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Physical Graffiti: Breaking is Hard to Do

“Like other forms of ghetto street culture — graffiti, verbal dueling, rapping­ — breaking is a public arena for the flam­boyant triumph of virility, wit, and skill. In short, of style.”

by

Breaking is Hard to Do: To The Beat Y’all
April 22, 1981

Chico and Tee and their friends from 175th Street in the High Times crew were breaking in the subway and the cops busted them for fighting.

“We’re not fighting. We’re dancing!” they claimed. At the precinct station, one kid demonstrated certain moves: a head spin, ass spin, swipe, chin freeze, “the Heli­copter,” “the Baby.”

An officer called in the other members of the crew, one by one. “Do a head spin,” he would command as he consulted a clip­board full of notes. “Do ‘the Baby.’ ” As each kid complied, performing on cue as unhesitatingly as a ballet dancer might toss off an enchainement, the cops scratched their heads in bewildered defeat.

Or so the story goes. But then, like ballet and like great battles (it shares elements of both), breaking is wreathed in legends. “This guy in Queens does a whole bunch of head spins in a row, more than 10; he spins, stops real quick, spins … ”

“Yeah, but he stops. Left just goes right into seven spins, he never stops.”

“There’s a 10-year-old kid on my block learned to break in three days.” ‘

‘The best is Spy, Ronnie Ron, Drago, me [Crazy Legs], Freeze, Mongo, Mr. Freeze, Lace, Track Two, Weevil … ”

“Spy, he’s called the man with the thousand moves, he had a girl and he taught her how to break. She did it good. She looked like a guy.”

“Spy, man, in ’78 — he was breaking at Mom and Pop’s on Katona Avenue in the Bronx; he did his footwork so fast you could hardly see his feet,”

“I saw Spy doing something wild in a garage where all the old-timers used to break. They had a priest judging a contest, and Spy was doing some kind of Indian dance: All of a sudden, he threw himself in the air, his hat flew up, he spun on his back, and the hat landed right on his chest. And everyone said, ‘That was luck.’ So he did it once more for the priest, and the hat landed right on his chest. If I didn’t see it I would never have believed it.”

The heroes of these legends are the Break Kids, the B Boys, the Puerto Rican and black teenagers who invent and end­lessly elaborate this exquisite, heady blend of dancing, acrobatics, and martial specta­cle. Like other forms of ghetto street culture — graffiti, verbal dueling, rapping­ — breaking is a public arena for the flam­boyant triumph of virility, wit, and skill. In short, of style. Breaking is a way of using your body to inscribe your identity on streets and trains, in parks and high school gyms. It is a physical version of two favor­ite modes of street rhetoric, the taunt and the boast. It is a celebration of the flexibili­ty and budding sexuality of the gangly male adolescent body. It is a subjunctive expression of bodily states, testing things that might be or are not, contrasting masculine vitality with its range of op­posites: women, babies, animals; illness and death. It is a way of claiming territory and status, for yourself and for your group, your crew. But most of all, breaking is a competitive display of physical and imaginative virtuosity, a codified dance form cum warfare that cracks open to flaunt personal inventiveness.

For current generation B Boys, it doesn’t really matter that the Breakdown is an old name in Afro-American dance for both rapid, complex footwork and a com­petitive format. Or that a break in jazz means a soloist’s improvised bridge be­tween melodies. For the B Boys, the his­tory of breaking started six or seven years ago, maybe in the Bronx. maybe in Har­lem. It started with the Zulus. Or with· Charlie Rocle. Or with Joe, from. the Casanovas, from the Bronx, who taught:it to Charlie Rock. “Breaking means going crazy on the floor. It means making a ·style for yourself.” In Manhattan, kids call it rocking. A dancer in the center of a ring or onlookers drops to the floor, circles around. his own axis with a flurry of slashing steps, then spins, flips, gesticulates, and poses in a flood of rhythmic motion and fleeting imagery that prompts the next guy to top him. To burn him, as the B Boys put it.

Fab Five Freddy Love, a graffiti-based artist and rapper form Bedford Stuyvesant, remembers that breaking began around the same time as rapping, as a physical analogue for a musical impulse. “Everybody would be at a party in the park in the summer, jamming. Guys would get together and dance with each other, sort of a macho thing where they would show each other who could do the best moves. They started going wild when the music got real funky” — music by groups like Super Sperm and Apache. As the beat of the drummer came to the fore, the music let you know it was time to break down, to free style. The cadenced, rhyming, fast talking epic mode of rapping, with its smooth surface of sexual braggadocio, pro­vides a perfect base for a dance style that is cool, swift, and intricate.

But breaking isn’t just an urgent re­sponse to pulsating music. It is also a ritual combat that transmutes aggression into art. “In the summer of ’78,” Tee remem­bers, “when you got mad at someone, in­stead of saying, ‘Hey man, you want to fight?’ you’d say, ‘Hey man, you want to rock?’ ” Inside the ritual frame, burgeon­ing adolescent anxieties, hostilities, and powers are symbolically manipulated and controlled.

