September 28, 2006

Break Back To The Beat

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Truthfully, half the fun of a breakdancing competition is bragging to people that you’re going to one. Before yesterday I had lumped breaking in with demolition derbies and motocross racing; the whole thing had an appealingly ironic twist, as if I were attending some sort of ‘80’s themed Medieval Times. Therefore, happy to spend my Saturday witnessing what I thought would be mere novelty, I jumped into my car, threw on some Clipse and headed north.
Zero Gravity 5 was held in Auburn, a mere forty miles upstate, and while the city is birthplace to quite a few aspects of American culture – say, for instance, the electric chair, – it doesn’t exactly scream hip-hop. Yet as I finally arrived at the New York Institute of Dance and Education, it became clear from the number of cars packed around the block that this competition was not to be taken lightly. Thirty-two crews had signed up to compete, some traveling from as close as Syracuse, a few flying in from California and France. They came in wristbands and knee guards, bandannas wound tightly around their heads to prevent the friction of hair against floor. Many sported custom-made shirts with their nicknames proudly displayed in graffiti flourishes, or track jackets coordinated expertly with multi-colored Kangols. One contestant even wore a pair of cordovan dress shoes, bucking the functionality of more durable, low-weight sneakers in favor of an Astaire-inspired sophistication.
Amidst this mélange of style was me, following b-boys around with my camera like they were Tom and Katie. Truthfully, any notions of irony had disappeared the moment I entered the gym. The skill exhibited when contestants simply warmed up – repeatedly leaping onto their hands, holding a position with legs bent in the air – was enough to bring me running, Canon at the ready.
Yet it was blatantly obvious that I knew next to nothing about breakdancing. For the first half-hour, a contestant merely moving to the beat would cause me to clap excitedly. Dorky, yes, but perhaps an appropriate reaction for a form of dance that thrives on the passion of the crowd: the truly venerated b-boys are those that improvise in response to both competitor and audience, transforming the dance into a sort of interpretive street fight. One b-boy may move across the floor, dropping into a flare (that infamous stunt resembling a gymnast on a pommel horse) so close to his opponent that the latter is forced to move back. He, in turn, uses the unnatural, jerky style of popping to create an elaborate mimic that somehow manages to insult the other’s appearance or style. The crowd watches this narrative dance as it plays out, gasping, laughing, howling at each player’s choice of moves, until the losing b-boy – by the end, it is clear who has won and who has lost – crosses the floor and hugs the victor. The teams on deck begin nervously shaking out their arms and legs, and those of us on the sidelines finally exhale, laughing in excitement for the next confrontation.
Unfortunately, not even the most meticulous description can do breaking justice. To really understand how the experience can draw you in, one must actually witness that perfect forty-five-degree angle formed in a freeze, or those rare moments of dancer’s grace that could only have been achieved through classical training. So why haven’t I complemented this week’s column with a picture from the competition? Okay, so there I am, sitting cross-legged on the gym floor. In front of me is a handmade banner proclaiming “Holy Church Family Welcomes You!”, and behind me a kid is balancing on his head, face slowly turning red from the rush of blood. I’m trying not to stare – after all, no one else seems to be even remotely interested in the dozen preternatural feats of acrobatic skill occurring off the main floor, – but then I remember that I gave up a good four hours of valuable Olin time to come here, so I snap a quick picture. Blinded by my flash, the boy collapses onto his stomach and lies panting on the ground. Alright, no problem; I turn off my flash and proceed to take enough photos to fill up my entire memory card…and as if the Gods of Breakdancing themselves were reprimanding me for my former insolence, I return home only to realize that every single photograph I’ve taken for the past four hours has been reduced to one blurry, indiscernible mess. A just punishment, perhaps – but I swear I’ll get proof to bolster those bragging rights next time around.