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Return of the B-Boys 

Atlanta's breakdancing scene attracts attention, but at what cost?

B-Boy Quic is dancing inside a rectangle of rope laid out on the floor. His body leans at precarious angles as his fast feet Spirograph wide arcs around a merely speculative center of gravity. To remixed funk of fast-flying samples and scratches over a lead-foot bassline, he leaps and lands on his spine. He six-steps and spins on his head. He freezes in impossible poses, propping his entire body onto the support of a single wrist. And all the while, he wears a floppy fishing hat that he knows how to work. Women are screaming. Somewhere in the crowd, a Southern belle falls in love.

Quic isn't dropping his moves on a gritty street corner or crowded dancefloor. He's performing at 7 Stages in a modern dance production by Duende Dance Theatre.

After the show, he's approached by a moneyed, fiftysomething matron with an expensive perm. She wears an understated outfit tailored just so and sports an aura of over-sweetened iced tea. She melts in the radiance of Quic's big, bright smile, blushing under her foundation in the warm reflection of his skin, the color of light cane syrup. She talks fast, her hands fluttering in the discovery of something new. The 22-year-old breakdancer charms her with his replies.

May the rapping saints of the Sugar Hill Gang protect us, Buckhead Betty has rediscovered breakdancing.

As I watch their exchange, I'm transported to 1985. I'm studying the giant instructional wall poster K-Tel thoughtfully supplied with Breakdance, a cassette compilation that includes Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five doing "Wheels of Steel." A country boy in a dairy town, I'm sending angular, palsied waves across my arms and shoulders, and my body poppin', such as it is, joins the equally adept Moonwalk I'd cribbed from Michael Jackson in '82.

Breakdancing surged into the mainstream the first time in 1983 when Jennifer Beals' artful exotic dancer (and welder) in Flashdance gave her Julliard audition some street cred. Her moves were ripped from the Rock Steady Crew, whose members appeared in the movie, breakdancing in alleyways and on sidewalks.

That same year saw an explosion of new crews around Atlanta. Hi-Fi Tribe was one of the city's first, started when Atlanta native Totem joined with two newly arrived Atlantans: Miami breakdancer Jinx and K.P. from L.A. Their union has a lot to do with the unorthodox style of Atlanta breakdancing, which combines the East Coast focus on dance and theatrics with the West Coast emphasis on power and gymnastics.

But by 1985, breakdancing had all but become a joke. Witness Don Ameche backspinning at a nightclub in the "Seniors Gone Wild" antics of 1985's Cocoon. By then, the pop music audience had decided that headbanging was more dignified, and I started stealing David Lee Roth moves from "Just a Gigolo."

Popular attention didn't create breakdancing. It also didn't kill it. But its exploitation and overexposure in the mid-'80s sent it underground. Those who loved it most continued dancing for each other, but in private places like friends' basements where no one would laugh at them. The rest of us mostly forgot about it.

But now breakdancing is back, and in a big way. Only this time I don't need to break out my K-Tel instructional dance poster, because the masters are providing instruction at dance studios and aerobics classes throughout the city.

At Dance 101, a new dance studio in Miami Circle -- the high-end home decor cul-de-sac in Buckhead -- Quic and his crewmate Rebirth teach classes in breakdancing and popping every Sunday as part of a full day of hip-hop movement classes.Most of the students are in their 20s and 30s, representing a wide diversity of ethnicities and an equal distribution of men and women. Except for 62-year-old Wayne, a recently divorced real estate developer. He wants to start going out to clubs again, but he realized, "all the dances I knew were 25 years old," so he sticks around for most of the day's hip-hop classes.

