Giving '80s trend a whirl

Club: As break dancing stages a comeback, youths meet at Howard Community College to practice their moves.

November 28, 1999|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

After an hour of headstands, handstands, back flips, waves, worms, swipes and six-steps, 16-year-old Danny Nguyen feels tired and decides to take a break with a little low-impact moonwalking in the gym at Howard Community College. As he glides along backward on the balls of his feet, he sneaks peeks of himself in the row of mirrors along the wall.

Danny is a regular at the college's break dance club, formed about three months ago by students interested in practicing moves and competing at dance clubs. They are part of a break-dancing revival that has been sweeping this country and Europe for the past few years.

"It's coming back a lot," says Dallas Greene, 18, a freshman at the community college and a founding member of the club. "Everything comes back after a while. It's kind of like if you eat too many peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, you get sick of them, and then four months later you can eat them again."

Break dancing -- which branched out of the hip-hop movement, kung fu movies and African dance -- started in the early 1980s, lasted five years or so, then went dormant.

A couple of years ago, it began coming back. It started appearing in movies, TV commercials. Break dance clubs, like the one at Howard Community College, started surfacing across the country as everyday folk tried to emulate the moves they saw on television.

About two years ago, students formed a break dance club at the University of Maryland, College Park.

One of the more dedicated College Park dancers, 20-year-old Dan Ferro, spent much of last summer drawing crowds while break dancing at the waterfront in Columbia, and often comes to the HCC club. He said College Park and HCC are the only two Maryland campuses he knows of that have break dance clubs.

At 6: 30 p.m., on a typical break dancing night, 10 or so young men gather in a forgotten part of the gym behind bleachers. Someone puts techno music in a boombox and feet start to move to the beat.

The dancers stretch and warm up, then start doing their moves -- part gymnastics, part martial arts -- on a blue gym mat. They move in, do a routine, then move away to catch their breath and give someone else space.

There are three or four young men on the mat at a time, walking on their hands, standing on their heads, doing back flips, twirling around with their legs in the air.

Nguyen moves across the mat on his belly, trying to undulate like a worm.

Greene puts on a helmet and spins on his head.

Joon Park, a 19-year-old freshman from Ellicott City, does a windmill, balancing his body on his hands and swinging his legs around in a circle.

Toward the end of practice, at 8 p.m. or so, the break dancers form a circle, just as they would at a club, and take turns doing routines in the middle as the others clap and cheer.

Getting out of violence

"Break dancing keeps people away from violence," says Nguyen, a student at Hammond High School in Columbia. "The main reason for break dancing was to get gangs out of violence."

He is one of the youngest members of the HCC club, which is not officially sanctioned by the school and takes in high school students or anybody else who wants to join. It has about 10 regular members and as many newcomers showing up every Monday and Wednesday night, lured by word-of-mouth or fliers posted around campus.

Nguyen has found a way to stand out.

`Goofy style'

"You want to know what style I have?" he asks. Short and skinny, he wears baggy pants, braces, and a happy-face sticker that reads "Hi" on his plaid shirt. "I have a goofy style. I'm a goofball. So that way, if I mess up, I can play it off and people like it."

Some parents, including Nguyen's, worry that their sons will hurt themselves break dancing without the supervision of a coach.

But at least one parent, Andrea Anderson of Laurel, mother of 16-year-old Joe Anderson, has made peace with her son's new activity.

"I kind of like it," she says. "I think it's great for the kids. It makes them feel good about themselves."

Not five minutes pass at a typical club meeting before the break dancers are breathing hard and sweat is seeping through their clothes.

There are artistic "floor moves," done for style, and gymnastic "power moves," done to impress.

As they move, the young men coach each other and newcomers who trickle in. The gym fills with phrases like, "You've got to arch your back," "Throw your arms forward" and "Your leg should be in the air at some point."

`All about physics'

"It's all about physics," says Greene, trying to teach someone a windmill, a break dancing staple. "That's why you have to keep your legs straight. I'm still learning how to do it myself."

Ali Sedghi, 26, of Bethesda, is one of the oldest members of the break dance club.

He drives to HCC from Reston, Va., where he works for a software company.

"I really dig the moves," he says. "I guess with work it's a stress thing. You're just being a kid again."

There is only one young woman who regularly attends the club: 20-year-old Saffron Owen.

Confidence booster

"Most of the break dancers I know are pretty nerdy," says Owen, as she cooly surveys the young men who sometimes blush when they talk to her. "But it's sort of a way to get confidence."

And what brings her to the break dance club?

"I like to retaliate against the girly thing," she says. "I'll do anything girls aren't supposed to do."

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