Part of a series looking back on my first year of breakdancing.
I competed in forensics--college-level public speaking competitions--for two years. It was a tremendous influence on my life. I learned a great deal about writing, about working with other people, and about confidence. But one of the best lessons I learned from it came from failure at a national tournament.
At GMU, where I competed, the team was fiercely competitive--to an unhealthy degree, in my opinion. Reach the national finals, and you got your name on the team room wall, which was basically the highest honor they offered. I was eliminated at the semi-finals my second year year at nationals, but I went to watch the final rounds, and I was struck by something: yes, most of the finalists were better than I was, but the gap was not tremendous. To reach their level, I probably would have to spend another two years polishing my skills and adapting to some of the community's odd, inbred speaking tics--two years spent on diminishing returns, at the expense of pretty much everything else in my life.
What, I asked myself, was I really hoping to accomplish? Was I here for a handful of plastic stick-on letters in a GMU office building, or did I want to learn about rhetoric? There were other reasons that I left the team--a bad relationship with a teammate, wanting to branch out into other parts of the college experience, the desire to sleep in past 5 AM on the weekends--but that moment was key. That was when I realized that you can choose what to get out of an experience, and that those lessons could be very different from the intended deliverables.
I mention this, not just because I'm a former speech geek who sees most experiences through the lens of three-point structure, but because that realization has been a big part of my perspective on breaking. At 27, I was older than most beginners, and there are portions of the dance's daredevil side that I'll probably never master. As such, I'll almost certainly never win a battle. But that doesn't mean someone like me can't learn a lot from b-boying, even while acknowledging that the dance's competitive spirit is a driving force behind its development. So when making a list of what I've learned, I want to avoid simply listing off a set of moves and freezes, or complaining about all the things I'm still very bad at, and discuss the less obvious, personal lessons instead.
But you know what? It turns out that this doesn't have to be the case. There's no reason that your self-image has to be set in stone, or that you can't go out and meet new people and do new things. Perhaps this is obvious, but to me it was refreshing. As someone who has always hated the idea of "finding one's self" anyway, I've loved how b-boying has grabbed my life by the corners and shaken it a little.
Life's too short to take myself seriously. Besides, I'm a gamer as well as a musician. I regularly position myself in front of a television and A) twitch a lot, B) play pretend instruments with other people, C) stomp on a mat in time with music, or D) all of the above. Looking stupid can be a lot of fun. Worrying about embarrassment, not so much.
This is no small amount of what good teachers pass on to their students, whether in higher education or at a studio. It's what autodidacts often lack: the ability to prioritize and discriminate how they learn, and to acquire knowledge systematically (the same is true of conspiracy theorists, not coincidentally). The self-taught learners I know tend to suffer from this: they spend a lot of time running down dark alleys and backtracking, because they never learned how to learn. Every time I go back to the classroom, I learn a little bit about the metacognitive process, and breaking has been no different.
But maybe most of all, b-boying has reminded me that there are no shortcuts to self-improvement. When I find myself faced with a new task, I'm always tempted to look for a trick, some quick fix that'll let me master it. I think that mentality served me well early in life, and it became a bad habit. There are good and bad methods for learning, but the real improvement in my dancing (and elsewhere) has come when I stopped spending my time looking for shortcuts, and took the hard way instead. I have a lot of work to go. I'd better get back to practicing.
Part of a series looking back on my first year of breakdancing.
Learning the techniques of breaking, whether in a classroom or an informal group, is only half of b-boying. The other half is the cypher--the group circle where breakers dance, at a jam or a battle. That's where the competitive aspect of the dance and large portions of the surrounding culture are realized. As local MC Gorilla Will is fond of saying, you're not really a b-boy or b-girl if you don't cypher. This is also the reason that my friends and coworkers rarely see me dance: b-boys and b-girls don't exactly have recitals. But for a newcomer, finding events to attend in the first place has not always been as easy as you'd think.
