On a fateful, blustery Friday night, Mike Robinson of Rochester headed to St. Andrew’s Hall in downtown Detroit, where the avid b-boy often goes to show off his skills.
MTV was holding a breaking competition, searching for dancers a cut above the rest. Not only did Robinson win, beating many of Detroit’s best in dance battles, but MTV judges selected the 21-year-old as one of the four best in the nation, with a spot on the channel promoting the Hollywood b-boy romp You Got Served.
Robinson, an architecture student at Oakland University, says he was shocked that he got as far as he did.
“I competed against all the best people I know,” Robinson says. “I won the whole thing. That’s all I know. I was dancing. I just love dancing.
“I do gymnastics, flares, windmills and 90s. I’m a house dancer. I combine everything together. And I like to battle — making fun of people and what they do.”
Robinson, an unassuming cat, practices three hours a day, five days a week, at the cutting edge of a movement burgeoning locally and nationwide.
The crowd thickens in anticipation as the Hardcore Crew swaggers past bouncers on a Sunday night, toting backpacks stuffed with bright-colored bandanas and tightly woven skull caps used for protection against the grimy hardwood floor at St. Andrew’s Hall — hip-hop style with a purpose.
Once inside, like sprinters prepping for a 100-yard dash, the crew splits off to stretch and bend, opening hip sockets, casually springing forward, inverting their bodies in handstands.
The five b-boys and b-girls (the names break dancers give themselves) of the crew — Haleem “Strings” Ar-Rasheed; Mary “MaMa’” Mar; Julie “Jay Bay” Siemiantkowski; Gerard “G” Gutierrez; Sicari Ware and a guy named “U-turn” — represent the crème de la crème of the breaking movement bubbling from Lansing to Ann Arbor to Detroit.
Robinson, the national MTV champ, is a member of Middle School, an 11-member crew that sometimes teams up with its rival, Hardcore Detroit, to represent the city in national battles.
A large circle forms (known in break-speak as the cipher) as G prepares to take up some beef in a personal callout — a friendly battle of skill against a rival. G holds intricate poses, suspended in motion, heating up the cipher.
In a separate ring, Strings works his up-rock steps, a funky combination of moves in a standing position.
“The top rock is the thing you do when prepping, letting people see your style,” Strings explains. He’s going to do the standard six-step, moving the body gracefully from right to left, with the feet traveling around the body. Seconds later, String is windmilling, with long legs whirling in the air. The windmill is a power move, like the six-step or the continuous backspin (spinning on the head), used to blow away less-skilled opponents.
Sicari, also the group’s DJ, makes his way toward the speakers in the corner, his dreads tied down with a bandana. When U-turn hits the center floor, the other b-boys can barely keep up.
While some might consider breaking a trend of the past, in the widening circles of hip-hop aficionados the intensely physical and competitive dance sport is hot again. In Detroit, the street-dance scene has evolved over the past 20 years into a movement of breakers, poppers, lockers and other funk-style hybrids, fevered by the evolution of hip hop into mainstream culture, and, more recently, by the insurgence of breaking as an extreme sport.
Breaking, or breakdancing as the media has cast it, first hit Detroit in the early ’80s, when hip hop took America by storm.
“People who show off are breakdancers. The art is breaking,” MaMa explains.
“It’s one of the few dance forms that offers you freedom,” G says of being a b-boy.
Though the scene is hot, it’s small, insular. Altogether about 30 breakers turned out at St. Andrew’s on this weekend night — a decent representation of Detroit’s growing dance scene. Only a chosen few have the skill or the will to make it happen.
“We’re the last to represent,” Strings says of Detroit’s presence. “We’re still trying to build.”
Many of the fiercest competitors are in their early 20s; their backgrounds cross class, race and gender lines, from black to white to Hispanic to Polish, from the city to the sticks to the upscale suburbs of metro Detroit.
“We’re professional by day, breakers by night,” says Hard Core’s Jay Bay, who works at a bank when he’s not dancing.
While G and Strings practice their moves, Jay Bay gets down with her trademark, “the air chair,” a power move in which her slight physique is propped up on her side by her elbows. MaMa’s extension in splits and balances resembles a gymnast hitting the pommel horse. Jay Bay and MaMa took second place at the Break and Enter contest in Toronto last year, beating some of the continent’s best female breaking units.
To channel some of the local enthusiasm for breaking, Sicari helped start a weekly open practice session for breakers at the Detroit Hispanic Development Center, where he is project coordinator. The space is raw, with bold aerosol designs by artists covering the walls. The center is free and open to the community, with turntables and taped-down flooring ripe for sweating and choreographing routines; the space feels like the Kronk Gym of hip hop.
