Breakin’ in the Bronx

It’s Showtime NYC!’s Festival of Dreams

By Abigail Covington

It’s Showtime NYC dancers in Festival of Dreams in the Bronx. photo: Abigail Covington

The intersection known as the Hub in the Bronx’s Melrose neighborhood is the second-busiest place in New York City. Only Times Square sees more foot traffic. It’s where East 149th Street, and Willis, Melrose and Third Avenues converge. In the center of the Hub, flanked by busy streets, rests a large swath of concrete known as the Roberto Clemente Plaza. For the homeless, it’s a place to sleep. For dealers, it’s a place to push product. For most, it’s a shortcut on their daily commute. But on Saturday, it was a stage where the It’s Showtime NYC! street dancers, under the guidance of the world-renowned choreographer, Faustin Linyekula, performed “Festival of Dreams.”

Billed as a series of movement-based dialogues in which the dancers, “share their hopes and dreams for a better future through street dance, music, storytelling, and community dialogue,” “Festival of Dreams” was free and open to anyone who passed by. “Street dancing should engage people in a public space,” said Simon Dove, co-creator of the Crossing the Line Festival and artistic director of Dancing in the Streets, the parent organization that runs It’s Showtime NYC!

And on that humid Saturday in late September the “stage’s” only boundaries were a police car parked on the south end of the corridor and a chain-link fence on the west side of Third Avenue.

The setting was significant for another reason. “Hip hop was born in the Bronx,” Dove noted. So was breakdancing — or “breaking” as it’s called by its practitioners — a style of street dancing that many of the dancers in It’s Showtime NYC! incorporate into their routines along with flexing, animation, footwork, popping and more. By bringing breaking back to the streets of the South Bronx, the It’s Showtime dancers were honoring the Bronx’s legacy and exposing the borough to dance styles from Brooklyn, Queens and Harlem, too.

The performers began trickling in around 3 pm and immediately formed a cipher — a circle of exchange essential to street dancing, in which one dancer steps into the center and shares his style with the group. A b-boy and a flexer strutted into the circle and showed the crowd that was gathering haphazardly in the plaza what it looked like when two unique street dancing styles came together. In this instance, the flexer transitioned from one jarring, contorted pose to another, while the b-boy glided across the concrete on his hands as his feet cut shapes in the air above him: equal displays of strength presented in contrasting styles. Most of the dancers in It’s Showtime NYC! are also part of style-specific crews — animators dance with other animators, poppers with other poppers, and so forth. There isn’t a lot of cross-pollinating between scenes. So to be able to dance together as Linyekula envisioned for this performance, the dancers needed to find empathy and connection with one another. And it all needed to look natural. “That’s what Faustin was looking for with this whole piece,” said Kester “Flex,” Estephane, the associate artistic director of the company. “He wanted the dancing to just flow out of us, and for it to look like we were creating it on the spot.”

To some extent, they were. “We weren’t counting everything out,” Flex added. “We built the structure of the performance in rehearsal, but we created the dance in the moment.” That structure was nothing more than a loose roadmap that guided the dancers in and out of ciphers and scenes in which one performer told a story about his life while the remaining dancers moved to his words. Once in a scene though, the dancers relied on their instincts to improvise. When the first of many ciphers dismantled, the dancers strode toward the east side of Third Avenue and huddled into a group. They started hyping each other up until Jungle, a b-boy from Brooklyn, sprang forward into the middle of the street and showed off his footwork skills to a delighted young girl in the audience. The lower half of his body moved at the speed of an express A train while his upper half remained as still as a stalled 6 on the local tracks. He kicked his feet backwards and forwards and pivoted so rapidly his legs looked like they were in eight places at once. Repo, a portly flexer from Brooklyn, emceed. “Are you seeing this? Tell me you’re seeing this!” he begged. The crowd whooped and hollered.

Every member of It’s Showtime NYC! is a singular sensation and Linyekula made sure they all made the most of their moment. One by one, each dancer split off from the group and stepped forward to express his (and in one case, her) talent. But what the group did together made a stronger impression than what they did apart. In the final minutes of the performance the dancers glided, spun, and shuffled their way toward the police car positioned on the south end of the plaza. In the street dance style that looks like a person’s biceps and calves are engaged in a series of exaggerated muscle spasms, they popped and locked, their way into two separate groups, and each group assembled itself into a horizontal line. Then these two masses crawled slowly toward the audience, while each individual dancer morphed into and out of alternating sharp and circular shapes and poses along the way. A b-boy who goes by the name J-boy arched his back over Rhea “Wiildkard” Nance, a footworker from Chicago. She then tutted until her forearm was stacked neatly on top of Repo’s while he balanced on one foot and focused on not toppling over Qu, the animator perched precariously underneath him. The dancers took each step forward in their individual styles, while maintaining their group’s overall shape.

Akimbo limbs propelled each mass forward until they were side by side with the audience, absorbing observers into their movements. It felt like we were all in on something. Unlike audiences at other public performances I’d experienced, the one enjoying “Festival of Dreams” stayed until the very end. People seemed to have forgotten about where they were going before this joyous swarm of movement swept them up. Now they were idling at the plaza, talking to strangers about what they’d just witnessed.

That was the intention all along. “The hope is the Roberto Clemente Plaza becomes a catalyst for building a creative community,” said Dove, adding that plans for turning the rundown plaza into a small outdoor performance space had stalled. For more than 10 years, the Third Avenue Business District has been trying to complete the construction of the plaza, only to see the project become mired in financial woes. But the people of the Bronx know better than to wait for a stage to be built to perform.

The first breaker back in the ’80s danced on a park bench. DJ Kool Herc played his first set at a house party. And the dancers in It’s Showtime NYC! didn’t mind performing within a construction zone. On Saturday, the people near the plaza paused to appreciate the art in front of them. On Sunday, the site would go back to being a bustling corridor, but for the moment, the “Festival of Dreams” proved that the Roberto Clemente Plaza already had become the creative catalyst Dove wants it to be.