FROM A FEW BLOCKS AWAY, IT'S THUMPING BASS. Closer, you get unintelligible calls and the occasional flash of white tennies in the air. From a block away, you see shoes and crotches at strange angles, as if the stage were some new state fair ride. And you see how the action on stage sets everything in motion around it -- the pigeon-breasted man crossing the street, even the windblown garbage.
It's hot, hot, hot, and the third annual Groundbreaker Battle at the Cowles Center is underway -- sort of. Onstage and off, guys are bounding around, trying out moves without fully committing to them, keeping their cool. Passersby stop: white twentysomethings on bikes wearing helmets, the essence of unhip hop; two white kids in too-big Twins caps, trailing after their parents, making hand signs to the music like they grew up in the 'hood. Others stay. Everyone's looking for shade; some savvy spectators brought umbrellas. But it's hard to tell who's a dancer and who's a spectator, because every now and then someone breaks into dance. I feel the temptation, but I just hurt myself on an ill-advised fence-climbing move. No breaking for me; I'm broke already.
A little kid -- four years old? -- gets up on stage and starts going. He looks like a real b-boy, a rubber-jointed phenom, indifferent to gravity. His shoe flies off on one pass.
Like this tot, most of the dancers are short guys with equal-looking arms and legs -- human starfish, if you will. They dress in street clothes, or what look like street clothes, anyway -- jeans, chinos, t-shirts. Saturated accessories abound: a tomato-red cap jauntily worn to the side, bright-red hightops. Shoes make the man: Adidas stripes, canvas Vans, star-printed or vivid purple sneaks. To achieve that casual look of nonchalance, of "Well I didn't plan to spin on one hand today, but all right," some item that flies off mid-spin is de rigueur -- with the comic effect that b-boys are always on cap, rag, and ID tag duty.
More guys are coming in now in matching colors, golf caps, tees emblazoned "Kings Without Crowns". There's a guy in a white linen shirt, shaved head, sunglasses -- very Brad Pitt-on-vacation. He idly vibrates his safari wrinkles -- a popper; must be Dancin' Dave, one of the featured performers. And look at that -- someone brought his torso! Well, hello there. Actually, there are a few torsos on display, but what you're really not seeing is anyone's knees. You'd think they were taboo.
Also not in evidence: b-girls. "Hello, b-boys and b-girls -- I know you're out there," host J-Sun Noer says without optimism. No one shouts. Wait, over there's a lithe woman in a pink newsboy cap, tied shirt, and fatigues, twitching her hips -- maybe she's a b-girl! ... No, it's Melodie Bahan, the Cowles' press and marketing guru. Where are the girls?
Now, things get going. Basically, two things happen: performances, often in the dance cypher (a half-circle of dancers trading off time in the center), and battle. Battle is an addictive kick, everyone at top speed and full trick, MCs calling ("pure ridiculousness!" shouts Carnage the Executioner, a jovial guy), crowd yelling. But I'd take the cypher: here, with less at stake, dancers can be more inventive and playful. In battle, crowd pressure favors the athletic, the superhuman. That's cool and all -- I too am in awe of the crazy things that can happen when you launch five-foot-six of pure muscle into the air in a corkscrew -- but sometimes the best dancers aren't the best athletes. I watched the musical, witty New Heist crew take a pummeling from the airborne whirlwind of Looney Tunes, and I have to agree Looney Tunes won the battle, but New Heist are the dancers I'd like to see more of.
"Mistake" ceases to be a word with meaning. In the same spirit, the best moves are those that violate expectations: sideways explosions or moonwalk-like misdirections. In short, the best moves and movers exhibit freedom.
LET'S TALK ABOUT THE ACTUAL DANCE A LITTLE. The set-up is simple: a dancer steps out, solos for a while -- dancing on his feet (toprocking) first, then getting to the floor -- nails some final pose or gesture, gets out of the way. A minute would be a really long solo (except for one tireless shorty, the abovementioned four-old-year); these are dance sprints.
You can toprock like you are bored of standing up, or you can flirt with the floor. One guy I like jukes like he's avoiding an invisible opponent; he moves like a sea creature. But the floor exerts an irresistible attraction. These guys may bounce around a bit, but they can't leave the center without getting down and going for some crazy floor involution (like wrestling with yourself), a tricky series of balances, or a spin. When you go into a spin, you've got to have an escape plan, a balance to go for, and a secondary one if you screw up the first one. Screwing up is endemic, so part of the dance is your style in passing off what might have been a mistake. For the best dancers, "mistake" ceases to be a word with meaning. In the same spirit, the best moves are those that violate expectations: sideways explosions or moonwalk-like misdirections. In short, the best moves and movers exhibit freedom. You can execute some mere slick on the beat styling, you can dazzle with a leg tornado, but I like this guy who always looks like he's falling -- and never hits the floor.
SO, ABOUT THIS BATTLING: IS IT AGGRESSIVE? The dance often is. Besides the testosterone-laden displays of strength and the posturing, there's the sheer space-taking nature of it. When a guy right next to me starts breaking, my animal instincts react as if he's just spun around holding a two-by-four; I tense up. That said, many dancers strive for grace along with their strength, for moments of balletic elegance. Their posturing is often tongue-in-cheek, just part of the performance. Guys in different crews know each other and nod over their crossed arms. When one guy launches a faux face kick, the kickees howl with laughter. The rare inter-crew jostle gets a shout from MC Carnage: "This ain't West Side Story!"
