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Breakdancing to a New Beat

by Lindsay Brownell

January 7,2008

The Breakfast Club on North Caldwell Street rises straight up out of its surrounding concrete parking lot like a giant Rubik’s cube. This is very appropriate, as the whole club is 80s themed: paintings of Pac Man line the staircase, the sitting areas are lit by blacklight, and the chairs are giant plastic hands whose thumbs serve as cupholders. It was here that I saw my first breakdancing battle. I had no idea that breakdancing even existed in Charlotte, but the club was packed with over a hundred people, and the prize for first place was $400. I had tagged along with my roommate, who had joined the breakdancing club at Davidson College and somehow convinced me to go to a club on a Wednesday night. I didn’t know what to expect. And I was blown away.


Breakdancing was unlike anything I had ever seen. It was very precise; every twist of the hips or pop of the foot was exactly on beat. It was fast and powerful but also fluid and easy, and each dancer gave the audience an insight into their character through their own unique style. Some say that breakdancing is not truly art, but seeing the athleticism and expression that the dancers incorporated into physically demanding movements convinced me otherwise.


There was something compelling about the competition. I found myself wanting to run out on the floor and perform the few steps I somewhat knew, regardless of what people would think of me, because everything just felt right. That was when I knew that I wanted to be part of the breakdancing world.


I went to the breakdancing club’s first practice this semester, where a breakdancer from Charlotte gave us a history of the art form. He began by saying that breakdancing is a mainstay of hip-hop culture, which was the first time I’d heard “hip-hop” and “breakdancing” in the same breath. I was taken aback. Here was a white, skinny, tattooed twenty-something who would look more at home at a punk concert, teaching me about hip-hop. The teenagers in my predominantly white, suburban neighborhood who liked hip-hop were ridiculed for wearing oversized t-shirts and pants that seemed capable of housing a vacuum cleaner in each leg, but our instructor looked nothing like that, and obviously was a member of the hip-hop community. As he continued, he almost seemed to be addressing me directly: “People think that hip-hop is rap music and [wearing] Timberlands, but the people who think that are the ones that don’t know hip-hop at all. This is hip-hop. It’s the kids that grew up on the streets with nothing, who created this culture that breakdancing grew from. It was a way to keep the kids from getting into trouble; it gave them a way to express themselves. The media’s version of hip-hop is completely wrong. It’s become so commercialized and superficial that it’s lost touch with its roots. Deep down, hip-hop is that attitude of having nothing and making something of yourself, of creating art in an urban wasteland, and that’s where breakdancing comes from.”

 

This turned my perception of hip-hop completely upside down, and allowed me to see how biased I had been against it simply because I knew so little about it. The media makes it seem like the goal of hip-hop is to get rich quick and buy expensive cars and jewelry with reckless abandon, and I certainly bought into that image. Through breakdancing, I learned that while hip-hop’s ultimate goal may be success, it is a very retrospective culture, and anyone who forgets their roots is not being true to its tenets. I also learned that hip-hop, while founded in the black, urban youth community, is welcoming to people of all backgrounds. I was worried that I would be seen as “that white girl who wants to learn how to breakdance,” but all of the instructors were friendly and helpful, and never made me feel out of place. It is uplifting to come to practice and see people of all different races coming together and having fun doing something that they can all relate to, and I am grateful that I now know the “real” hip-hop, and that it was nothing like I imagined it to be.

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