Arthur M. Shepherd doesn’t spend much time at home, which for him is an RV parked behind South Station. most days, the middle-aged man drags his acoustic guitar and a plastic folding chair into Boston’s Dewey Square to serenade Occupiers and visitors with tunes like the Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me love.” He’s become a fixture at least as permanent as the tarps blanketing the plaza since early October. “I don’t consider it performing,” says Shepherd. “I’m just playing songs.”
Shepherd took some music classes in college, though he was a philosophy major. he enrolled in graduate school for social work—to make his mother happy, he says—and stopped playing music for 10 years. “I should’ve been sent to hell right then and there for that decision,” he says. But he’s gotten back into it over the past year or so. Today, it’s a way for him to be involved in the Occupy movement, which he sees as a “product of tyranny” that will remain until “economic equilibrium is restored.”
For Shepherd’s form of street performance, there’s one big problem: it’s getting cold in the Northeast. The freak snowstorm around Halloween was a dismal portent for many protesters, 10 of whom was hospitalized for hypothermia in new York. According to Occupy Boston’s website, there was supposed to be a winterizing meeting on Sunday, November 13, at 2 p.m. It never materialized. Volunteers asked about it weren’t sure what to say. Shepherd isn’t facing hypothermia, but he is nervous about the difficulty of playing a string instrument in the bitter cold.
This predicament is natural. Throughout Boston—in parks, around plazas, aside the turnstile at the T—street performers wage a daily contest between themselves and their surroundings. Accidents in weather are only one unknown variable that street artists must confront. They are captives to circumstance, most obviously an early snowfall or sudden downpour, but more critically a police rebuke or an indifferent audience. in fact, circumstance is part and parcel of street performance. Rather than escaping random contingencies, the artists must instead work within them. They must work with the limitations of their stage in order to complete a successful show.
An hour or two later on November 13, six blocks down Congress Street and a little to the west, other acts begin and other audiences take shape. Boston’s Faneuil Hall, a historic meeting hall and marketplace near the waterfront, hosts in an outdoor square a continual rotation of artists, from juggler Giles the Jester to the Eric Royer One Man Band. Jermaine R. Carter is a drummer of the pots-and-pans type, and a regular. a small group has formed around him and his set one Sunday afternoon, on the downtown side of the building, before a policeman approaches. he whispers in Carter’s ear and points behind Carter at a spray-painted red line that circles the building. The zoning laws have changed: performers hosted by Faneuil Hall must remain within a few meters of its walls. By the time Carter moves everything behind the line, the audience has dispersed. It takes a few minutes before others slowly regather.
Carter’s music depends on the venue. when he’s booked for shows, he has a routine he usually follows. “But here I kind of freelance,” he says, contrasting such shows to his street performances, “so I can do what I want.”
As in other careers, most street performers are part of a network of fellow professionals—a social aspect often lost, perhaps, in the mythic idea of the solitary musician, his open case bathed in moonlight and strewn with quarters. “There’s a whole group of us in the city,” says Carter. “Some of us mingle with each other, some of us don’t.” As he packs up his set, he mentions that he’s about to join up with another drummer. “I kind of showed him the ropes out here,” he adds.
Though Carter is originally from Boston, the job lends itself to an itinerant lifestyle. “When it’s cold,” he says, “I’ll probably be in a tropical climate.” If not, he goes to Miami, or, if he’s lucky, out West. If necessary, he’ll stay in Boston and busk on the warmer days.
Around the corner, the ambiance is a bit different. The you already know (YAK) breakdancers tell a similar story about seasonal performance. They’ll go to Las Vegas, Los Angeles, or Miami when the Northeast climate becomes too hostile, according to bandleader Universal L. Fair (according to Fair, not a stage name). here by Quincy Market, the show is self-consciously slicker, more polished, than Carter’s. Maroon 5’s “Moves like Jagger” blasts from a stereo as the dancers spin and flip. They continually hound the audience to cheer on, yell out, and at one point join in. The crowd is larger than anywhere else by Faneuil Hall, and lingers longer; this is a show, unlike others here, with a definite beginning and end. for a breakdancing troupe, this setup makes sense. to the music, the sole or at least main event in a drum performance, these dancers add visual effects and a prearranged script. this degree of preplanned speech and sensory spectacle means that YAK’s art is as much dance as theater.
“It’s a mix of breakdancing, gymnastics, and acrobatics,” says Fair by way of describing the routine. According to Fair, YAK is currently in its third incarnation; the first generation of dancers started in 1974 or 1975. The training is strenuous, and especially difficult without access to a gym.