Spend enough time on the Internet, and you naturally begin to expect that any offline hobby community--bassists, knitters, fitness instructors, etc.--will have a corresponding centralized online presence that you can tap into, especially given the prevalence of free tools like maps, calendars, and forums. This doesn't seem to be the case for b-boying. With the caveat that I may be missing something entirely, as far as I can tell the breaking community communicates sort of under-the-radar. Events are publicized through word-of-mouth, through social networks like Facebook, and via flyers at other jams. If you're not already networked with other dancers, in other words, it may be hard to break in. As much as anything else, I think, that's the value of local classes: they give newbies a start on building the necessary connections. On one level, this obscurity is intensely frustrating, but it's also got an allure to it. It's a friendly, open underground, but an underground nonetheless.
But let's say you've made it, finally, to a typical DC-area battle event. If it's indoors, you're probably looking at a large, single room of some kind--a gymnasium, a church, or a community center. The DJ is down at one end, with an MC nearby calling out instructions and organizing the battles, which take place in a large circle close to the DJ stand. The battles are usually organized in a loose tournament structure, with prelim rounds followed by a single-elimination tree. An event can take a long time--eight hours, for some events I've attended, especially if there are lots of entrants in large team battles. In between competition rounds, there are usually periods of freestyle dancing, with circles forming up spontaneously around the room.
(It would be easy to read meaning into the many symbolic circles available at a jam: the cyphers on the dance floor, the vinyl records spun against each other to create loops of musical time, and the fluid rotation of footwork and power moves. Sometimes, as part of the dance's rich mythology, these relationships are made explicit. For example, check out this group routine by Ichigeki at the 2005 Battle of the Year competition, which combines all those circles into a single, show-stopping performance.)
Breaking is incredibly competitive, so it's funny to watch the interactions between crews during a battle. They'll toss out rude gestures, taunt the opposing dancers, and generally project an air of (over)confidence. Dancers are judged, in part, on how much spirit they bring to the battle, and how expressive their presentation is. The "character" of a b-boy or b-girl isn't always in-your-face--some of my favorites, like Toyz, may spend pretty much the entire battle just goofing around--but aggression is definitely the dominant mode. And yet at the end of a round, with some exceptions, everyone shakes hands or exchanges embraces. The burns are just for show.
In much the same way, I'm always amused by the contrast between the visual appearance of a jam and its sonic character. As a gathering of (mostly) minority youth wearing baggy clothes and making rude gestures, it's a cultural conservative's worst nightmare. And yet the patron saint of breaking is none other than American icon James Brown, and its musical touchstones are old-school funk, soul, and rock tracks like Babe Ruth's The Mexican or the Jimmy Castor Bunch's It's Just Begun--the kinds of records that DJ Kool Herc spun in the '70s. I don't think it's a coincidence that many b-boys and b-girls, especially the older dancers, regard themselves as partial guardians of "real" hip-hop, dating back from the days when it first emerged from Brooklyn street parties. The idea that breaking is a key element of an empowering urban movement still rings true in the cypher.
In his scholarly study of the dance, Foundations: B-Boys, B-Girls, and Hip-Hop Culture in New York, Joseph Schloss writes:
A cypher can be "built" virtually anywhere at any time: all that is required is a group of dancers. It does not require a stage, an audience, a roof, a dance floor, or even a designated block of time. The cypher's very informality and transience are part of its power; it appears when and where it is needed, then melts away. Rhetorically, it is often referred to as "the" cypher, rather than "a" cypher, which suggests that all cyphers are, in some abstract way, connected. B-boys and b-girls view the cypher with an almost mystical reverence, befitting its status as the most authentic, challenging, and raw environment for b-boying.
There's a lot to unpack in Schloss's chapter on the relationship of breaking to its physical location, but I like this passage in particular. Even with my limited experience, it captures the way that the cypher is not just a place where b-boying takes place, but an integral part of the dance's identity: you can't have real breaking without jams to break at, and you can't be a b-boy or b-girl without cyphering. The cypher is a microcosm of both the dance itself and the social movement it represents. Like b-boying, it creates a dialog of both competition and collaboration. And like hip-hop, it's a way for practitioners to impose a new interpretation onto their surroundings--to remix the environment, effectively, into a space of their own.
First of a series looking back on my first year of breakdancing.
People often ask me why I started breakdancing. "Spite," I usually reply, because if there's one thing I've learned in life, it's how to set up an attention-getting device.