Any hip-hop purist will tell you that b-boys and b-girls, along with graffiti artists, DJs and the vocal elements of the human beat box, are vital elements of hip-hop culture, a movement that grew out of the South Bronx during the ’70s.
Breaking has a unique history of its own, with ties to James Brown, martial arts and the Brazilian dance form Capoeira, with early moves breaking out to the beats of New York’s Kool Herc, who is credited with innovating hip-hop music.
Gotham City set the pace, and the Rocksteady Crew emerged as the defining force for b-boys. Closely related, the West Coast scene spawned locking and popping, movements characterized by body waves and isolations, tied to the sounds of the Electric Boogaloo with Mr. Wiggles cementing the style.
“Popping and locking is like Rerun, a funk version of tap dancing. Popping is like waves moving body to the beat,” Detroit’s Sicari says.
Movies like Wildstyle and Breakin’ spread the b-boy movement around the world, and Lionel Richie included break dance for his 1984 Summer Olympics performance, perhaps the height of b-boy exposure.
U-turn and Sicari’s involvement in the Detroit scene dates back to the mid-’90s, when b-boys performed in Maurice Malone’s storefront window at the Hip Hop Shop on Seven Mile.
“We used to get paid to break in the window. That was sweet,” U-turn reminisces.
St. Andrew’s Hall, with its wide-open dance space, has been the consistent stomping ground for breakers since the early ’80s, when record-spinning-maestro Jeff Mills, aka the Wizard, provided ammunition for battles among the crews.
King Mustafa Ali, head of Detroit’s chapter of the Zulu Nation, was among the first b-boys in Detroit. He called himself the Great Deno back then, when people might have spotted him breaking at Fairlane Town Center or Northland Mall. He brought b-boying to high school talent shows at Cooley, Northwestern, Mackenzie and Detroit Central.
“In the ’70s we were jitting, doing popping and locking, and boogaloo. It wasn’t until the early ’80s that we’d break at malls and at parks. We used to draw too much attention. That’s when they started banning breakers to go to the mall, no sweat suits and radios.”
One early group was called the Buffalo Breakers; it formed in 1981. Mustafa was part of the Versatile Police crew. The group later evolved into the Rock Rockers.
“Kid Rock, he was learning how to dance and DJ around us,” says Ali.
While New York and Los Angeles gained notoriety for breaking, Detroit lacked a presence on the national scene. But locally, b-boys were on fire, wearing identical outfits, a mark of b-boy pride.
Spanc Faison, 40, was known as Lord Tokkyo in 1983, when the b-boy/girl scene was at its pinnacle in Detroit. Faison’s six-person crew, the Motor City Rockers, performed on the popular dance shows of the time, “The Scene” and “The New Dance Show,” and at the Fox Theatre. He says 150 crews represented Detroit in local clubs. By the ’90s, the scene had died down.
“Maybe around ’89 when the rap music industry and the drug game started up, a lot of breakers became rappers and then became drug dealers. It became difficult to make a living at it,” Faison says.
St. Andrew’s began drawing breakers again by the mid- to late-’90s, when hip hop hit an American golden age, spurring what could be called a second wave of breaking.
Because the genre is small, the dancers feed off each other, creating what could be considered a sub-sect. Saadiq Dolden, 28, a hip-hop producer, formed Boogie Down Squad, a group that incorporates house music in its dancing.
“I call it freestyle,” Dolden says. “We don’t have influences to look at. We just have each other. It’s not New York or L.A. — being in the Midwest we do our own thing. It gives us an advantage.”
Dolden has noticed the renewed interested in breaking recently.
“I hope it doesn’t get like it was in ’84. I kind of want it to stay underground in the dance community,” he says.
Mustafa leads a coalition of b-boys in Michigan, the Def Crew. He’s frustrated that the greater community isn’t supporting the movement as he feels it should.
“With Detroit losing its underground, now we suffer because the clubs don’t allow us to wear gym shoes. Every club in Detroit doesn’t cater to the b-boy scene. We’re the reason why the underground scene is still alive. We move in silence.”
Back at St. Andrew’s, as the hour grows late, the breakers have had their fill. About 100 people circle around, giving them space to execute their moves.
“St. Andrew’s is our home,” says Strings. “It created our own original Detroit style and flavor.”
Through thick and thin, the breakers in Detroit just don’t stop.
The Hard Core crew is online at www.hardcoredetroit.biz.Tamara Warren is a freelancer for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]