Each segment in breaking is short — ­from 10 to 30 seconds — but packed with action and meaning. The dancing always follows a specific format: the entry, a stylized walk into the ring for four of five beats to the music; the footwork, a rapid, circular scan of the floor by sneakered feet while the hands support the body’s weight and the head and torso revolve slowly — a kind of syncopated pirouette; the freeze, or stylized signature pose, usually preceded by a spin; the exit, a return to verticality and to the outside of the circle. The length of the “combination” can be extended by adding on more footwork-spin-freeze se­quences. The entry, the footwork, and the exit are pretty much the same from dancer to dancer — although some do variations, like Freeze from the Breakmasters crew, who stuffs a Charleston into his entry, and then exits on pointe. But it is largely in the freeze that each dancer’s originality shines forth, in configurations that are as in­tricate, witty, obscene, or insulting as pos­sible. A dancer will twist himself into a pretzel. Or he will quote the poses of a pinup girl. He might graphically hump the floor, or arch up grabbing his crotch. Someone else might mime rowing a boat or swimming or emphasize acrobatic stunts like back flips and fish dives. Sometimes two breakers team up for a stunt: imitating a dog on a leash, or a dead person brought back to life by a healthy thump on the chest. According to Rammellzee, a DJ who’s gotten too tall to break, the set of sequences adds up to a continuing pantomimic narrative. It is each dancer’s re­sponsibility to create a new chapter in the story. “Like if you see a guy acting like he’s dead, the brother who went before him probably shot him.”

When you choose your moves, you not only try to look good; you try to make your successor look bad by upping the ante. That’s one way to win points from the crowd, which collectively judges. Going first is a way to score a point, but so is coming up with a cool response, chilling out. Through the freeze, you insult, challenge, and humiliate the next person. You stick your ass in his direction. You hold your nose to tell him he stinks. You put a hand to your spine, signaling a move so good it hurts. But the elegant abstract dancing that co.uches these messages counts, too. B Boys from the Bronx and Manhattan look down on the “up rock” prevalent in Brooklyn, a mere string of scatological and sexual affronts without the aesthetic glue of spinning and getting down on the floor.

Naming and performing the freezes you invent are ways of laying claim to them, though some poses are in the public do­main. A lot of breakers are also graffiti artists, and one way to announce a new freeze is to write it as graffiti. Speed and smoothness are essential to the entire dance, but in the freeze humor and dif­ficulty are prized above all. “You try to put your head on your arin and your toenails on your ears,” says Ken of the Breakmas­ters. “Hard stuff, like when I made up my elbow walk,” says Kip Dee of Rock Steady. “When you spin on your head.” ·”When you do ‘the Baby’ and you balance on one hand and move your legs in the air.” “When you take your legs and put them in back of your head out or the spin.”

During the summers the B Boys gravitate to the parks, where DJs and rappers hang out. Younger kids learn to break by imitating the older kids, who tend to out­grow it when they’re about 16. Concrete provides the best surface for the feet and hands to grip, but the jamming is thickest in the parks, where the DJs can bring their mikes and amplifiers. During the winters, breakers devise new moves. Crazy Legs, of Rock Steady, claims the win which he sits on doubled-back legs, was an accident. “Once I was laying on the floor and I kicked my leg and I started spinning,” says Mr. Freeze, of Breakmasters. But invent­ing freezes also demands the hard daily work of conscious experiment. “You got to sweat it out.” You don’t stop, even when you sleep. “I have breaking dreams,” sev­eral B Boys have told me. “I wake up and try to do it like I saw it.” Kip Dee dreamed he spun on his chin, “but I woke up and tried it and almost broke my face.”

Part of the macho quality of breaking comes from the physical risk involved. It’s not only the bruises, scratches, cuts, and scrapes. As the rivalry between the crews heats up, ritual combat sometimes erupts into fighting for real. And part of it is impressing the girls. “They go crazy over it,” says Ken. “When you’re in front of a girl, you like to show off. You want to burn the public eye, because then she might like you.”

Some people claim that breaking is played out. Freddy Love disagrees. “The younger kids keep developing it, doing more wild things and more new stuff. We never ·used to spin or do acrobatics. The people who started it just laid down the foundations. Just like in graffiti — you make a new style. That’s what life in the street is all about, just being you, being who you are around your friends. What’s at stake is a guy’s honor and his.position in the street. Which is all you have. That’s what makes it so important, that’s what makes it feel so good — that pressure on you to be the best. Or to try to be the best. To develop a new style nobody can deal with. If it’s true that this stuff reflects life, it’s a fast life.” ■

On May 3 at 3 p.m., the Breakmasters and Rock Steady crews will break, to rapping by Fab Five Freddy Love and Rammellzee, at Common Ground, 29 Wooster Street at Grand. Their performance ofi Graffiti Rock was organized by sculptor­1 photographer Henry Chalfant. For reser­vations, call 431-5446.  

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