However, Fair is dismissive of indoor breakdancing, which he says is “basically like studio dancing.” for Fair, indoor breakdancing is a lesser offshoot of street performance. “They call this [outdoor] type of style freak dancing, and [they] hate it,” he says, “but they don’t even have the right to do that because breakdancing started in the street.” It is not clear that Fair objects to the existence of professionalized indoor breakdancing per se, but rather to its air of condescension, its disdain for street breakdancing as a cruder, less sophisticated art. Fair considers this conception unwarranted: “Everybody learned off of us—that’s the whole thing.”
Breakdancing is intelligible only when considered in terms of its geographical and formal constraits, and its history in the underground and then in mass culture. for traditional breakdancing, the stage is the sidewalk and pay is dispensed from voluntary audience members into a makeshift collection box. The form’s associations with youth and freedom and urban culture have lent it a rebellious tone since the 1970s. “Hip-hop has become an international vocabulary for young people to express themselves,” said nationally acclaimed author and critic Nelson George in a 2008 interview with web-based knowledge forum big Think. “And particularly to express their rebellion.” But rebellion is a difficult note to sustain for over 40 years. As breakdancing has crept into mainstream culture, tensions have arisen between its roots and its appropriations. Contemporary breakdancing can still be distinguished from other types of hip-hop dance in its embrace of freestyle over choreography, but in moving away from the street breakdancing has complicated the traditional relationship between space and performer, and performer and audience. As with any street performance, the breakdancer can take advantage of (or be hampered by) the entropy of daily life, which, welcomed or dismissed, shapes every performance into a unique, improvised whole.
Such a space allows the performer to establish a rapport with those watching—however briefly—that destabilizes the barrier between professionals and spectators. On the other hand, the audience can often be quite willing to maintain such a divide. It’s impossible to predict whether an audience will enjoy detached observation or interaction with the performers.
So striking the ideal balance between street performance and conventional dance—a decidedly dynamic but uncertain endeavor—is the crucial struggle for breakdancers.
TOPROCK AND FLOATS
“Hip-hop culture has four original elements,” says Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dance Instructor at Harvard Henry Kasdon. “Breaking,” a bygone term for breakdancing like “b-boy” or “b-girl,” was only one of them; Kasdon’s other three are DJing, rap, and graffiti. Hip-hop culture has its roots in the Bronx of the late 1960s, as a fusion of 1930s “lindy hop,” a form of swing dancing, plus the Afro-Brazilian dance moves of capoeira. Hip-hop became a scene by the early 1970s, according to Kasdon, when “DJs would throw these block parties in the Bronx,” isolating “breaks,” that is, specific sections of a song, and playing them on repeat to allow for a greater exploration of rhythm and beat.
Ultimately it would join forces with a similar strain gaining steam on the West Coast, a funk-infused dance called electric boogaloo, and the combination of the two included such classic breakdance moves as “popping”—quickly contracting and releasing muscles in rhythm with a song; and “locking”—moving in rapid rhythm to a beat and then freezing in a certain position. a vocabulary specific to b-boying began to emerge as the result of the dance’s novelty. “Downrock”—any move on the floor—includes “floats,” in which the dancer supports his weight on his hands to appear as if floating, perhaps beginning to “tap,” or push himself around until able to freely spin. “Toprock”—footwork performed upright—also allowed time for popping and locking.
There’s a moment in the movie after the three main characters begin their breakdance routine in front of a cast of stodgy old judges at a dance competition. At first the judges are skeptical, disapproving; they try to dissuade street dancer Ozone from beginning, even though breakdancing isn’t expressly forbidden in the competition. he doesn’t listen and begins. then an eyebrow is raised, glances exchanged, and slowly the judges are enchanted, much to the dismay of the conventional group preceding: “This is nonsense,” says Franco, a professional dance instructor; “Go away, I can’t see,” responds a judge, shooing him aside. It’s a scene that relies heavily on tired cliché, but it suggests that breakdancing represents the vital future of dance.
More important for the visibility of breakdancing than the scene itself is the fact that a big-budget Hollywood film would be talking about the form at all. Breakdancing became appropriated by mass culture. It was considered a more wholesome alternative to “gangsta rap,” or perhaps a backlash against this other, coarser heir to hip-hop. By the turn of the millennium breakdancing had begun to be employed in commercials and music videos. Stars like Paula Abdul melded it with R&B and pop-friendly rhythms in their performances, drawing on Michael Jackson’s incorporation of breakdance moves beginning in the 1980s.
