June 27th is close to the summer solstice, so there may have been some magic in that, especially in Minneapolis, where the warmth and late, syrupy sunlight are not taken for granted. At any rate, on June 27th at Minnehaha Falls, where the meandering creek of the same name froths over a precipice and shortly thereafter, joins the Mississippi River, I was drawn into a vortex of artistry. I started seeing break dancing.
At the center of the system, one of the five break dancers hopped and spun and wiped his body all over a piece of linoleum they’d duct taped to the pavilion stage. The others circled, shuffling their feet, bobbing their heads, waiting their turn. Tapes of exceptionally poor quality—The Pharcyde, Eric b, Rakim—rattled and scratched and hissed from a Sanyo boombox the size of a toaster oven. Next to the boombox were some duffel bags and a box that read I (heart) fat doobies. Further out in space, Chris, another random satellite who succumbed to the gravitational pull, took pictures while his young sons orbited the park pavilion on scooters, round and round.
Rapt and flowing, the b-boys wordlessly considered the linoleum, circling it, studying it, feeling it, deciding how to approach the problem. Glimpses of dance, gymnastics, wrestling, and humor torqued into something incredibly athletic, sometimes aggressive, sometimes poetic.
All were small, swimming in thrift store clothes, retro stuff—bucket hats, paisley shirts and track jackets for spinning. I guessed they were high school age, but discovered later they had all graduated. When the cipher had spent its momentum, they turned off the boombox and talked about break dancing.
They said they were living the hip hop lifestyle, which is to say, spiritual, creative, social, pure, old school and bohemian. Though they had attended different high schools, they met at battles and became friends. This was their crew. They’d called each other to organize this cipher. They usually meet in someone’s basement, so it was nice to be outside on a beautiful evening, feeling the vibe, being together, outside in the slanting sun—that’s why they were breaking. It was a celebration and a practice session.
Phil had straight hanky hair, like he cut it himself. He lives in Lakeville, a suburb of Minneapolis. He rocked a baggy t-shirt, too-big khaki pants, tied at the waist with rope ala Huck Finn, and red high-top sneakers. Nick revealed that Phil had been one of the best high school gymnasts in the state. Phil espoused the philosophy of breaking and being true to the artistry. He had a day job teaching gymnastics.
When I asked Chango where he was from, he said Wisconsin, then someone volunteered Columbia. He now lives in Jordan, a town so far out as to have lost suburban status. Wearing a top knot ponytail, old school Nike waffle trainers, track pants and a retro wind jacket, Chango said that breaking was a spiritual thing.
Nick was the most talkative of the group. Very lean, with an equally thin beard, he said he’d been dancing at a studio since age seven. He lives with his mom in Eagan (a suburb of St. Paul). He and his girlfriend, and maybe Phil, are going to move to LA because it’s the epicenter of the entertainment industry. They plan to do whatever it takes to get by.
The other two—Brady, an Asian kid and an accomplished spinner, and Noah, the tallest of the group—were very quiet.
Their creative process is, like other artists, to smoke some dope, play music and be together, keying off each other’s moves. There has to be music; they’re inspired by the beat, by each other and by watching videos of other b-boys. Normally, one does top rock first, then goes down with a combination of footwork and power moves, flares and spins, ending with a freeze—baby freeze, chair freeze, there are a lot of different kinds of freezes. Breaking the rules is encouraged, though most followed that pattern.
A battle, they explained, is a competition for the most creative moves. Battles can be organized by anyone through the Minnesota b-boys and b-girls Facebook page. They could have organized a battle tonight, they said, by putting the word out, and getting bigger speakers, and charging $5 from each crew, to be awarded to the winner. Three judges are assigned: The competition is judged on creativity, difficulty of power moves, flares, and footwork.
Someone mentioned that Phil and Nick had been invited to a Red Bull break dancing competition in Denver—an embroidered duffel bag was brought out as proof. They were invited based on videos of their work. They all said you could make big money from competitions, but that the money was not important. When pressed as to how they paid the bills, some copped to a day job.
The hip hop lifestyle was about being creative, and hanging with your crew. It’s somewhat underground, they said, not mainstream. In Korea and France, they explained, breaking is a sport, organized and run by the government, so while the participants made a living doing it, it had become mainstream, thus not pure, and had lost something of its essence. When asked about making money, they admitted feeling the artist’s dichotomy—being poor and having to work some sucky job to pay the bills is difficult, but while making money from your art has some appeal, breaking loses its underground cachet when it becomes corporate-sponsored. Money is good, but money also wrecks things.
photo credit: Chris Blumberg