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March 2, 2011

Filed under: music»performance»dance

B-Boy Year One: Learning to Fall

Part of a series looking back at my first year of breakdancing. I didn't post this with the others, for some reason.

"The ground is your friend," said my first breaking teacher, Emily. "It's always there for you. You've got to get comfortable with the ground."

I am not naturally friends with the ground. At best, it is a dirty, hard surface. At worst, it is covered in things to trip me, and filled with burrowing insects. I don't instinctively trust the ground, and my basic ground-related strategy--cultivated over years of low physical exertion--has been to keep it at a neat distance by walking upright.

But you can't dance without paying attention to the space around and beneath you, especially in hip-hop dance (which has a playful relationship with illusions of weight and time) and especially in breaking. Its central feature, after all, is that dancers drop to the floor and move rapidly on all fours--to the point that b-boys and b-girls have reappropriated the word "footwork" for it. This kind of movement means that I've had to get used to being much closer to the ground than usual, and also that I have to get there from a standing position. In both cases, this means learning to fall down, on purpose.

Falling is something that kids do naturally. They don't think twice about it, because they're deeply convinced of their own invincibility. Adults have mostly lost the knack. Learning to fall (and by extension, learning to breakdance) means reacquiring the confidence that if you hit the ground the wrong way, the worst injury you'll incur is to your dignity. Take that step, and you're on the path to awareness of the ground, and the gravity that pulls you down to it. Both are constant companions that we might otherwise ignore, much as a fish might ignore bouyancy.

I am not quite there yet, mind you. I still freak out a little when I try to flip over into a backspin. But I'm starting to get the idea--I'm starting to make friends with the ground. Much like the cypher, I think that a b-boy or b-girl's close relationship with the floor surface shapes an important part of their mentality. A dancer needs to account for enough space to perform on the ground, as well as keeping enough control to move in tight confines. They need to be able to edit their vocabulary to fit the particular limitations of a given surface, be it concrete, lineoleum, wood panel, or marble. A b-boy or b-girl is always battling, not just with another dancer, but also with the dance environment. And from that struggle comes creativity and flavor.

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