B-Boy City Freestylin'
Roméo Navarro is bringing freestyle dance out of the underground
"You got some crews where you need the whole crew to battle. One guy can do the windmill, one guy can do the headspin, one guy can dance. Nah, you gotta be everything here. You see tap dancing, you gotta learn how to mimic that. If a guy does it, you gotta learn how to do his stuff and do it better. You gotta be able to dance to any music. If it's country, you gotta know how to dance to it. If it's rock, there's a beat on rock, you gotta learn how to hit that. You get all the hate outta your heart and accept things for what they are. Some people are like, 'Awww, I don't wanna listen to that shit. It's wack.' How do you know if you've never seen it and listened to it? I'm just like, 'Listen to it.' We listen to capoeira music, Tejano, Latin hip-hop, dance hall. And now we're getting to the fact that we're getting into anything." -- Roméo Navarro
Roméo Navarro's freewheeling philosophy of dance has inspired a vibrant freestyle dance community in Austin for the past decade. During his Thursday night practices, one can see a group of dancers, ranging in age from 16 to 28, design their individual dance styles by imagining, attempting, and perfecting unique moves, which they merge with selections from a vast repertoire of established moves. Sensuous or aggressive house dancing shifts to uprock footwork in preparation for dropping the body to the floor to begin some progressive breaking. Head spins, hand spins, windmills, flares, scissors, and airtracks all come from old-school breakdancing, but these dancers push those moves to the edge of physical possibility, while adding their own "tricks" to the lexicon: head-slides, threads (turning legs, arms, and torso into speed-demon pretzels), and vertical pushups. One dancer recklessly hurls himself through the air while another balances on her hands and slowly lowers herself into a back-bending bridge. An outbreak of old-school popping/locking is followed by amazing capoeira leaps as legs slash the air, seemingly in search of a face to smash.
Freestyle streetdance is a postmodern encyclopedia of styles. Breakdancing, created by the b-boys (breakbeat-boys) of New York in the 1970s, is only one of its elements. Equally important roots of the aesthetic family tree are capoeira (Brazilian martial art/dance), house dancing, gymnastics, acrobatics, Bruce Lee, the Nicholas Brothers, and Fred without Ginger. Each dancer is free to mold these elements into a unique style. Navarro describes freestyle as letting the body go with the music rather than having the moves dictated by mind. Flirting with chaos, the body goes on a jazz instrumental solo flight in search of a new physical order and sensibility. Even with all this freedom, the dancer learns how to "leave the beat and then come back."
Although Austin is home to some of the finest freestyle dancers in the nation, for the most part the movement has remained underground, virtually relegated to house parties, the street, and the few clubs which appreciate hip-hop performances. However, if local dancer and promoter Navarro realizes his dream, freestyle will put b-boy culture back at the center of hip-hop and onto cultural radar screens.
On Oct. 26 and 27, Navarro will present B-Boy City 8, a gathering of 350-400 dancers from all over the South and Southwest and points beyond. He has been producing this semi-annual exhibition/contest since 1999 with tireless assistance from fellow b-boys and b-girls. This is no nostalgic "breakdance" contest, but rather a convocation of highly skilled freestyle streetdancers.
During the B-Boy City competition, singles, duos, and crews battle one another, one dancer at a time. The dancing is performed with maximum energy and speed and punctuated by an uncanny command of noncontinuous movement, without apparent transition, in noncontinuous time. It is a solo dance that adheres to a strict sense of space within a "cipher" (circle) made up of other dancers who surround the soloist. The cool tightness of the circle sharpens the attention and no dancer even grazes the body of an onlooker nor is there any indication of retreat from, for instance, the thrust of a foot stopping inches from someone forming the circle. Freestylin' is the perfect dance for our time: confrontational, athletic, graceful, energetic, and liberating. Just about summing up the 20th century, it offers hope for an explosion of creativity in the 21st. Freestylin' has all been created by multicultural youths rarely formally trained in traditional dance forms.
Austin experienced the first wave of hip-hop dance in 1984. Sixth Street was booming with primarily Latino and African-American teenagers up-rocking and spinning on refrigerator-carton cardboard. Popularized by music videos and movies such as Wild Style and Beat Street, the 1970s Bronx-originated hip-hop culture of breakdancing, graffiti, beat-mixing DJs, and rapping emcees found a larger audience during the Reagan era. By the end of 1985, hip-hop music continued its exploration of new forms and content, but the dancing died, only to be revived in a much more complex form in the Nineties.