In early 2009, a friend of mine in the non-profit sector invited me to a book club run by a group of D-list conservative pundits and professional think-tank employees (average age: 65 million years. Like the dinosaurs. They were old, is what I'm saying here). It was exactly as awful as it sounds. On the other hand, they served free pizza and it gave me stories to tell. Still, by the last meeting, I was fed up with the discussions, with the topic ("civic religion," which made me feel like Groucho Marx: whatever it is, I'm against it), and with the majority of the participants. So before it wrapped up, I decided to pick a fight.
For the last class, in addition to discussing an Ursela le Guin short story, the organizer told us that we'd round out the experience by singing patriotic music as a group. When my turn came, I said that I hadn't prepared any particular songs--that, in fact, I found most patriotic music to be saccharine and hokey. Instead, I noted that when I thought of music that was uniquely American, what came to mind were jazz and hip-hop: they're both musical forms birthed here (instead of derived from another country's folk music), they both emphasize individual expression within a collaborative structure, and most importantly, they define value in terms of improvisation and invention. All of which struck me as a pretty good description of the American national character, for better or worse.
From the room's dead-eyed stare, followed by its loud denunciation of my ideas, my parentage, and possibly my genetic material (for those members of the room that believed in that new-fangled "DNA" invention), you'd have thought I'd suggested replacing the national anthem with "Big Pimpin'." The rest of the meeting was pretty much derailed: petty revenge achieved! But the irony of it was that while I had argued sincerely, I wasn't really a jazz or hip-hop fan. I generally disliked the former, and never really listened to the latter. After I left the group, that kept bothering me. If I was serious about my argument, I thought, I really ought to put my money where my mouth was and do something about my near-total ignorance of hip-hop. A little bit later, I signed up for my first dance class at Joy of Motion in Bethesda.
I like telling this story for a couple of reasons. One is that I think it's genuinely amusing, and explains how a sedentary rock-and-roll type (read: suburban white boy) like me ended up dancing to hip-hop. But another is that it reminds me that there's no such thing as a bad motivation. I started b-boying because I needed to get more exercise, because I wanted to meet new people, and because it was part of a cultural tradition I wanted to learn more about. But yes, it was also partly out of spite. And that's okay.
Now granted, there are an awful lot of people out there who fuel their worldly interactions with spite, to no positive effect. You know these people: they're the ones who don't understand why certain words are off limits to their particular demographic, or who get upset when they need to press a button to continue an automated phone call in English. I've never really understood that, just as I don't understand people who, when they accidentally step on someone's feelings in a conversation, can't simply apologize and move on (seriously guys, it doesn't cost you anything to say you're sorry even if you're really not). Nobody would say that those are healthy expressions of conflict. Is it possible I've learned the wrong lesson?
The difference, I hope, between those cases and my own comes from the target for that anger. Striking out at other people from spite? Not productive, not cool--and yet, something that many people (including myself) do all too often. What I aimed to do instead was to direct my energies toward myself, using them to kick-start my self-improvement. The resulting experiences with breakdancing have been almost entirely positive: I'm in better shape, I've made new friends and discovered new music, and it's a great conversation starter. I've got lots of reasons that I'm going to stick with it. And yet, none of this would have happened in the first place if I hadn't gotten annoyed at a group of cranky old hip-hop haters. It's like the old saying: living well (or dancing badly) is the best revenge.
Soon after I started taking b-boying classes, I gave myself a goal: in October 2010, I'm going to enter DC's Crafty Bastards 2 vs. 2 battle and try not to make a total idiot of myself. It's a low bar, and I've got about six months to meet it.
At that point, I'll have been breaking for just over a year. I'll need to be able to do a pretty good toprock set, drop, run through some reasonably fluent footwork, and either incorporate or end with some kind of freeze. Right now, I've got maybe half of that, and even that half needs work. So here's the Plan:
On top of all this is a need to remedy my general lack of physical fitness. B-boying has been a fantastic workout--I lost about twenty pounds almost immediately, and I'm certainly a lot stronger than I used to be--but it's not yet enough. So throw some push-ups and sit-ups into the mix, and maybe some jogging with Belle and the dog.
On a more observational note: this weekend I went down with a friend to Circles 11, the JMU Breakdance Club's annual b-boy/hip-hop event. A good time was had by all: the battles were thrilling, the MCs got chewed out by DJ Skeme Richards, and I got to meet some fresh faces. I only had one real problem: there were too many crews.
