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Breakdance: To the Roots of B-Boying

To the Roots of B-Boying

To most Americans, even to casual fans of hip hop, breakdancing was a fad whose moment passed before the end of the '80s, tossed into the decade's time capsule along with acid wash and decent John Hughes movies.

And in some sense, they're right. Breakdancing burst onto the national scene in the early 1980s, fueled by a media obsession with hip hop, enjoyed a love affair with the spotlight that lasted a few years, and then fell out of the glare just as quickly as it had located it.

Breakdancing may have died, but the b-boy, one of four original elements of hip hop (also included: the MC, the DJ, and the graffiti artist) lives on. To those who knew it before it was tagged with the name breakdancing, to those still involved in the scene that they will always know as b-boying, the tradition is alive and, well, spinning.

Let's talk with some the icons of hip hop's triumphant adolescence. Lets dig down to the roots of b-boy culture.

According to b-boy "Track 2", a.k.a. Louis Angel Matteo, the dancing began, in its earliest formal stages, as a way for rival gangs to mediate differences and set the location for upcoming rumbles. Bronx area gangs in the mid-1970s would meet on neutral territory for a party, the day before a rumble was set to take place. The dance-off, which pitted the gang leaders against each other, mirrored the upcoming confrontation and was used to determine whose turf would play host to the rumble.

"It was basically a lot of shuffles (with) stabbing or the punching or the hitting with a stick, and a chain swinging," Track 2 recalls, "but without any of the physicality. It's a lot of motions, a lot of gestures, what one person was going to do to another."

The winner was the one who could bust out moves that hadn't been witnessed before; who could do something the other guy couldn't match.

 "Rammellzee on the mic" in the amphitheatre scene from Wild Style, the 1982 hip hop movie.

This was reason enough for b-boys to spend their free time working on their moves -- not that they needed the excuse. Hip hop and b-boying was quickly taking on a life of its own in discos and parties.

"When you're dealing with the b-boys and b-girls, you can take it... straight back to the Godfather of Soul," says DJ Afrika Bambaataa, who owns a place in the same musical lineage, as the Godfather of Hip Hop. He says that the song "Get on the Good Foot" inspired crowds to imitate the singer's dance moves.

 Afrika Bambaataa is known as the Godfather of Hip Hop.

"He was flipping his legs from side to side, and doing things with his hands," Bambaataa remembers. "It was a big dance, everybody was doing the Good Foot, and you was playing all the James Brown records... and then you expand on it."

The expansion from the Good Foot/gang battle style of dancing came when b-boys got down -- literally. Spinning on backs, heads and hands, dancers like Keith and Kevin Smith, the twins who get credit for first hitting the floor, turned breakdancing into a phenomenon all its own.

 Rock Steady performs in Tokyo on 1983 Wild Style movie tour.

Soon after they did, the media came calling. Richie Colon, who is still known as b-boy Crazy Legs, experienced the explosion firsthand. He and other members of the Rock Steady Crew were featured in the movie Wild Style, and Colon doubled for actress Jennifer Beals during her breakdancing scenes in the movie Flashdance.

"Coming out of the ghetto and watching yourself on the big screen was mind blowing," he says. "And then everyone's treating you like you're a little star. You're above ghetto celebrity status."

Crazy Legs and other members of the Rock Steady Crew kept breaking, but the public's attention was turned elsewhere when economics entered the equation. Unable to find a way to sell the dancing, the burgeoning hip hop industry embraced the music as its primary focus. But b-boys have managed to stick around: The Rock Steady Crew celebrated its 25th anniversary last summer. Crazy Legs doesn't think it's an accident.

 Roxy Breakdancers show their moves.

"This dance was born here, right here in the South Bronx, and how many other dances have been created over the past 25 years that have survived this long? It's a true American art form."

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