“I could do that,” I thought, sitting in the front row of the small campus theater during my junior year, watching the student breakdancing group perform their annual spring show. As various old-school dance and hip hop songs blasted over the sound system the dancers would spin, flip, freeze and contort themselves to the beat. A year later I would be on that same stage spinning, flipping, and dancing as I failed two senior academic year courses. At the prestigious Ivy League University we attended that meant I would have to take a leave of absence and return for another semester the following spring.
It was my girlfriend at the time who wanted to go to the show. She had always wanted to learn to breakdance and I wouldn’t have gone otherwise. And the seed was planted. The following fall I was at the first open practice session with 50 other novices learning the basics of the ‘top-rock’ and ‘six-step’. After a few minutes I could tell this was something I really wanted to learn. I could also tell that it was going to take a lot of work.
My confidence was not entirely without reason. I had a background in gymnastics and could hold a handstand and do a back handspring with no trouble. And I loved music. That fall semester I became one of the most diligent practice attendees in the breakdancing group, or ‘crew,’ often practicing daily and sometimes twice a day. My body ached from the constant pounding, the abnormal stress on various joints, and the inevitable collisions and crashes to the floor as we tried new and often absurdly difficult moves.
If you wanted to learn how to breakdance, to become a “B-boy” or “B-girl,” you had to be willing to make a lot of mistakes. And not just that, you had to be willing to risk pain and injury because those mistakes often meant hitting the floor with any and every part of your body other than your feet.
In the early 2000s the internet was just starting to provide access to video content from around the world. The breakdancing community must have been one of the most active forums for video sharing. My friends and I would gather late at night to watch the newest evolutions on various breakdancing moves and styles, from acrobatic power moves to funky top rocks and smooth six steps. Each night we’d watch the superstars of the b-boy world with their signature moves and routines. The next day we’d be practicing stolen bits and pieces as much as we could. (Copying other people’s moves was grounds for ridicule during a breakdancing competition, or battle. It was known as ‘biting’ and biting was not good. Biters were often called out with a gator chomp arm move by opposing b-boys.)
If you spent long enough watching video clips from the online breakdancing world you noticed something really interesting. Within a matter of a few years, sometimes as little as a few months, moves that been virtually unheard of where now ubiquitous. Air-flares, certain freezes, spins and other moves were attempted only by a handful of b-boys at first. As videos got shared those moves become commonplace among high-level b-boys and even many average dancers.
And it wasn’t just that new moves became popular, it was that moves which had been deemed impossible, or virtually impossible, quickly became possible for a lot of people. Each time a video showed one person accomplishing the impossible doors were opened in the minds of countless other b-boys. And where the mind leads, the body eventually follows.
But the mind is not the only reality, and the accumulation of injuries and chronic aches in my body gradually took its toll. Even so, my progress with breakdancing was quick and I became an integral member of the campus crew. The problem seemed to be that I had only joined in my senior year and would leave just as I was starting to have fun.
In the spring as I worked on my senior thesis in anthropology, a meandering 150 page rumination on rites of passage and their breakdown in modern America, I chose to do my writing in a computer cluster near the dance practice room. I’d often take a break from writing and go blast hip hop music and dance at 2 or 3 in the morning.
It all seemed to be passing too quickly. I wished I had more time. And then, in a matter of a few days, I realized I had failed two classes and would not be graduating. I would, thanks to my mortified parents, be back for another semester the following spring. For me the shock of failing academically (for the first time really) was mixed with the joy of knowing I would be back with my breakdancing friends. Little did I know what a strange and dark journey would take place before that time came…