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July 14, 2010

Filed under: music»performance»dance

B-Boy Year One: Cypher Up

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.)

Battles are typically judged by an odd number of experienced dancers--three is a common number, sometimes five. Each side gets a certain number of rounds per dancer, although they can usually "commando" in with a group routine without counting against their total. In elimination rounds, the judges throw a hand toward their pick for the winner on a count of three at the end of the battle: whoever gets the most votes moves on.

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.

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