I Was An Afterschool B-Boy

Doughy, out-of-breath, and miles from suave — don’t call it breakdancing

“One of the first things that beginning b-boys or b-girls learn from their peers is not to refer to the practice as “breakdancing.” — Foundation: B-boys, B-girls and Hip Hop Culture in New York (Joseph G. Schloss)

The year is 1985, and I am an afterschool B-boy, a dilettante. My breaking class at Esprit de la Danse in Cupertino, CA is proof positive that this once edgy art form is in cultural decline. Breaking demands intuition and razor sharp observational skills, both fundamentally unteachable. On some level, I accept that I am a poseur, but if I am, then so is everyone else in the class. We meet weekly, on Wednesday afternoons, to drill our moves in front of a wall-length dance studio mirror. A poster of the New York City Breakers, (kind of the Harlem Globetrotters of B-boy culture) hangs near the dressing room to inspire us.

I can manage a passable version of the robot and do a wobbly backspin, but if anyone asks, I tell them my best move is the centipede. Also known as the worm, the trick involves lying on the ground and creating a wave by propelling oneself across the floor using a combination of knees, palms, and stomach. A well executed centipede is a smooth, near miraculous sight. My interpretation of this breaking standard is amateurish at best, but I keep practicing, both in and out of class. It’s going to be my signature.

Beyond the dance studio doors, breaking is crossing over into the American mainstream. Even Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood includes a segment on the popular dance style. These are heady times for breakers everywhere, though I secretly fear I don’t yet qualify as a member of that club.

It’s February 13th, 1985. Fred Rogers introduces his friends at home to a breakdancer from the neighborhood named Jermaine Vaughn. With characteristic gentleness, Mr. Rogers helps the young man lay out his cardboard mat and cues the music on a boombox. Jermaine proceeds to give viewers an accomplished, if slightly stiff, demonstration. In case anyone forgets they are watching PBS and not MTV, the accompanying soundtrack is not RUN DMC or LL Cool J. No, Jermaine performs his brief routine to a dated instrumental which resembles a ’70s theme song.

Class act Mr. Rogers doesn’t talk down to Jermaine; rather, he displays respect, even deference for his guest’s talent. In return, Jermaine offers to show our host how to do the wave. Though a bit baffled at first, Fred catches on quickly. It is the dawn of a beautiful new day in the neighborhood.

Each week’s class is a grueling but necessary evil, tolerable mainly as a prelude to the promise of public performance, the prospect of which both tantalizes and terrifies me. With Breakin’, Beat Street, and Footloose fresh in my mind, I nurse romantic notions about Esprit’s upcoming dance recital. In teen flicks, finales are huge events, full of reinvention and catharsis. I expect nothing less from this one.

Our dance number is a tightly choreographed routine set to Jan Hammer’s “Theme From Miami Vice”. That flashy cop program is the hottest thing on TV right now and its heroes Crockett and Tubbs (played by Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas) are fashion icons. The influence of their suave Floridian attire trickles all the way down to the mall where I shop for my pastel-blue outfit. I hear the show’s theme song all over the radio, pretty uncommon for an instrumental. My pop-culture sensitivity is developing faster than my dance skills. For example, I can tell Jan’s jazz fusion roots give him about as much street cred as this class affords me. But where else is a kid from the ‘burbs gonna learn how to break?

At 128 pages, ‘Breakdancing: Mr. Fresh and the Supreme Rockers Show You How’ is a slim volume. Though officially out of print, used copies of Mr Fresh’s book are available on Amazon where a spirited discussion of its merits lives on in the review thread. Its modest length may belie the manual’s contribution to expanding the genre’s appeal. One reader admits ‘BMFATSRSYH’ was a direct influence on his path towards a professional dance career. Apparently, the authors maintain low profiles these days, so many questions remain frustratingly unanswered.

‘BMFATSRSYH’ also describes how to dress and talk like a breakdancer, so it has that going for it as well.

It’s performance day. I pull loafers onto my sockless feet, stand up straight, and look in our full-length mirror. I hike my blue Bugle Boys up as high as they will allow, tuck my Members Only shirt into their tight waist, and strike a few poses. I open my eyes wide and pretend I’m Harrison Ford, then Don Johnson, then Faceman from The A-team. At the right angle, my preteen pudge fades and the thick sandy mop on my head miraculously styles itself. I am irresistible to women everywhere.

I await my cue backstage, feeling the gravity of the moment. Then it hits. The familiar arpeggiated keyboard part. We bound onstage in a line. As we launch into our routine, I feel the energy of the crowd, the laser-like attention I hold over the audience. My parents are in attendance but they are merely part of the throng. I do my pops and my robot moves. Finally, it’s time for our solos. I am ready. Ready for my tour de force. Ready to do the centipede. As the synthetic tom-toms of Jan Hammer’s theme song pound, I drop to the stage and bring my arms out in front of me onto the mat. It’s cool down here on the floor. Dusty too. I whip myself and smack down loudly on the mat, making slow but determined progress across the stage. Each slap hurts my belly and groin, but I’m swept up in the routine. Victorious, I reach stage right where I quickly rise to rejoin the line of dancers and finish the number. The whole affair is over quickly. Still high from the performance, I dash into the wings to celebrate our success. My posse owns the night, just like in the movies. I want this feeling to go on forever. My parents drive me home where I silently thank the spirit of the dance for its infinite blessings.

Our in-class viewing session the following week is a jarring reentry into earth’s orbit. My teacher’s implacable VHS cassette reveals the bitter truth. Onscreen, my butt protrudes in the tight stage attire, and my bowl-cut hair lacks body or style, and could use some Sun-In streaks. I am doughy and out of breath and miles from suave. Worst of all, I blend into the group so as to be virtually unnoticeable. Chubby I can stomach. Anonymous is unacceptable.

Watching the video is excruciating, but from it I glean my first pieces of invaluable showbiz wisdom. First off, the camera rarely (okay, never) lies. Next, the stage is coquettish; she flatters all who tread upon her, so don’t start feeling too special. Finally, it’s best to relegate a performance to memory, where it will retain its pristine shape in perpetuity.

Esprit de la Danse continues to offer classes in many styles including tap, pointe, and jazz.

The current schedule does not include breakdancing.

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