Judge Minnesota Joe winning the day's WTF? prize by making himself into a limb-tumbleweed; also, for trying to get the crowd going with this: "Throw your baby in the air! Punch your neighbor!"
The dancers' serious faces -- like acolytes. And while I'm on a religious note, that nun-faced white krumper whose big red target tee billows like a flag with each elastic spasm.
Dance jokes: Pulling yourself up by your shirt, putting your hat on between your legs, dancing alongside a little remote-controlled truck. That flat on the back trick (whirl, bounce, splat!) never fails to amuse; it's a joke on falling.
The guy whose bemused expression suggests he's just now tuned in to what his legs are doing. A skinny spidery kid with pegged pants and elegant hands -- whiplash, lightning. Dancin' Dave's broken doll morphing into a sly pelvic pump (Carnage: "The boy's stupid!" Update your slang, gang). A full-body flip, the dancer's torso wheeling in air.
Do I have to say the usual bit about how hip hop dancers aren't who you might think? Yes, there are plenty of African-American dancers, but also lots of white and mixed guys, and a sizeable Asian contingent (perhaps even a majority). Central casting has not caught up: one Asian kid looks spot on for a sitcom calculus whiz-glasses, buzz cut, white tee, chinos -- until his loose legs get going. Come to think of it, the way those legs go, he is a calculus whiz.
I like how you don't need to pay attention to the stage all the time. You can turn and check out the performance around you: the guy in the crowd doing a reaction dance; the girl in the jungle rainbow tights, rhinestone sunglasses, honeyed hair, and thousand-yard stare; the policewoman in the mirrored Terminator shades who just perceptibly nods her head as Desdamona raps "I'll be rocking as long as I'm alive." As the day wears on, more people turn up -- random hipsters, close-coiffed ballet girls on their way home from class -- all feeling the bass that thumps through your body like a surrogate heartbeat.
Throughout the day, J-Sun spouts the usual hip hop gospel of community and tradition; I hear the word "elders" more than once. Pulled up in the parking lot is a van marked "Mad Dads Mobile Outreach Unit," promising faith, hope, wisdom, and unity. Inside the HCA, a b-boy who goes by Man of God is giving class. The persistent sincerity of the hip hop dance community is one of its more puzzling elements. After all, the dance couldn't look more like an embodiment of postmodern relativistic play if it'd been designed for that purpose. You can resolve this conundrum any number of ways (maybe dancers in a free form need structure, maybe the emphasis on community controls the potential aggression in the dance), but perhaps it's best just to look around.
A few blocks away, everything is as usual -- the usual downtown dirt. A cop walks over to a woman who's been screaming at a bus stop. People move either in a crablike amble that expresses a desire to take up as much space as possible or a shutter-eyed tightrope that expresses the opposite. In a parking lot, I spot what looks a lot like a twist of pot in a plastic bag, and then, a few feet away, an empty Sapphire sample.
But, before you go back to your workaday life, let me give you a look at the final battle, two crews going at it for grand prize, $2500. Apparently Looney Tunes and Optimistic went ten rounds plus a three-round tiebreak, but I have to admit I was so dizzy with the dance, the MCs, the crowd, that I couldn't tell one round from another.
On stage: B-Boy King Kong in a stripey seizure, leaving an afterimage like a sparkler. In the audience, the girl from Haight-Ashbury, vine-skinny in her Technicolor minidress and headband, doing the maniac feet from Flashdance. On stage: the Finisher dances like he's possessed by a spirit that's working its way out. MC Desdamona's a trip: brown bob and PTA smile, but her voice does the football shout, the little gasp, the ratatat talk. In the audience, entrants from a race, still wearing their numbers and matching shirts. On stage, Boogie B is not doing a rain dance, he's doing a hurricane dance. MC Carnage gets caught up in trying to conjugate "break," deciding that the past tense is "broked". On stage, someone mimes shooting himself in the head, slips to the floor, then rolls up into a headstand, smooth as caramel. Someone does a midspin midair crotch grab. Someone's trying to take his own head off, going animal like an Egyptian god.
And then it's over. This year's winner: Optimistic. I can go with that.
Noted event details:
The 2011 Cowles Center Groundbreaker Battle took place July 30 at the Cowles Center for Dance and Performing Arts. At the end of the day, first place in this year's battle went to Optimistic, followed by Looney Tunes in 2nd and Warriors in 3rd.
Some pertinent videos:
New Heist vs. Optimistic
Looney Tunes vs. Warriors
Looney Tunes vs. New Heist
There's a lot more out there, too. Actually, if you Google-search "Cowles Groundbreaker 2011" under videos, you'll find some footage of the event, and more will probably be uploaded soon.
About the author: Originally from Tallahassee, Lightsey Darst is a poet, dance writer, and adjunct instructor at various Twin Cities colleges. Her manuscript Find the Girl was recently published by Coffee House; she has also been awarded a 2007 NEA Fellowship. She hosts the writing salon, "The Works."