Yet in another sense, breakdancing began to diverge from other forms of hip-hop culture. in a 2009 Boston Globe article, Adam Mansbach, a writer and founding editor of the 1990s hip-hop journal Elementary, traced the genealogy of hip-hop: “Graffiti exploded onto the gallery scene in the early ’80s; rap records were selling millions of copies by 1979,” he writes. B-boying, on the other hand, was a process instead of a product, so it was more difficult to package. As a result, it became “the kinetic counterpart to the soundscape of rap music and the visuals of graffiti art.”
The media appropriation had perhaps more to do with the music upon which breakdancing was grounded than with the rubric of its moves. Today insiders are quick to draw a distinction between all forms of dance set to hip-hop music and specifically breakdancing, which need not be set to hip-hop music. Despite their common source, and despite continuing overlap, to some they encompass entirely different attitudes and approaches, a difference framed by improvisation versus choreography.
Y. John Mei ’12 is the first to arrive to a recent Harvard Breakers session. Music from the pulsing stereo echoes across Currier Dance Studio as Mei attempts an upside-down downrock. He’s been breakdancing since his final semester at high school, but has been watching the moves on YouTube for much longer. The Breakers have two types of practices, he says, session and rehearsal, depending on whether they’re preparing for a performance or just want to improve. “Everybody trains differently,” he says. “That’s the really great part about this.”
Outreach Chair Brian W. Yang ’13 says that the Breakers has between 25 and 30 active members, around 10 of whom will show up to an average practice. By 9:45 p.m. at this 9:00 p.m. session, there are eight or nine undergraduates. he points past a kid in a green bandanna spinning around on his head, to another student warming up with a friend, and says, “I’ve never seen the girl in black before.”
Yang explains that for breakdancing in general, and popping—his own forte—in particular, there are a few basics, a core, upon which you build variations. he sees awareness and control of his own body as the key to success, a tool salvaged from his days playing football and running track in high school.
Yang sees this self-awareness and self-control as necessary to successful performance. “Breakers is very freestyle-oriented,” he says. As its original form, street dance continues to influence even more domesticated kinds of breakdancing. “We really feed off the crowd,” says Yang, contrasting Breakers performances with ballet recitals, in which applause is muted and restrained until the end.
Even the indoor version of breakdancing relies on the accidents of audience appreciation like its outdoor counterpart. There is therefore quite a bit of overlap between the Harvard Breakers and their broader hip-hop counterpart, Expressions Dance Company. It’s not uncommon for students to participate in both, though there can be tension when students leave one to join the other. each group has a subtly different conception on the way breakdancing should look when performed in a proper theater.
Darcie M. Dieman ’12, who at one point was involved in both organizations, emphasizes that while breakdancing can sometimes be choreographed, “there’s a huge emphasis on freestyle.” Expressions, on the other hand, is always choreographed. It relies less on the vocabulary of the moves and more on the grammar of the dance, demanding an airtight conformity of the music to the movements. though it also connects the background beat with the form of dance, breakdancing is more about “power moves and flips and foot work,” says Dieman. Breakdancing should transition seamlessly between skill and style, but pauses and abberations are more welcome in the Breakers.
It’s this fluidity that expresses the Breakers’ fidelity to the conventions of breakdancing. Jams might take place indoors, but, according to Dieman, “breakdancing is always going to hold on to that street feel,” even if “it’s not street—but it’s also not stage.” Rather than inheriting both the limitations of the street and the limitations of the stage, the best breakdancers move nimbly between the two. They include the audience to the extent that they encourage cheers and applause during the show, a contrast between the Breakers performance and a Harvard Ballet Company concert. That the Breakers also incorporate choreography gives their moves a more refined sheen of artistic skill, and allows the dancers to put on a theatrical show like YAK’s at Faneuil Hall.
This impure improvisation is a small departure from the heritage of breakdancing as a street art, in which the rebellion of youth culture was embodied by spontaneity. this fusion of two distinct forms inevitably proves irritating to some, who would prefer to characterize breakdancing as unadulterated by either the crudeness of the street or the staid orderliness of conventional dance. But breakdancing is messier than that. its ability to cobble together distinct forms and strategies without becoming prescribed or systematic in its approach suggests its continued vitality as a form.
—Staff Writer Victoria a. Baena can be reached at .edu.