Rebirth's class in popping is first. Popping (the fusion of what once was popping and locking) used to be a fully integrated element of breakdancing, but this time around it has taken on a life of its own. Many of the best poppers don't breakdance at all. Think the robot, think moves that simulate a strobe light, think jerky slo-mo pantomime

Next up is Quic's class in breakdancing. His enthusiasm for breakdancing is extraordinary. He makes it easy for all of us to drop our inhibitions and throw ourselves into crazy combinations and impossible freezes. He teaches us six-stepping, that staple of breakdancing where fast-tapping feet travel around a squatting dancer, whose weight is balanced on the hands. To my surprise and pleasure, I pick up the basic move pretty quickly. We also learn toprocking -- footwork performed while standing -- which turns out to be more complicated than I'd imagined.

At the end of class, Quic gathers us all around in a circle, and we freestyle for a while: One person at a time enters the circle and improvises whatever moves comes to mind. It being my first class, my "improvising" consists mostly of doing little bits of what Quic has just taught us. There's a young elementary school teacher, Kelly, who is shy about going inside the circle. But Quic encourages her, keeps calling her out, and next thing I know she's full out on the floor doing the worm -- that move where your whole body undulates in waves. Quic shakes his head and laughs.

A fun time is had by all, but afterward I drive past stores filled with Italian tile and British antiques pondering the unlikelihood: Breakdancing in Buckhead? I guess it's a good thing that people outside the culture of its creation are curious enough to come to a class and try it for themselves. But the last breakdancing revolution collapsed when people with only a superficial interest in the movement and virtually no understanding of the hip-hop culture from which it emerged co-opted the dance form's aesthetics to enhance their own hipness and credibility.

Perhaps that is the dance form's greatest challenge: Can Atlanta breakdancing survive the interest of Buckhead?

I decide to search out more credible breakdancing environs, and find myself at a dual (and also duel, it turns out) birthday party at Masquerade for Quic and Mendez, a playful breaker who was part of the '80s revolution and is now the co-owner of Atlanta's Mad Clout Productions, which produces and sells breakdancing clothes, DVDs and other merchandise.Quic and his crew, the ATL FunkLordz, soon arrive and start stretching along one side of the dancefloor while the Spam All-Stars, a salsa-funk band, set up their equipment onstage. The FunkLordz are a new, young crew. Quic is their elder at 22, with many of the dancers still in their teens. I meet Smurf, Tiger, S.K. (for "Serious Kaos") and several others. Rebirth is there in a white fedora.

Then Burn Unit, the group that evolved from Hi-Fi Tribe, arrives. Totem, the crew's leader (and local graffiti artist), is a dramatic contrast to Quic. He's older, of course; Quic was literally just a baby when Totem formed his first crew. Totem is short, stocky and strong. He rarely smiles. His crew is older and larger, and includes some talented b-girls, among them the remarkable Vendetta, a tight and toned breaker with great precision and intricate moves. Random, a long-limbed Burn Unit b-boy with effortless agility and style, is among the best breakdancers in Atlanta. Quic himself was in Burn Unit before he struck out on his own to create the FunkLordz.

There is a battle planned tonight ... a dance battle. That might sound a little like the Jets and the Sharks playing at show-tune violence with jazzy flair, but the breakdancing version of a battle is a little grittier.

It begins slowly, a dancer here and there gets up and displays a few moves. But gradually the two crews move closer to one another, forming a tight circle around the dancefloor battleground. Then, as the circle closes in, as the energy compresses and heats up, they start to get serious.

"Go home!" Quic shouts at the Burn Unit dancers. Random slides across the stage in a traveling six-step -- bent legs dancing circles around his body as his hands support his weight -- then vaults up and stops with his face inches from one of the FunkLordz. In a battle, you assert your dominance over the dance space, crowding out rival dancers with aggressive lunges or disdainful dismissals, using breakdancing to demonstrate your superior physique and style.

It sounds all warriorlike and testosterone-stoked, and it's not unheard of for actual fights to erupt at a breakdancing battle. But, at least in Atlanta, real violence is unusual. I watch the dancers' faces, and I see laughter in their eyes. Quic's smile is bright as he taunts the Burn Unit dancers. Random pats one of the FunkLordz on the back after accidentally bumping into him. Whenever the battle seems to get close to actual conflict, several people break up laughing and crash together in what I can only describe as a momentary cross-crew group hug. They dance like that for hours.