Not in absolute terms, of course--the more b-boys and b-girls out there, the better. But Circles had 54 crews entered for its 4 vs. 4 battles, each of which had to go through a qualifying round with another crew. That's 27 prelim battles, even before the 8-crew bracket could get started (another seven battles that get extra time). It takes a long time to get through 27 battles--at 8 dancers per battle, that's 216 rounds.
It's so long, in fact, that burnout starts to set in about half-way through. After about 15 battles, you're overloaded in amazing power-moves and tricks, to the point where you start to dismiss even the most incredible feats. "Sure, you did a windmill into a broken-wrist airflare and ended on a perfect elbow freeze. Yawn. What else ya got?" When you realize that you've become this jaded, it's a bit of a shock. I do think it's telling that musicality doesn't suffer nearly as much--dancers who specialize in rocking the beat still hold interest long after the powerheads blur together.
I'm a newbie to the scene, so I hesitate to make prescriptions, but you can feel the energy draining out of the room when there are so many prelim rounds. I'd almost like to see big events limited to 40 crews or so, to keep it from getting ridiculous. Or perhaps we need a way to dual-track prelim rounds, if there were a way to do it fairly. But I feel like there's got to be a way to cut things down a bit and keep the energy up. Not that anyone's going to listen to me for organizational advice.
There's a striking pair of comments early in the TED video above. It's a demonstration by the League of Extraordinary Dancers, who also had a bit at the Oscars this year. Director John Chu comes out to give some background on the project, and at around 3:20 he naturally (given the conference in question) comments on the relationship of street dance to information technology:
I got to meet a ton of hip-hop dancers -- amazing, the best in the world -- and they brought me into a society, the sort of underground street culture that blew my mind. I mean this is literally human beings with super-human strength and abilities. They could fly in the air. They could bend their elbow all the way back. They could spin on their heads for 80 times in a row. I'd never seen anything like that.See the disconnect there?
Dance has never had a better friend than technology. Online videos and social networking ... dancers have created a whole global laboratory online for dance, where kids in Japan are taking moves from a YouTube video created in Detroit, building on it within days and releasing a new video, while teenagers in California are taking the Japanese video and remixing it with a Philly flair to create a whole new dance style in itself. And this is happening every day.
When I was a kid, I decided for about a month that I was going to be a magician. This was probably right after I wanted to be a concert pianist, and before wanting to be an astronaut. My uncle, who worked as an editor for various trade publications, somehow found a magazine for working magicians as a gift to me. I remember that half of it was advertisements for cheesy magic gizmos, and the other half was how-to guides for building your own cheesy magic gizmos. Even as it demystified David Copperfield shows for me forever, it also sent a message: I could do this, because (like any skill) magic isn't really a mystical power, but a combination of cleverness and practice.
I gave up on my magic career soon afterward, but one of my favorite discoveries from b-boying and popping has been the degree to which they both incorporate tricks--I mean, illusions.
(I love that line.)
That's not to denigrate the hard work and ingenuity that's required. It's hard to do a handstand freeze. It take a lot of effort and concentration to pull off a convincing wave. I can attest personally to the fact that you have to be in really good shape to do more than thirty seconds of footwork--and that you can be in a lot of pain the next morning if you try before you're ready. These things aren't easy--but simultaneously, they're sometimes not as hard as they look. And a lot of moves (glides come to mind) were created to look like the laws of physics are being broken, by misdirecting the audience on where the dancer's weight is located, or what body part is actually doing the movement.
I've never understood the thought process of people who think that explaining an illusion ruins it. It's not any less fun watching someone do a blow-up power move just because you know the steps that go into it. The illusion hooks you in, but it's the craftsmanship that makes it endure. In fact, sometimes showing what went into a skill actually helps an audience appreciate it fully.
("And a potato!")
So I think it's pretty cool that someone's gotten a bunch of great dancers together, and that they're doing a web series based on it. It's a neat idea, and a smart way to build publicity for people who probably haven't gotten enough recognition. But I wish they wouldn't tag it as "superhuman." It's the humanity of it--the hard work, talent, and the lack of special effects--that's what makes it interesting in the first place.
You know, once I get this b-boy thing under control, parkour is next.