During the interval, young people naturally continued to dance. One popular style was percussion-driven "house." Austin dancer Jesse Rodríguez explains, "Instead of using your hands and feet on the floor, you're just standing up, creating your own steps, your own spins, your own waves. If you go back and look at the Nicholas Brothers, they were doing tap dancing, but it's like house dancing, because they'll be tapping and do a back flip into a split then one brother will jump over the other one." As "house" dancing found a home in some young bodies, there were others who yearned to resurrect and advance hip-hop breakin'.
Roméo Navarro always liked to dance. "My mom would put me in the middle of the room to show off. Whatever the newest dance was back then. I guess I get it from my sister. She used to always do routines and stuff. I'd just jump in. When breakin' first started in the Eighties I was too little. Then by the time I wanted to get really, really into it, it was gone, but I still kept dancing, streetdancing. Whatever dance is new, is out on TV, I'd try to do. Everything that was dancing I watched, from Gene Kelly to whatever I see on TV. I watched all Fred Astaire movies. When friends began to worry, I'd say, 'That punk can dance.'"
Once Navarro was able to get inside Austin's teen club Yo-Yo's, his destiny was set. "I thought I had some moves, but that's when I realized there was something else going on." Continually working on his style, he began sneaking into other downtown clubs, where he "ripped up" all the other dancers. "I got everybody's respect so I'd get invited to get in." The only way sleepy DJs could drive him out of the empty clubs was to drive him home.
After a year spent in a Dallas art school and a thriving hip-hop club scene, Navarro returned to Austin with a mission to revitalize the dance scene. He named his first dance crew C.B.S., in honor of Austin's premier old-school breaking crew from the Eighties. But that was the only nod to tradition. His crew was fiercely new-school. "We were about everything: from breakin' to poppin', no discrimination on whatever type of dance." But, even with that open-mindedness, there was nobody to battle in Austin, so the new C.B.S. traveled to Houston and Dallas for dance competitions and club battles. After a knee injury took Navarro off the dance floor for a year, "I stopped everything -- alcohol, going out. I just wanted to study the dance, stretch my body, eat the right food. There was lots of sacrifice, but I could see it was helping me. I saw that I liked the feeling of dance and knowing that it was positive."
Watching Bruce Lee movies along with those of Fred, Ginger, Donald, Gene, and the Nicholas Brothers, he dreamed up Swing Team. With knee healed, "I got ahold of four or five of my friends and said, 'Let's change the whole thing. Let's put on a different style, like Swing Kids [the movie about rebellious swing-dancers in Nazi Germany].' We dressed kind of preppy so we could get inside the clubs, but we still made it hip-hop." They would dance to any kind of music, constantly learning and creating new moves, all to be stored in their bulging piñata of dance styles.
Navarro encouraged the core members of Swing Team: "You've gotta create your own style, your own character." Nobody was to be the boss, choreographer, or dance master. Santos Ruíz states, "I'm not just a breakdancer. I wanna get a little bit of everything. When you've got all of that, you're unstoppable." Roger Davis reflects, "If dancing is my food and water, then as a Southern-raised black man, the beat I take into my body to dance is the grits, eggs, and bacon, and the rhythm that comes out is black-eyed peas, collard greens, and corn bread. Without those things I would not be here because that is what I was raised on. I don't believe a whole day has been lived until the cycle of the beat to the body to the room has been completed."
Increasingly adept at every possible move within their menu of footwork, body movement, hand gestures, spins, balances, contortions, and freezes, each dancer learned to release premeditation and enter "the zone," where freestyle finds its meaning. Denise ("DeeNice") Rositas says, "I like the feeling of being lost in a song. My body takes on its own self. Dancing is the one source of freedom from everything. In the 'zone' you don't think about anything but dancing. The soul is the 'zone.' It pushes you to dance because of the love you feel. At some point you are so hyped, moving so fast, it's as if the dance is coming out at 100 miles per hour." Navarro adds, "I can go to work all day and then go to practice or a club and I dance all night. It's the adrenaline. I did skydivin' but it wasn't anything like dancin'. I am my own, whatever guides me, no boss, no religion to follow, just the energy and you. My body contains characters, transformations, crab, spider, cat, centipede. You can use the imagination any way you want and switch from one thing to another so fast. Imagination in dance is like a natural drug. Music helps to stimulate the soul. Findin' a dance is findin' your soul."
