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Walk into the Skate Key, off the 149th Street stop on the 4 and 5 train in the boogie-down Bronx, on a Friday night. You could take a left and spend the evening roller-skating to bling-bling mainstream rap music with most of the kids in attendance. Or take a right, following the sounds of James Brown's "Get on the Good Foot" into a dimly lit, half-carpeted room where people keep their sneakers on, gathering around a wooden floor in the center to cheer their crew members on. This is a B-boy battle. The dance scene that originated in New York City more than 20 years ago lives on, as evidenced by the ciphers, or circles, of young adults who enter one by one to test their breaking skills against other dancers.
A DJ cuts old-school funk, soul, and disco music, looping breakbeats as "Fantom" enters a cipher toprockingdancing on his feetbefore spinning down to his hands and playing with his footwork. His muscular body facilitates his interpretation of the James Brown tune, as he hits beats with his feet and easily pops into a gravity-defying pose supported on one arm, punctuating the end of his "throw-down."
You have to be in shape, like 17-year-old "Fantom," a/k/a Joshua Lozada, to perform this physically demanding dance form. Already a respected member of Ready-to-Rock (RTR) and the Rock Steady Crew (RSC), the Bronx native learned his basics from his mother, Lulu, an old-school B-girl. His eyes glimmer and his mouth breaks into a wide grin as he talks about growing up around the B-boy scene. His 12-year-old brother, Joey, is another up-and-comer.
"[I'll dance] as long as I'm still having fun. It's good to get into, but personally I wouldn't like to make this into a career. I have too much going for me in school," says Lozada, a senior at Herbert H. Lehman in the Bronx. "Break dancing is a dance. It's not just us rolling on the floors. If you take the time to look at our artistic ability, you realize it's about dancing." Outside the city, he says, the form is mutating into a kind of extreme sport, because the kids are learning from videos rather than from authentic teachers.
Starting off as a street-battle form in the mid '70s, B-boying has evolved into a major international movement that remains on the outskirts of the dance world. While it has left its mark on mainstream culture, B-boying in its truest and rawest form still belongs to the youth of this city. It's a scene where "old-schoolers" are just approaching midlife, the elite are barely drinking-age, and the "new cats" have just squeaked through puberty. The dance is passed on from one generation to the next during practice sessions that take place in all five boroughs.
"To be learning from pioneers, you know your style is instantly timeless," says Karyn Lish, 21, of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Now a member of Breaking-in-Style (BIS) Crew, Lish, known in the scene as "the Lish," started B-girling at age 16 in her hometown of Portsmouth, England. She moved to New York two years ago to be with her husband, also a B-boy.
Amid a sea of young B-boys, poppers, lockers, and other uprockers (dancers whose style mimics fighting and who perform to funk and soul music), a look of concentration enters Lish's steely blue eyes as she begins to shuffle her feet and practice her uprocking skills in the gymnasium of I.S. 93 in Ridgewood, Queens. It's startling to see this attractive, slight young woman grabbing the tip of her baseball hat and aggressively honing her "burns," or fighting gestures, and her "jerks," dance movements that personify the 1-2-1-2-3 beat in funk. But her 39-year-old teacher, original B-boy and uprocker Ralph "King Uprock" Casanova of Dynasty Rockers, simply looks on and makes suggestions to clarify her moves. Meanwhile another of Lish's teachers, Richard "Break Easy" Santiago, 37 and a founding member of BIS, helps Julian, eight, with basic B-boy downrocking footwork.
In 1999, in cooperation with the Greater Ridgewood Youth Council, King Uprock organized the Ridgewood session. With up to 100 people ages six to 30 in attendance at any given time, it's known as one of the largest B-boy practice spots on the East Coast. Here, original B-boys help foster and develop the talents of newcomers by teaching the foundation and the history of the form.
Though the scene is dominated by young males, Lish is undaunted and thrives on the energy in this environment. "It's good. I like hangin' around with, like, you know, 30 boys, and rolling around on the floor. It's good for you."