Breaking’s New Ground


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.

There are really two distinct and parallel breakdancing resurgences at the moment. In addition to the rave kids dancing to jungle, a remnant of the original Bronx b-boy scene from the ’70s still exists. At clubs and community centers, thirtysomething veterans teach the art to fresh converts like 26-year-old Patti Morris, who’s been breaking for three years. “Ours is a separate scene [from the jungle crowd],” she insists. “We’re very interested in tradition. With drum-and-bass, there is no history.”

KidFreeze, who has been dancing since 1975 and claims to have invented the windmill, regards the drum-and-bass set wtih wariness. “They’re tampering with the original b-boy formula. Instead of wearing Kangols and shell-top Adidas, they’re sporting baggy pants, blue hair, and piercings.”

More than 20 years after the first b-boy tied his fat laces, the aesthetics of breakdancing have changed, and so have the music and the moves. Because jungle beats are so fast, the new generation of breakers restrict themselves to short bursts of manic activity rather than the more graceful and fluid style of b-boy veterans. They rarely pop or lock their joints, concentrating instead on the more spectacular “power moves.”

But it’s not just the style and music that’s shifted; the ethos is also very different. The economic background of poverty from which hip hop emerged, and the subsequent desire for status it engendered, is missing. Today, teenagers don’t break to get a reputation on the street and aren’t as territorial, nor do they invent alternate personas. There is no Mr. Wiggles or Pee Wee Dance in the jungle scene, it’s just Matt or Sean or Ben. Children of lovey-dovey raves, these kids lack gang affiliations and consequently have a less competitive approach to breaking. “It’s much more casual and friendly than the days when crews battled each other,” says Mac McFarlane,who runs Konkrete Jungle.

Given the differences in class, race, and motivation, there are several theories about how breaking crossed over from hip hop to jungle. One idea is that when Latino kids started attending raves in the early ’90s they taught the moves to white and Asian kids. McFarlane provides another hypothesis: “The current slower tempo of hip hop doesn’t lend itself to breaking,” he explains. “Drum-and-bass may be faster than old school hip hop but it’s still closer to the original than the slow, head-nodding jeep beats of contemporary rap.”

Despite the fond embrace of breakdancing by teenage jungle fans, some more mature drum-and-bass mavens are not pleased by the trend. One place where breakdancers aren’t welcome is Jungle Nation, on West 14th Street. If a telltale circle forms on the dance floor, expect older party-goers to try and break it up. “Breakdancing kills the atmosphere of the club,” says British DJ and entrepreneur DB, 34, who spins at Jungle Nation. “It becomes more of a voyeuristic thing rather than about keeping the vibe going on the dance floor. I know DJs, myself included, who sometimes refuse to play if people are breakdancing.” In DB’s opinion, the only appropriate form of dancing to drum-and-bass is freestyle. “Everyone having it. Not just one person dancing while 50 stand around and watch.”

Still, for new school breakers like Face, dancing has become a way of life. Face makes his living dancing at bar mitzvahs and other events and trains for six hours a day, running, lifting weights, and performing martial arts. “The only time I’m really happy is hanging upside down on my head in the middle of a dance floor. I see breakdancing as a form of meditation.” Still, he laments, “A lot of the new schoolers are stiff. They don’t take it to the next level. The old school is still the best school.”