Revival of breaking brings a blast of new energy to Baltimore

Passionate b-boys and b-girls have created a thriving and unexpected breakdancing scene in Baltimore

  • Breakdancers dance to the music at the weekly Dig party at Joe Squared on North Avenue.
Breakdancers dance to the music at the weekly Dig party at Joe… (Josh Sisk, Special to The…)
June 17, 2011|By Michael Sragow, The Baltimore Sun

It's 10 o'clock on a Tuesday night on Baltimore's North Avenue, one building away from the Maryland Avenue bridge — not your typical party time or place.

But there's a bustle on the Joe Squared patio, and it doesn't just come from late diners scarfing down pizza and risotto.

An eclectic group of fun-seekers — bar-hoppers and artists and students — are schmoozing and flirting and greeting fellow regulars for the weekly dance party known as "Dig."

Created by DJ and rock-soul-funk musician Landis Expandis, Dig has become a big draw for breakdancers — or, as they call themselves, b-boys and b-girls, or breakers. Inside, a lone breaker practices a super-athletic move in front of a mirror. He could be inventing the no-handed push-up.

Most nights at Dig, breakers and other dancers who are part of hip-hop culture, like "poppers" and "lockers," make up 20 percent of the crowd. Tonight there will be 75 people; sometimes the number hits 100.

Bringing street dance in from the sidewalk, they add tang and excitement to a bohemian pocket of Station North. Infected by their exuberance and creativity, people of all ages, sizes, sexes and ethnicities break out in bouts of happy feet. As long as they have rhythm, they fit in.

As the regulars mingle outside, another popular DJ, Napscape, is spinning music for the early crowd, including a young crew that calls itself Pure Energy. The 250-pound Sumo has taught dance; the b-girl who calls herself Top Roxx steps on the floor with feisty confidence. It turns out the tall, slender acrobat gyrating on the floor is another crew member, Gemini.

Their fourth member, Sheki, is just breaking into breaking — she started b-girling only a few months ago, when Sumo conducted a clinic in West Baltimore. Breaking has always been passed down from teacher to student.

The Internet and social media have sent b-boys spinning around the world. Over the past decade and a half, breaking has become a universal phenomenon. The 2008 documentary "Planet B-Boy" plays like an exhilarating Olympics-highlights movie.

Now breaking has come back to Baltimore, on campuses, in community centers, and at bars and clubs.

Joe Edwardsen, the owner of Joe Squared, says Dig started "four years or so ago. For the first six months to a year, nobody comes. But it's Tuesday night on North Avenue — nothing else is happening, so we let it roll. Then 25-30 breakdancers start showing up. Then people come in to watch the breakdancing. Now it's consistently one of the busiest nights of any place anywhere in the city."

Dig isn't the only hip-hop game in town. The Get Down's Saturday night dance party, DJ'd by Harry Hotter, followed the same pattern.

Breaker David Flynn says, "It started when me and a roommate went [to The Get Down] a week after it opened. They were advertising that on Saturday night they played 'funks, breaks, house and hip-hop,' so we walked in and talked to the manager [Laura O'Neill]. She said she'd love it if we came and danced. It started as a once-a-month thing, and slowly turned into a once-a-week occurrence."

Flynn hosted a b-boy battle called "The Break Down" at The Get Down in January. It proved so popular that "The Break Down II" will take place July 9.

Stephen Fleg, who puts together "4 Hours of Funk" every month at The Windup Space, partly credits the savvy of the DJs. Fleg says he tries to draw the breaking and popping community in Baltimore to his events: "I play music that I know they're down to dance to. … B-boys like faster funk and drum breaks; poppers like slower, West Coast funk style."

Rap music and breaking started three decades ago. Along with a new, extravagant version of graffiti, they became the basis of hip-hop culture. They boiled up from black and Latino neighborhoods in New York City as a creative response to urban blight — and swiftly flew through all five boroughs and every part of the country.

These bold new forms of music, art, poetry and dance empowered young city-dwellers to express themselves in a kinetic urban style. The driving yet elastic rhythms of rap — and baroque yet dynamic lines of graffiti — found dance equivalents in breaking and popping. Dancers created their own "tags," with sweeping signature movements and gestures as exact as punctuation marks. Boyz and girlz 'n the hood started channeling their competition into dance battles.

Graffiti and rap endured. Breaking flagged in Baltimore — but raced across the globe.

Booda Monk, hip-hop's reigning eminence in Baltimore, believes that breaking nearly disappeared from Mobtown between 1986 and 1996. Monk kept it alive single-handedly — or, rather, with his hands, feet, head and torso, since breaking involves every part of your body.

"I never stopped," Monk says. When he was breaking or popping in clubs, everyone watched, but nobody joined in. "I would run around town telling people breaking was coming back, but they didn't believe me."

They do now.

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