To enter this meditative, uplifting zone more frequently, the Swing Team needed space. In 1997 a karate and dance studio on South Congress became their hangout. Soon, 100 dancers, real or wannabe, filled the room, and Swing Team's membership swelled. Undisturbed, Navarro decided, "Everybody can be part of it. It's a dance crew but it's not really a dance crew. People will kick themselves out. With the practices and the shows, some people can't keep up with that."
Swing Team soon opened their own 24/7 space, Rhythm 'n' Motion on South First. Navarro explains, "We ran it the way we wanted to run it, how we wanted it, the type of music we wanted to hear, the dancers in control of it." Gabe ("Chilli") Moreno, remembers, "We were all part of it, took care of it, put it together. We did shows for schools and stuff. We were just a bunch of kids choreographing our own stuff, having our own studio." New members were "battled" into Swing Team, much like "running the line" in a gang. Freddy Martínez remembers, "I had to battle them for 10-15 minutes straight. I showed them the different styles I could do, if I could hang, if I've got the soul for the music."
Along with the studio came a brief but glorious foray into running a club, the Realm, located where the new Steamboat is on Riverside. Navarro explains the reason for the club: "For a while we were just vibin' off each other in the zone, dancing, getting happy. You forget about what goes around in the dance and most of the people that control the industry. They just basically used us. That's what happened to the old-school cats, cameras, Hollywood was on them, and they just got used and they never really got nothing out of it. That's when I decided that I not only gotta get inside the circle, know how to dance and how to zone, I gotta know what's goin' on outside the dance, what people think. We decided to do our own thing. We kicked ass and blew up the scene. It was all run by b-boys and b-girls."
The Realm was overrun by dancers thankful to finally have their own spot. Besides Swing Team members, such remarkable dancers as Alien Squad's Blitz and Dizzy racked up a lot of frequent dancer miles inside the club. Blitz, originally the youngest member of Navarro's C.B.S., began dancing around the age of 10 after seeing a video of Beat Street, which included early heroes of traditional breakdancing, the Rock Steady Crew. Because of his own impressive talents, Blitz would eventually find himself touring with Ken Swift, one of the legendary members of that very group. Blitz describes his own style: "I like aggressive, stressful, pressure, energy, strength -- all in one bundle." Equally inspired by Beat Street around the age of 13, Dizzy tirelessly practiced the athletic breakdance moves exemplified by Rock Steady. "They were my idols. I learned from them and slowly elevated."
Although the Realm was short-lived, thanks to greedy investors, it created a lasting effect on Austin's hip-hop dance underground. After the club's demise, Navarro tirelessly sought new ways to keep the music going. In the spring of 1999, he and core members of Swing Team created B-Boy City. With their travels to competitions all over the country, they already knew many freestyle dancers. Once Navarro put out the word about a b-boy/b-girl dance competition in Austin, the dancers came streaming through the doors of the Montopolis Recreation Center. Mark Navarro remembers, "There were people from all over Texas. I was dancing all that night. I never stopped."
B-Boy City was like one huge party. It was "about the dancers, by the dancers." With 150 b-boys in attendance, Swing Team realized their dreams on a grander scale. As Roméo Navarro says, "This is our soul right here. And nothin' happenin', no fights, no crazy shit, everybody havin' a good time." Instead of club owners or unscrupulous businessmen reaping profits from the sweat of dancers, Navarro realized that the money could go back into the dance and the dancers by conducting two B-Boy City events each year. Each one has gotten bigger and better, not just because of the large cash prizes, but mainly because of the incredible vibe and camaraderie created by hundreds of energetic, creative participants. It is an unforgettable experience, even for those whose freestylin' can only manifest itself within the spirit.
B-Boy City 8 takes place Oct. 26 and 27, with preliminary competitions Saturday, 4pm-midnight, at Montopolis Recreation Center, 1200 Montopolis, and final competitions Sunday, 6-10:30pm, at Mercury, 214 E. Sixth. A party will follow the finals at the same location. Also, videos of previous B-Boy City events will be shown Sunday, 3:30-5:30pm, at the Alamo Drafthouse Downtown, 409 Colorado. Admission for the two-day event is $20. For further information, call 282-0248 or visit www.breakcheck.com.