And then comes the mall. I show up at Lenox Square just outside of Rich's one day, at the invitation of the FunkLordz and Two 8-Counts, a new Atlanta casting agency that represents the crew. That's right, they've got agents.

Tracy St. George from "All the Hits" Q100 (100.5 FM, home of the "A-Town Phat Phive") plays host. She gives out prizes after challenging the audience's collective mind with stumpers like, "Who can name all the main characters on 'That's So Raven'?" and "Who can tell me the call letters of 'All the Hits Q100'?" The Kids WB Road Crew -- schmaltzy TV teens with overachiever hair stylists -- gives us the 411 on the WB's new fall season. There is also a pre-teen boy on the stage who I think I'm supposed to recognize from some hit TV show clearly not aimed at my demographic, but CL doesn't pay me enough to watch the WB long enough to figure out who he is. In between musical performances and television updates, Rich's fills the catwalk with kids in retro '80s fashions.

It's the kind of event I'd normally power-walk past in search of the nearest B. Dalton or, in a pinch, Starbucks -- anything to put some distance between me and an overdose of transparent promotions from hell.

Of course, we all know it is a very, very hip event because:

1) It is called "+positive (e fkt): energy for kids and teens" (the organizer's cyber-graffiti code for "positive effect").

2) There are breakdancers onstage.

The FunkLordz twice dance onstage with singers, one of whom is Aja, the (so I'm told) next teen-pop sensation. She's 14, but sings of lost loves and other tragedies I doubt she has yet experienced. Just practicing, I guess. Behind her, Quic and Tiger dance with two women, Rocky and Corinne (hip-hop dancers, not breakers). Quic and Tiger show off a bit with flares and other power moves, then circle back to Rocky and Corinne for some seductive looks and head bobs. Repeat. Repeat.

Then it's time for the FunkLordz's own show. Tiger struts out onto the stage. "Y'all wanna see some breakdancing?" he shouts, working the crowd. Rebirth pops out with Quic, S.K., and Skit, another FunkLord. Fidget, a Seattle breaker, joins them for the day.

I forget where I am for a while. They dance well. Not the most stylish breaking I've seen, but their power is good, their energy fantastic, and the crowd loves them. Tiger gets down into a freeze, balancing on his hands placed at his waist, then hand-bounces his way backward. (I'll always think of him as "Tigger" for being so bouncy.) Quic does some of his characteristic crazy toprocking. The crowd loves S.K.'s popping. There are so many people around that I find myself pressed into the Limited, where a professionally polite salesperson asks me to get out if I'm not going to buy anything.

Oh, yeah! I'm in the mall.

The FunkLordz leave the stage, and another fashion show begins. I walk around "backstage" (which is actually still the mall, not far from the Great American Cookie Co.). I'm feeling a little cynical. The flood of aggressive marketing and thickly layered promotions has me reeling. Then I see the FunkLordz gathered around a video camera watching a playback of their performance. They're giddy and laughing. Tiger is bouncing up and down. They shout out when they see a good move replayed. It dawns on me that none of them are old enough to remember the first fall of breakdancing; none of them are experienced enough to question how their art form is being used by the event sponsors or to wonder how the event will impact their art or their careers. All they know is that they've just danced onstage for a big crowd, and everybody loved them. And they will be paid -- rather well, in fact -- for doing what they all love most in the world, for what they would be doing even if they weren't getting paid, for the joy of dancing.

