Breaking's New Ground

Generation Next Spins on its Head

A circle clears in the middle of the gloomy basement at Konkrete Jungle and into the arena glides 20-year-old Face, top rocking to the mechanical beat of drum-and-bass. Falling to the ground and using his left arm as a pivot, he spins his body 360 degrees, and kicks his legs out in a "six step"--the basic move all breakers learn. From this simple foundation, Face builds a dazzling routine--half art, half sport--that encompasses back flips, hand stands, and body spins. He becomes a blur of limbs--like a Moroccan whirling dervish turned on his head.

Jumping to his feet, he exits the circle and the spotlight turns on his partner, Hydro, also 20, who attempts one of the most difficult and dangerous routines in breakdancing. Standing on his head, he spins his body while his locked legs rotate like the sails of a windmill. (Performed incorrectly, the "windmill" can seriously injure or kill, which is what happened to old school dancer Turbo, who died after hitting a dry spot in the middle of the floor.) The young audience, most of whom have only seen these moves in videos, applauds with gusto.

Hail the second coming of breakdancing. The inner-city subculture that fell out of fashion in the '80s has found a new lease on life among suburban drum-and-bass fans. These new school breakers come from as far away as Connecticut or upstate New York to dance at parties like Konkrete Jungle or Twilo.

Instead of Bronx b-boys, breakdancing's new constituents are mainly white, middle-class ravers. Most were barely alive when Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force's 1982 classic "Planet Rock"--the record that pushed breaking into the mainstream--first came out. Young drum-and-bass fans are fascinated by a world of urban cool they are too young to have experienced. They've revived breaking as a celebration of the musical roots shared by jungle and hip hop--namely, breakbeats, the extended rhythms that were the building blocks of early rap.

The trend hasn't gone unnoticed by the popular media. Recently, both MTV Live and ESPN's Kids in the Way featured segments on the Rock Steady Crew, the world famous New York breakdance company that's been "b-boying" (the purist's name for breakdancing) for over two decades. The dance troupe, which recently suffered a bitter split when mouthpiece Crazy Legs left to pursue a solo career, is also an integral part of Jam on the Groove, a breakdance show that has been touring the globe for the last few years.

For the first time in ages, breakdancers are turning up in a number of music videos. The most well known is Jason Nevin's wildly successful Euro-house reworking of Run-D.M.C.'s'80s hip hop anthem, "It's Like That," which features a good-natured boys vs. girls dance contest between a multiracial cast of ravers. Breakers can also be seen in videos by big beat­techno acts Fatboy Slim, Sonic Empire, and Propellerheads.

And, in an obvious attempt to target the teenage market, last year the advertising agency Wieden and Kennedy put out a kinetic commercial for Coke, featuring youths corkscrewing on their heads. Never one to miss a trend, the Gap also recently released a lively commercial--under the slogan Khaki Groove--showing breakdancing couples in the store's khaki pants and white T-shirts.

This is not the first time that Madison Avenue has used breakdancing as a marketing gimmick. In the early '80s, advertisers co-opted the street culture phenomenon to sell everything from beer to batteries.

Though the spectacular visuals of breakdancing are still attractive to advertisers, the social context in which breakdancing operates has shifted dramatically since the '70s. Back then, many serious b-boys were refugees from street gangs who gathered in protective crews. Groups like the Dynamic Rockers, the Stone City Posse, and the Zulu Dancers were usually associated with a particular neighborhood and were frequently engaged in interborough rivalry. "Back in the day, it was all about battling," says Steve Hager, the author of the seminal 1984 book HipHop: The Illustrated History of Breakdancing, Rap Music, and Graffiti. "It was a very aggressive pastime--a form of combat as well as dance. The object was to go out there on the dance floor and burn your opponent. And if a crew felt sufficiently humiliated, you might have to fight them for real afterwards."

It wasn't long before breakdancing started to lose its appeal. Hip hop was originally made up of rappers, dancers, DJs, and graffiti writers, but by the mid'80s the music industry started to mass-market the movement, promoting rappers as the sole purveyors of young urban culture. MCs became charismatic focal points to sell records while the other artists who made up the scene fell by the wayside.

At the same time, breaking suffered another blow with the arrival of Def Jam rappers like Run-D.M.C., LL Cool J, and Public Enemy. These acts heralded a change from the futuristic, electro hip hop sound of "Planet Rock," with which breaking had become associated, toward an aesthetic of "realness."

Ask any old school b-boy and he'll tell you breaking's demise was further hastened by the corny jheri-curl image promulgated in movies like Breakin', Beat Street, and Electric Boogaloo. "It got overexposed," says Hager. "This very real and vital artform created by inner-city kids became a fad." As with any fad, what the old school created, the next school rejected, only for a subsequent generation to rediscover.

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