The hip-hop dance scene of b-boys and b-girls isn’t exactly underground — 39 million votes were cast for the second season finale of “America’s Best Dance Crew” on MTV, and movies such as the 2007 documentary, “Planet B-Boy” and the movie “You Got Served” from 2004 (or, for that matter, the previous generation’s “Beat Street” and “Breakin‘” and “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo,” all from 1984), have all proven that there’s a healthy above-ground audience for the exciting moves and urban beat culture of hip-hop dance.
But last night, when Erin and I attended Rockers Rumble III, the third annual competition of Colorado breakdancers, held at CU-Boulder’s Glenn Miller Ballroom, I had a flashback of nights hanging out in crowded clubs, makeshift concert halls and low-rent bars in the early ’80s, when I used to be a music critic. The scene back then was small but growing, and there was a palpable sense of community, kind of a shared language and shared values. Everyone knew what was good and what was bad, and everyone agreed on the sound and spirit of the underground music scene.
Check out the move that comes about 20 seconds into this clip — and then watch for a couple more seconds.
The street dance scene is like that now, or at least, that’s how it felt to me at the Rumble: underground. The audience was tight, linked, networked and shared values and language and moves. Certain rhythms resulted in certain moves; the music was a shared, seamless medley of funk and James Brown and more funk and more James Brown. Somewhere in there I heard Ludacris’ remake of William DeVaughn’s 1974 hit “Be Thankful for What You Got,” and it was a perfect time capsule snapshot of the moment, all new and old and youthful at once.
In Glenn Miller’s day, the bandleader looked out on the dancefloor and saw fans gyrating to his swing, doing the jitterbug and other moves. Last night, the giant photo of Miller on the ballroom wall (the bandleader attended the University of Colorado) looked down on a colorful cacophony of young people doing moves unimagined in the 1930s: popping, spinning, rolling on the floor, grabbing the crotch, amazing acrobatics and martial arts moves mixed in. For me, it felt like the contemporary expression of the mosh pit and stage diving, only a helluvalot cooler.
Last night, several hundred spectators and dancers crowded around the dancefloor and cheered during the contests, which were intense and chockfull of athleticism and bravado.
During the competition, teams face off against each other as the DJ spins the sounds, and members take turns stepping into the space between the teams, gyrating and hopping and popping and spinning and showing off their impossible moves. They trash-talk each other, get in each others’ faces, and then return to their side of the circle and let the next person from the other team step into the limelight to do the same. The crowd (and emcees) roar their approval when someone pulls an unbelievable move, and the winner is chosen by acclamation by the panel of judges (which this night included Eddie “Styles” Gutierrez of Jabbawockeez, the San Diego sensations that won the first season of “Best Dance Crew”).
In between the rounds, as the DJ played music, everyone seemed to spontaneously take advantage of the atmosphere. Men, women, even little kids moved into circles of spectators (there were several circles, or “cyphers,” spread out in the room during the breaks) and took a minute or two showing off their chops. It was a breathless show of democratic creativity — everyone was cheered on, and everyone got their chance in the spotlight.
The last time I can recall this kind of empowered audience and the blurring of performer-spectator lines was during the late ’70s and early ’80s punk and hardcore music era. Back then, the local music scene felt like a community, of like-minded artists and fans supporting each other and embracing their identity together. (It probably feels that way now too, but I’m just not a part of the scene anymore.)
One big difference between the underground music heyday and the dance phenom of today, at least as displayed at the Rumble, is that it’s a family-friendly affair. the event was sponsored by such companies as Red Bull and Vitamin water, and there were entire families in the audience, and kids awcthing. At one point, a girl who must have been under 10 stepped onto the floor to show off her moves and try to win a t-shirt (she had already won one).
The day-long event (it started at noon and ended after 10 pm) was organized by Front Range Rockers, a breakdancing organization formed six years ago at CU-Boulder. Many of its members also perform in the local dance group, Street Style Crew, which is made up mostly of Asian Americans. And like we’ve noticed in watching “America’s Best Dance Crew,” there were lots of Asians both performing and in the ranks of spectators. Erin is so fascinated by this phenomenon — AAPIs embracing, and excelling at, hip-hop dance — that she’s assigned a writer, Erika Usui, to seek out Asian Americans in the local hip-hop scene for the November issue of Asian Avenue magazine.
Congrats to Soul Mechanics, who beat a group that drove all the way from the east coast to compete, Express, not Impress, Ready to Rock. Soul Mechanics took home a $1,500 check, while the runners-up get to drive cross-country with a case of Vitamin Water.
Some of the moves we saw left us with our jaws on the floor. We were glad we attended, and look forward to learning more about, and seeing more of, the Colorado dance crew scene.
Check out this impromptu flare contest that developed during a break after the semi-final round. The winner, a member of Street Style Crew, spun out 23 flares.
Semi-finals: Leo Tsuo, one of the founders of Front Range Rockers, in the green struts his stuff in front of a group from Philadelphia, Express, not Impress, Ready to Rock, which heard about the Rumble just a week before and flew to Colorado compete.