I’ve been immersed in researching two sub-cultures for my book. One of these worlds is psychic mediumship. The other is that of underground hip hop, specifically the Minnesota brand of b-boying and b-girling. For most of the population here, it’s basically under the radar, almost invisible. For those involved in it, both as members of tight-knit crews and of the wider community of hip hop/break dancers, it’s a way of life.
Practicing and perfecting moves is their reason to come together. Celebrating mastery of the form at performances and in “battles,” when dancers compete as crews or one-to-one, is the primary reason to be. Performances are jaw-dropping, gravity-defying, magical (as in, “How did she do that?”) at events like the annual B-Girl Be celebration of hip hop.
As Amy Sackett told her students one night when I was observing a lesson at the Zenon Dance Company, it’s a genre totally distinct from jazz or ballet or modern. “Sometimes it transcends human movement,” Amy said, as when a body moves in West Coast waving, looking as if it simply has no bones.
I put on a pair of brand new Puma Suedes yesterday, stopped at son Kai’s so that he could weave in extra-wide laces (b-boy/b-girl style), and took my place at the very back of a class of dancers, so that I could feel what my characters feel as they learn the moves. My brain and my knees are such that I know I won’t be mimicking the Swedish grandmother who, reportedly, took up break dance only five years ago and is now doing head-spins. I’d observed various classes for weeks, but putting together one combination after another on the dance floor was humbling and, I suspect, a source of humor for the others.
Nevertheless, I’ve moved beyond showing up in order to deconstruct a move or to determine if the words “fresh” and “peace” are still part of the local lingo (and, yes, they are still in use). I’m in love with the culture and philosophy of this underground phenomenon. Forget bullets and bling. Forget sexualized booty-dancing.
At a Poppin’ Battle at Central Mission in St. Paul two weeks ago, I witnessed amazing feats of physical prowess by freestyling b-girls and b-boys, facing off one-to-one with each other. (And the operative word here is “with,’ not “against,” since the vibe is one of appreciation for what the other can do, the motive to respect but evolve the fundamental form into something uniquely and wondrously one’s own, and when that happens, for all to celebrate it.) I intended to stay an hour and ended up staying all five until Sweety Pop — a b-girl with such presence I couldn’t help but think queen, as in Nefertiti or Cleopatra – and an experienced b-boy called Dizne, battled in the final round.
But here’s what else I watched: dancers, after a turn in the freestyle circle, enveloped in hugs and love by their crews; the judges (accomplished veterans) joining the crowd during breaks to mentor and model moves; a heartwarming equality — dancers of every color and culture encouraging each other; bodies so attuned to the pulsing beat that they kept moving on the sidelines, in the foyer, to the beat of the spoken word of Truth Maze and Tou SaiK. Open-hearted, egalitarian, peace-loving… on and off the floor. Unadulterated delight on the face of a dancer like Ti-en-T. The overall feeling? Pure joy.
On NPR’s website, there’s a video of babies matching movements to rhythms. It’s a report of scientists’ discovery — after they watched babies groove spontaneously, even to so-called “dry beats” — that the human tendency to move to a beat is innate. When babies do match moves to the beat, despite their primitive motor control, they break into smiles. As much as anything, underground hip hop dance is about such joy. Y’all, please count me in.