Return of the B-Boys 

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

Page 4 of 4

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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