I miss a lot of things about college--the classes, the sense of intellectual engagement, the unreasonably late hour I could roll out of bed in the morning--but one of the things I miss most is the opportunity for obsession that comes from a flexible schedule. The more I work on learning breaking and popping, the more evident it becomes that I just don't have time to vaccuum up skills at the same rate that I did as an undergraduate.
I tell this story a lot, but I started learning to play bass around the end of my junior year, and I was completely obsessed with it. I spent three or four hours every day practicing. I took it to class. I played along with my roommate's awful techno music. I drilled the same basic riffs--Flea's slap routine for "Higher Ground" and his solo during "Aeroplane," Commerford's simpler runs in Rage Against the Machine, every song from Stop Making Sense--and simple scale exercises over and over again. I got blisters, put superglue on my fingers as prosthetic calluses, eventually grew thick skin on the first two fingers of my right hand from plucking the strings.
I was, in short, pretty hardcore about my practice routine. The result is that while I claim no particularly exceptional skill as a bass player, I'm pretty sure I'll be able to play the instrument at some level until the day I die. It's totally-engrained muscle memory at this point. But looking back on it now, I'm pretty sure that there's no way I could have learned to play at the same depth--even allowing for a slower pace--if I were to start today. I just wouldn't be able to make the time, or the intensity. And when it comes to the speed at which I'm learning to b-boy, that's a hard mental adjustment to make, because I unconsciously expect to improve at the same rate.
Clearly, it's just a symptom of adult life. I work an 8-hour day with two hours of commute, so I don't have blocks of time between classes or shifts that I can devote to hobbies. Since the CQ purchase and resulting transition shakeup, I've gotten a few extra responsibilities (including some team management), and when I get home often the last thing I really want to do is sweat profusely in my apartment's laundry room. So at this point I practice popping and breaking two, maybe three times a week for around an hour at a time. Progress is slow, my footwork is still awful, and my shoulders are still way too stiff.
That said, what can you do? I enjoy my work, and don't have any desire to cut it short in any way. It's already hard enough to coordinate with Belle between my classes and the ones she teaches at the gym. And let's face it: my goal for dancing can't be (and isn't) to be the greatest, since I'm starting it late and from a very poor foundation. There's a lot to be said for aiming high--but just as much value in keeping excessive expectations from ruining the learning experience as it changes.
Thanks to Jeff for the title.
Last Friday was the last lesson of my first breakdancing class (the next session starts in two weeks). If I could find my camera, I'd embarrass myself with a movie clip, but conveniently it seems to have gone missing. So what have I learned?
I've learned it's going to take a while for me to get up the nerve to enter an actual cipher with people I don't know. Which is good for me, honestly: in general I'm a quick learner, so I have a tendency to acquire new skills and then lose interest once I hit a basic level of competency. The hobbies I've maintained for longer periods--like bass, for example--required more sustained effort but are ultimately more rewarding. I think this could be one of those.
I've learned a lot about movement. I am not what you'd call light-footed: my normal gait is somewhere between a stalk and a strut. My favorite part of toprock is its constant motion, and its sense that the dancer is never really settling their weight. Although I need a lot more work before it's completely natural, I'm really having fun practicing those kinds of steps--it's a new way for me to move. The same goes for footwork and freezes: even if I'm terrible at them (and I am), they're entirely new movements for my body, and thus both a challenge and a kind of puzzle.
And technically, I've learned how to: sidestep, kickball change, hip twist, indian step, kick step, CC, six-step, four-step, three-step, helicopter, shoulder freeze, and backward roll. I may not be able to do them well, or to move from one to the other gracefully, but that's about twelve more dance moves than I've ever had before. I guess I'm all set to go be highly awkward at family weddings now.
Electric Boogaloo sold separately.
Who Can Roast The Most?: Lessons Learned
On Sunday, the "Who Can Roast The Most?" b-boy competition came to DC for the first time ever, and my dance teacher encouraged us to go. "You'll learn a lot," she said, and I did--not the least of which is how much I've got to learn. There were some seriously skilled dancers there.
