The first thing you need to know about breaking is that you don’t call it breakdancing. The second thing you need to know is that it took root in Milwaukee long before it spread to many larger cities, and some of the best breakers around still live here.
Born in the Bronx in 1960, Manzanet came of age at a time when property values in the borough had fallen so far that landlords set their own buildings ablaze to cash in on insurance claims. Manzanet spent his childhood roaming the city’s charred, smoking streets, looking for something to do with himself. He found hip-hop.
In August of 1973, the Jamaican-American DJ Clive “Kool Herc” Campbell started spinning records at parties in the South Bronx. He’d set up two turntables and place copies of the same record on both machines, so that he could extend the rhythmic section – or break – of a song by playing the same snippet on one, then the other.
Breakdancing: A word invented and popularized by the media. Commonly used to describe not only breaking but also popping and locking (culturally distinct dance styles developed in California in the 1960s and ’70s). Many contemporary practitioners of the art form avoid the term.
The break was the part of the song that dancers, including Manzanet, liked best. Over time, they developed an acrobatic dance technique – influenced by the funk antics of James Brown, by salsa dancers, by martial artists, by gymnasts, by anyone or anything that interested them – to bust out at the parties that Campbell presided over.
Manzanet paints a vivid picture of those gatherings. The DJs were the initial draw, he says. And the emcees could keep the crowd’s energy up, shouting exhortations over the thumping beat of the music. But the breakers – who waited to perform until the dance floor had been transformed into a writhing, sweaty sea of humanity – got the most attention. “When they heard that music,” he says, “the rest was history.”
In 1974, Manzanet’s mother became concerned about New York City’s rising crime rates and decided to send her son to Milwaukee, where his aunt lived. Manzanet showed locals some of the toprock and downrock he’d picked up. In those days, few people outside of New York had seen, or even heard of, breaking. “You got to remember, there was no internet,” he says. “So when people saw this kid from the South Bronx dancing like that, they didn’t know what to think.”
The jerky, close-to-the-floor movements led some to fear that Manzanet was having a medical emergency. But once they caught on, most liked what they saw. And Manzanet soon drummed up enough interest in breaking to form the city’s first b-boy crew, the Magic Rockers.
Breaking: The word that Clive Campbell and other hip-hop pioneers used to describe the acrobatic style of dance developed in the Bronx in the early 1970s. Synonyms include b-boying and b-girling
Hip-hop: A name applied to a creative subculture that sprang up in New York City in the second half of the 20th century. Comprised of four essential elements: DJing, emceeing (or rapping), graffiti writing and breaking.
Toprock: Foot movements performed while standing. Often used to create smooth transitions between other types of moves. Downrock: Movements performed while on the floor, with the dancer’s hands and feet used for support. Also called floorwork.
The Birth of Breaking
in Brew City
By the early 1980s, Manzanet had recruited 15 dancers – many of them living along Mitchell Street – to the crew. He booked them gigs at concert halls and roller rinks, where they’d pull up in Manzanet’s gleaming white BMW wearing blazers and ties over their tracksuits. “At the time, people thought of breakdancers as young gangbangers, as punks,” he says. “And we were polished.”
By then, Manzanet had opened a clothing store, and he ran his crew like a business, too. He held auditions. He fined dancers for showing up late. And he expected them to practice day after day, for five or six hours at a time. “It was our first job, really, because we were getting paid for shows,” crew member Ramon Candelaria remembers. “It was really structured, and for a guy like me, walking the streets, trying to find my family, it was great.” The first time Candelaria tried out for the crew, when he was around 14, he was turned away. But he wasn’t deterred.
He started bringing doughnuts to the Rockers’ rehearsals, to watch them practice. “I knew I wasn’t good enough to make it right away,” he says. “But I still wanted to be a part of what was going on.”
Candelaria eventually made the cut, joining shortly after the Magic Rockers had opened for hip-hop icon Grandmaster Flash. He was also there when breaking became so popular – at least in part because the film Flashdance introduced millions to the dance – that he and the other members of the Magic Rockers were treated like literal rock stars. And not just in Milwaukee. Once, while in Janesville for a performance, they were mobbed by adoring fans and had to sprint back to Manzanet’s car to escape the teenage girls chasing them. “I thought they were going to flip our car over,” Manzanet remembers, dead serious.
Power Moves: The most acrobatic, demanding moves that breakers perform, such as headspins and airflares. They require dancers to balance on their hands while whipping their legs over their heads in a continuous, circular motion.
Dance, Dance Evolution
Unfortunately, the more popular breaking became, the more artistic credibility it lost, in Milwaukee and throughout the rest of the country. Suburban shopping malls started hosting b-boy battles. Mainstream clothing companies began selling hip-hop-inspired streetwear. And television producers were quick to push even moderately talented dancers in front of a camera. By the 1990s, the scene had become a shadow of its former self.
It never faded away entirely, though, thanks in part to breakers who offered to teach younger dancers their moves. In the 1990s, many local kids were introduced to breaking, and hip-hop more broadly, at the Latino Community Center and the Milwaukee Christian Center.
The musician Cincere – who has opened for bigname acts like Common, Chris Brown, and Sly and the Family Stone – started going to the Christian Center when he was a teenager, and he says that the employees there (Candelaria was one of them) encouraged him to dance and make music. “The streets out there are rough,” he says. “And that hasn’t changed. This stuff gives youth a sense of belonging, of family, of stability, all the key components you need to become a leading citizen.”
José Pérez believes much the same thing. A former b-boy who spent long hours perfecting moves in church halls and basements along Mitchell Street in the 1980s, he’s now an alderman. And he’s stayed in touch with many of the people he used to compete against. “There was always love there,” he says. “Everyone would talk to each other, and break against each other, and practice with each other.”