Late one night, I venture out to Georgia Tech to sit in on a Burn Unit rehearsal. I find my way to a small patch of terrazzo floor outside an elevator in the architecture building. Vending machines with Coke products and snacks are crowded along one wall, and an old desk teeters in a corner.Totem is leading his crew through a practice session. Nothing formal. Mostly, he lets the dancers do whatever they want, but coaches them on how to improve their moves. He pushes them to keep trying the same move until they get it right, shouts a little when he sees someone about to give up. Random is there and Vendetta is dancing all spidery like. There are several other dancers I haven't seen before, including Joy, who -- score one for small world -- it turns out I know from his day job at my neighborhood Smoothie King.

In the safety (social, if not physical) of their little spot of floor, the dancers are trying out crazy moves I've never seen them attempt in public. They fall on their faces half the time, but get up and try them again. Because of injuries and the like, I've never seen Totem dance full out. But tonight he is unleashed. He circles like a Rottweiler ready to attack. He leaps onto his hands and lands frozen in poses most dancers couldn't get into from the floor.

From a graffiti-covered boom box, a voice raps about a preposterous rhinoceros. Totem springs through a handstand and vaults onto his feet. He runs up a wall and flips, three times. And he does it all with style.

When he's had enough, he turns the circle back over to the younger dancers. He stands next to me and points to each dancer in turn, telling me of their talents. Almost everyone has some impressive moves, but many of the younger dancers haven't yet learned how to transition gracefully between moves, invoking the artistic alchemy that transforms acrobatic display into dance. (It's a weakness I see often in many younger breakdancers.) "Linking moves together is the art of breaking," Totem says. "That's the prowess." Without it, you just have a gymnastics floor exercise.

I ask him about the lean years, when hardly anyone was breakdancing. He never stopped. Hi-Fi Tribe kept meeting in members' basements to keep the dance form alive, traveling to other cities and states to find someone -- anyone -- to dance with. He speaks fondly of the time. "For us, it was a golden period of dancing, and we broke like there was no tomorrow. ... Art is always the rawest when it goes underground."

Then, "around 1998, it started to not be stupid," Totem says. He started teaching classes to new breakdancers. Crews began forming again. Burn Unit organized a couple of small battles. In February 2002, 3 DOT Productions put on the first Breaklanta, a competition for breakdancers, graffiti artists, MCs and DJs. Since then, there's been no looking back.

I tell Totem about my experience at 7 Stages, watching the Buckhead matron go all googly-eyed over Quic, and I ask him whether he worries that the current breakdancing revolution will suffer the same fate as the first. "Yeah, I do a lot," he says. "When Buckhead Betty can understand what we're doing, then we're not doing it."

Like most breakdancers I meet, Totem welcomes anyone who wants to learn what breakdancing is about, but he doesn't want the dance to be co-opted by people who don't understand the culture. "I didn't want some of the so-called codes to be perverted," he says. "I didn't want Save the Last Dance to be my life."

On the terrazzo, the young dancers are still going at it. It's nearly midnight now, and they're careless of the bruises the next day will reveal, pushing themselves, figuring out the links, making a dance in the moment.

Breakdancing is creeping back into the mainstream again. You see it in Coca-Cola C2 commercials and other advertisements. AMC's reality show, "Into Character," recently featured a guy learning to breakdance. A DVD called Breakdance Step-by-Step went on sale earlier this year.

Breakdancing is getting a second act, and all signs suggest the pop-cultural money machine will overexpose it again, just like last time, and that people who don't take a moment to understand the culture of its creation will mimic the moves for the moment. But watching Joy, Vendetta and Random throwing their bodies onto a hard floor for three hours straight ... keeping track as the FunkLordz gather trophies and contracts ... seeing the love of the dance in all of Atlanta's b-boys and b-girls, I'm starting to think the form will survive long after its exploiters have moved onto the next big thing. We'll be seeing a lot of breakdancing for another couple years, I think, and then likely we won't see it so much. Perhaps America will return to headbanging. Some other dance craze will fill the studios for a time. But more than likely, breakdancers will keep breaking, the young dancers of today passing on their skills to the next generation in basements and elevator wells, on linoleum remnants and terrazzo floors.

Thomas.bell@creativeloafing.com

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