My favorite part was seeing really smooth top-rockers. Floorwork, spins, and power moves may get the biggest reactions from the crowd, but they don't always match up with the beat. The really good top-rockers, being less worried about keeping their momentum up for acrobatics, could react to the music and play with the crowd. They had more stage presence, so to speak, and as a musician I thought their performances were a lot more fun to watch. The music was great, too--a mix of funk (James Brown, in particular) and old-school hip-hop (they opened, of course, with Black Star's "B Boys Will B Boys").
I only stayed through the end of the second round, but it was enough to get me excited about learning breakdancing all over again. I'm heading to an open class in DC tonight, and will try to be better about practicing at home from now on.
Something From Nothing: Youtube As Cultural Transmitter
One thing that's been really helpful for me has been the wealth of video tutorials available online for the basic steps. Some of them suffer from Sudden Jump In Difficulty Syndrome, where they go directly from doing basic steps to a mile-a-minute routine, but there's also some really good amateur lessons online. At the very least, it's good to be able to look up how things are supposed to look, or to refresh my memory of the steps involved, when my memory starts to fade a few days after Friday's class.
I'm curious how--or indeed, if--it changes the process of cultural propagation, when it's mediated this way. And that's not just for breakdancing, obviously: I learned to play bass at least partially via online communities and resources. I learned harmonica in much the same way (thanks, HARP-L!) in high school. Eventually, I found communities both on- and offline for playing music, but it was certainly a modern twist on "self-taught" skills.
One of the interesting tidbits from my classes so far has been the way that a lot of breakdancing moves have multiple names, depending on which part of the country (or world) you're in. They're often named after the crew that invented them, or at least got the credit for introducing them in an area. Will that kind of idiosyncracy survive a transition from geographic identification to something more nebulous?
There's a paragraph from Jeff Chang's collection Total Chaos, in the section written by South African hip-hop students Shaheen Ariefdien and Nazli Abrahams, where they compare hip-hop to alchemy:
We don't mean this only in the old-school mystical chemistry way. We see hip-hop as the resilience of the human spirit, that process of transforming yourself and your environment, kinda like Common's observation that under the FUBU is a guru untapped. Imagine the oppressive conditions caused by the barbarism of Ronald Reagan's neoliberal economic strategies. The youth of South and West Bronx had little resources, were systematically marginalized and alienated, but filled with an audacity and inner capacity to want to rock the planet. No musical equipment? Well, then beatbox! We've heard many heads equate hip-hop with producing something out of nothing. We disagree. Hip-hop is about seeing the something in what we are often told is nothing.
It is, no doubt, lazy tech-utopian thinking to say something like "YouTube could influence hip-hop"--or to act like a bunch of largely middle-class kids uploading videos means anything about the direction of a culture I'm largely unqualified to comment on (like, I read a couple of books and took a class, so I'm an expert now, right?). It might be more accurate to say that the reverse is true--that YouTube's untidy mix of professional content, cultural detritus, and amateur-authored mementos sounds very much like the spirit that Ariefdien and Abrahams identified for hip-hop (even down to the critics who dismiss said content as nothing but valueless narcissism). Something to think about.
Tonight I'm attending the second of five Intro to Breakdancing classes in Bethesda. It seemed like a good idea at the time. I'd been reading Jeff Chang's Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation and watching Planet B-Boy on Netflix. And I've always had trouble A) dancing and B) exercising, so why not learn to do both?
It didn't surprise me that I'm a bit short on the coordination necessary to be a natural breakdancer, or that my hip-hop attitude is somewhere between Don Draper and Michael Bolton. It shouldn't have surprised me how out of shape I am, especially given how athletic a style of dancing it is, but for some reason it did. I'm hardly able to switch feet during basic floorwork, much less perform something like a chair freeze. I'll probably be able to manage a decent top-rock (dancing from a standing position) by the end of the classes, but the rest is anyone's guess.
Belle has been very gracious about all this. She snuck me into one of the gyms where she's an aerobics instructor so I could use the mirrored room, and did some practicing of her own in the other corner. I know she feels like she could be in better shape herself, but she's capable of jumping around (while simultaneously shouting directions) for one-hour classes multiple times a week, while I do about thirty seconds of indian steps and then stagger around the room gasping for air. "You looked good," she says, perhaps on the principle that the last words I hear before my atrophied lungs give out should be encouraging ones.
I'll get through this class if it kills me. But let's hope it doesn't come to that.