoubtedly in England right now there is a crump battle going on between British and American kids. Undoubtedly in England right now there are American kids rehearsing crump moves in the bathroom mirror so they can "represent" the American culture to its British ancestor. Undoubtedly in England right now some America kid is obsessed with the outcome of the next battle he has, hoping to have a breakthrough so that he can end the rivalry once and for all. 

But it won't end that way. It will only end once you reframe the relationship, the rivalry, altogether. One thing we American kids did in the 1980's which diffused the situation tremendously was that we routinely played football (soccer) with the British kids on the weekends. Football, being an English national pasttime, belongs to the British, and they owned us at it every Saturday we played them. Interestingly, our humiliation and utter inferiority at the sport actually was some of the only times we ever experienced sympathy from the English youth. 

A shout-out to my friend and mentor Wayne Headley, founder of the first Canadian pop-locking crew (Wayne lower right). And a shout-out to everyone who creatively resolves their problems. Leave a message if you have a unique experience about conflict-resolution!

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