At the still-innocent age of six, I put away the Underoos and cape that had supported my crime-fighting dreams and put on the (parachute) pants of a breakdancer. It was 1982, the year Michael Jackson ruled the world, and his video for "Beat It" had captured my soul. The dancing gangsters, in particular the little guy who did nothing but vibrate, were my new Batman and Robin. Soon breakdancing enveloped my life. The first cardboard-and-construction-paper book I produced without my mother's help was a guide to "cool brekdansing" in which men with no bones and lines for fingers illustrated the concept of the wave, the worm, the King Tut. In an art class sometime around the Fourth of July, the teacher asked us to draw something patriotic. I could think of nothing more appropriate than a crayoned portrait of three men breakdancing on a battleship under an American flag. The teacher did not agree.
My first appearance in a newspaper produced by adults was an interview about the breakdancing class at the YMCA. I handled the interview like a pro, giving props to my influences (the vibrating man in "Beat It") and explaining my take on the art form ("It's neat").
But my love affair wasn't meant to last. Soon my Chaka Khan tapes got replaced by They Might Be Giants, and my dreams of backspinning to glory were pushed aside in favor of becoming a director, stand-up comic and finally music writer.
This all came rushing back to me as I watched the Floorwars breakdance battle at the Regional Arts Commission. Sponsored by the Hip Hop Congress, a national hip-hop organization that focuses on the underground, the Floorwar was the follow-up to an open-mic battle the night before that local Congressman (and event organizer) Ron Gubitz declared "off the chain." Around us, dancers were trickling into the room where the dance-off was to take place. They weren't dressed in the parachute pants and tight Michael Jackson Jheri curls my teachers had favored twenty years ago. In distressed jeans, high-end sneakers and obscurely logoed T-shirts, these guys may have been dancing old-school, but they looked pretty cutting edge. Although parachute pants had one advantage that distressed jeans don't: zippered pockets. As turning upside down on head or hand is a pretty standard move, the dancers warming up sent showers of change tinkling to the floor.
One dancer with long dreadlocks bound in a brown bandana lay in the corner doing yoga. This was Fresh, an LA breakdancer who originated the Floorwars concept a few years back. Fresh has been dancing since '82 -- the same year I started my own flirtation with the art. But Fresh never let it go. Now he's a grand master, happier to judge others than mop them up.
"I got tired of being in battles that weren't being judged correctly -- the politics of dancing, popular crews winning," he explained. "So I created a system that's balanced. Like a scale. I start both dancers in the middle of the scale. One guy goes up and does his thing, I move the scale a few notches over towards him. The other guy comes out just as good, the scale moves back to the middle. It's balance."
Fresh was talking literally about the scale -- although he used a shoe that he moved back and forth on the floor to mark which way the scale was tipping.
As the battles began in earnest, one thing became clear immediately: You can be white, black or brown to breakdance, but you cannot be fat. Even the basic "I'm getting ready to dance my ass off" step, a sweeping back-and-forth stutter, is more cardio than most super-size Americans get in a month. And then the guys (and they were all guys) started to dance. I've always been more of a fan of popping and locking, the gyrations in miniature that a breakdancer does while standing, than the floorwork in which feet follow each other in a mad chase, but the acrobatics the dancers displayed were pretty impressive. A fella standing next to me confirmed my wonder: "I get tired just looking at these guys," he said. "That's why I'm a DJ. I just have to move my hands a little." He mimed the back-and-forth horizontal juggling of mixing.
Breakdancing has changed since I was a child, and it was difficult to identify many of the moves. Occasionally a battler busted a quick robot, locking his joints in bursts of mechanical movement. But mostly I had to judge on instinct, and I had to trust Fresh. One contestant would take his turn, dancing for as long as he could keep up his momentum, then another, until each had danced three times. Fresh's Shoe of Judgment system seemed a little more haphazard than he'd let on, but in the end it seemed to pretty well separate the wheat from the chaff.
The battles worked their way to the finals, and the final two dancers squared off. Archimedes, who did somehow look scholarly in dreadlocks and a baggy T-shirt, appeared to have the edge over his opponent through the first two rounds of the finals. Bam Bam, a lithe nineteen-year-old from Lawrence, had been the most impressive dancer so far, but it looked as though he couldn't bring himself to face Archimedes. Was it stage fright at the last moment?
No. It was a set-up. Once Archimedes had danced for the last time and would be unable to retaliate, Bam Bam let loose with a barrage of spinning that culminated with him twirling around the floor on his hands with one ankle behind his neck. The crowd exploded. It was as close to an objective victory as I've ever seen in a subjective sport.
After the battle, more people drifted out onto the floor, but soon they all stepped back to watch Terrence Strong, the three-year-old son of local MC T-Menace. The littler Strong had skills, even getting down with some floor work to mad crowd approval. He was clearly at home on the dance floor. So much so that I was jealous. Stick with it, kid.