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When a performance has the capability to extinguish my surroundings and claim my senses, I know it is truly a dance.
Society calls it breakdance. However, the term is incorrect. Breakdancers are in actuality b-boys and b-girls. When they dance on the floor, they break. They dive into an athletic art form, a multi-faceted manifestation of individual expression. They display a historical jewel.
It began in the 60s, when hip-hop began mingling with jazz and funk. Clive Campbell moved from Kingston, Jamaica and became Kool DJ Herc in the Bronx in 1967. The hard funk block parties he began throwing in 1969 won him titles of “pioneer of hip-hop” and “the first hip-hop DJ”. Those who danced during his instrumental breaks were dubbed break-boys and break-girls, and thus the term was born.
The dance battle and the crew are fundamental elements to breaking. Years ago, the gangs of the South Bronx would face each other off with breaking instead of weaponry. However, breaking is powerful and aggressive by nature. These rudimentary battles would often end with violence.
Modern dance battles intend to display skill and strength, especially between crews. The Battle of the Year (BOTY), beginning in Braunschweig, Germany in 1990, is an annual competition internationally seeking crews for the final tournament. The BOTY demonstrates the extent that breaking has reached. Its foreign winners include South Korea, Japan, France, Germany, Italy, and Russia. The creators of breaking have not claimed championship since 1998. Perhaps the Americans are losing their style.
But what is breaking? What does it constitute? What are the influences? I originally had trouble understanding it. Breaking did not originate in the studios; its history cannot be documented. What lives now is a family of styles linked together by the urge to be new.
There is traditional breaking: top-rocking, floor work, and power moves. There are hip-hop styles closely associated with breaking: popping, isolating, and tutting fall under my junior expertise. Within each technique, I have scouted out a master—one who performs with ease and talent, enough to live and breathe the style of choice.
Popping is not one for pretty aesthetics. Rather, its aim is to seem absolutely bizarre. The theory is the division of the body—individual, miniscule impact. When one pops, one may tense a muscle. One may also enter into a popping sequence, tensing muscle after muscle from one end of the body to another.
Frenchman Salah is an extraordinary popper. His performance, made up of chipmunk-like sound effects and a nerdy white gangster look, supports rather than distracts from his skill. The muscle control that he has in his power, strictly commanding his body to pull of clean pops, makes him dance like a machine. The best poppers dance like machines.
Closely linked to popping is isolating. Tom McKie, a hip-hop dancer from New York, sometimes commutes to my high school to teach classes. He explains isolating to us as “just…[moving]…one…thing…at…a…time.” He talks calmly and slowly. He moves calmly and slowly. Isolating is a continuation of his composed mannerisms. At one point, he freezes on the spot. Eventually, a boy pipes up, “Can I touch it?”
Isolating demands patience. If one moves too abruptly, it could result in popping. Done correctly, however, and it results in an intricate pantomimic display. I’ve yet to meet someone who can outdo McKie’s dance philosophy. He encourages simply breaking down daily activities into small steps. For example, when he creeps forward, wretches out an arm to open an invisible refrigerator, and teeters back.
Tutting is beautiful, my personal favorite elevated above all others. The name derives from King Tut, the synecdoche of the right angles signature to Egyptian art. Tutting also requires flexibility and muscle control, but intelligence on a further level. Its movements consider the destination, not the journey, and if the visual appeal is lost, then the style is lost.
Three youtube dancers have taken tutting beyond simple paths of right angles to revolution. Pacman, formally known as Phillip Chbeeb with his appearance on So You Think You Can Dance, adds Salah-like popping to his transitions. Hok, a member of Quest Crew, has a certain mischievous creativity in his invention. Moon, co-founder with Pacman of Marvelous Motion Crew, dances with natural rigidity and sternness. The three masters work together often, channeling the power of multiplicity in unconventional group choreography. The visual appeal of their tutting explores the geometric possibilities to an extent rarely seen before, and may well continue to an infinite ensemble of geometric planes.
Hip-hop and breaking go hand in hand. The difference is that dancers are prone to pop, tut, and isolate. Athletes are prone to break.
You enter by top-rocking, a preface to the breaking to come. The dance is standing, throwing out steps to a rhythm typically stressed on every third beat (one n TWO, three n FOUR). Deftness of feet and confidence of swagger characterize a skillful top-rock. I have always thought repetition was another common feature, but Mathias threw this assumption back in my face. His top rock style is wilder and angrier than any other I’ve witnessed. He has taught me that top-rocking is more than the act of moving your feet, but giving everyone the impression, including yourself, that you can defy gravity.
Breaking on the floor operates in numbers: six-step, three-step, eight-step, throwing in a swipe, CC, or freeze with completely improvised judgment. Beginning b-boys and b-girls show exhaustion quickly, whereas masters train their stamina to maintain the rhythm. I never tire of watching b-girl Anne kicking out an endless stream of energy on the floor, faster than sometimes the eye can see.
Power moves are the ultimate weapons to a battle. Running the risk of causing serious injury, they include windmill, pushing off the ground with legs circuiting, headspin, quite self explanatory, flares and aireflares—propelling legs in circles with nothing touching the ground but palms. These are the most common; rarer ones are often exhibited according to individual style. A b-boy friend mentioned a move in which the dancer curls up in a ball and spins off from the ground in such a position. Though bizarre, they display skills that derive from martial arts, gymnastics, and above all, human strength.
I could never begin to assemble a study of all aspects of hip-hop. It is a living dance, a performance focused on the new and exciting. Individual innovation is the catalyst to its development.
But its real beauty is its informality. I learned hip-hop through friends and youtube.