The alderman’s early experiences as a breaker have informed some of his policies as a politician and have made him realize how important it is to create safe spaces where young people can express themselves. To that end, he (and Candelaria) volunteered to drive more than a dozen kids nearly 900 miles from Milwaukee to New York City for a Rock Steady Crew reunion. And earlier this year, he teamed up with the Milwaukee Public Library to host a breaking showcase at its Mitchell Street Branch. “It was a great acknowledgment and celebration of breaking and hip-hop in Milwaukee. There were people there who talked about how breaking saved their lives, about how it was a positive outlet for them that kept them out of trouble.”
Katrina “El La Katrina” Flores, now 40, agrees that breaking has had an overwhelmingly positive influence on her life. “I feel like I was called to it,” she says, adding that she can travel just about anywhere in the world and find a group of breakers there who will welcome her with open arms. “Your family becomes bigger.”
Flores has been interested in hip-hop since she was a kid, when watching movies like Beat Street and blasting albums like Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet showed her that the world was wider, and more diverse, than the Wisconsin town where she grew up. While enrolled at UW-Madison, she co-founded Breaking the Law, a dance festival that ran for 11 years and doubled as the largest breaking event in the Midwest. Since then, she’s helped put on many more hip-hop events while also working to create a platform for b-girls to get together and support one another. And earlier this year, she quit her job as the chief operations officer of a community arts center to focus on breaking, emceeing and event promotion full time.
She hopes that she can help other women carve out space for themselves in a subculture that is still dominated by men. “Representation is so important,” she says. “Seeing yourself represented in the culture and the dance is everything.”
Old School, Meet New School
Cypher: A circle formed by breakers, who take turns dancing in its center.
“It was almost like a movie moment,” Tran says, remembering that the sky was stormy when he returned home that night. “I vowed to myself that I would prove them wrong, and show them that dancing isn’t just for people who are fit. It’s for anyone who has a passion for it.”
Tran eventually co-founded (along with Russian-born brothers Yosha and Duka Antipov) the crew Gravity Benders. And earlier this year, after entering a dance competition at a Milwaukee Bucks game (which he of course won), he became something of a viral sensation. “It was a pretty crazy experience,” he says.
Tran’s not the only Milwaukee breaker with a massive following. Juan “Mijo” Rodriguez began breaking when he was around 10 and quickly rose through the ranks of the city’s dancers. While still in high school, he co-founded Motion Disorderz and started competing against other crews around the state. Then the country. Then the world.
Now 34, he’s more interested in spending time with his family than in practicing from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. every day, like he used to. But he’s still considered one of the best b-boys in the Midwest, and he’ll be competing in the Freestyle Session World Finals in November.
When he isn’t training for competitions, Rodriguez can often be found teaching dance classes at community centers and studios around the city. “I ask my students what superpower they’d most like to have,” he says. Most of them say they wish they could fly. And he’ll tell them that they can – if they commit themselves fully to their studies, they can learn to leap or spin through the air as effortlessly as he can.
At least one young breaker, 22-year-old Sheldan “Schells” Wilbon, has managed to achieve nearly as much air time as Rodriguez. A member of both Motion Disorderz and Clan19 (the third currently active crew in the city), Wilbon hopes to one day compete at Rodriguez’s level.
He practices every day. He’ll often stay up until 2 or 3 in the morning to perfect a new move. “I know I’ve got to stop when I feel like I need to throw up,” he says, then adds: “But I love it. I genuinely love it.”
Here in Milwaukee, organizations like TRUE Skool – a nonprofit that helps young people find their voices, artistically and civically, through hip-hop – have also been scrambling to meet a growing demand for classes. Fidel Verdin, TRUE Skool’s co-executive director, offers up both to young b-boys and b-girls. And he and his colleagues have also started forming partnerships with other organizations and businesses around the city, to help bring breaking to broader audiences.
While he’s not keen to see the art form co-opted by corporations the way it was in the 1980s, Verdin isn’t afraid of seeing it become more mainstream, either. “Hip-hop is for everyone,” he says. “It might be the most unifying culture on the planet right now.”
A Brief History of Breaking
1932: Brothers Fayard and Harold Nicholas first perform at the Cotton Club, in Harlem, where they develop a style of acrobatic dancing – called flash dancing – so dazzling that for a time they are the only black vaudevillians allowed to socialize with the white audience members at the club. Many contemporary breakers consider them a major source of inspiration.
1972: James Brown releases “Get on the Good Foot.” The two-part funk song helps popularize a dance battle craze in New York City.
1973: Clive “Kool Herc” Campbell agrees to spin records at a back-to-school party for his sister Cindy. He doesn’t know it yet, but he’ll soon be considered the founder of hip-hop.
1973: Bruce Lee produces and stars in Enter the Dragon. When the film screens in the Bronx – a month after Lee’s sudden death at the age of 32 – the first wave of New York City b-boys begins to incorporate kung-fu moves into their dancing.
1977: Bronx b-boys Jimmy D. and Jimmy Lee form the Rock Steady Crew. As the group grows, its influence does too.
1983: Breaking reaches wider (also whiter) audiences when the films Wild Style and Flashdance receive theatrical releases. Rock Steady crew member Richard “Crazy Legs” Colón actually appears in both – when Jennifer Beals seems to leap into a dizzying backspin in the Flashdance finale, the camera cuts to Colón.
1990: The first international breaking competition, Battle of the Year, debuts in Germany. The dance soon surges in popularity throughout Europe and Asia.
2013: The World B-Boy Series is established. The breaker who wins the competition is crowned “Undisputed Champion.”