Big Steps

Moy Rivas used break dancing to go around the world. Question is, Where does he go next?

There are those who will assume that B-boying died out in the 1980s, cast aside like scuffed-up shell toes after films such as Flashdance brought mainstream recognition, five minutes of fame and the usual hipster backlash. It did flame out, but in recent years it's come roaring back to life on the underground tip with a stronger international flavor. The Internet, a huge factor in this second wave, has also diluted regional styles.

The style of the dance in Houston, if one can pin it down, seems, rather aptly, a hybrid of West Coast aerials and power moves and East Coast footwork and style. When Moy flutters into an air flare or Boy spins like a dreidel across the floor, that's L.A. talking. When Marlon stutter-steps in circles, shuffling and throwing kicks and twists while going very low to the ground, that's New York talking back. "That's the cool thing of being in the middle," says Craig Long, a local B-boy since 1983. "Everything got cross-pollinated once it got here." Nowadays, Houston, which has maybe a few hundred committed breakers, is ranked among the top B-boy hubs in the country, along with California, Seattle and Florida. "People know that Texas means business in the B-boy world," writes Chris "Cros One" Wright, founder of Freestyle Session. New York City, the cradle of B-boying, has been behind the times, but some say it's on the way back.

While African-Americans were instrumental in its formative years there, the scene has long been dominated by Hispanic young men, and this remains true in Houston today. Race, though, appears to be much less critical to a performer's identity than it is in, say, rap, where Eminem is endlessly lauded for being a skilled white rapper. Rather, with B-boying, age plays a much bigger role than skin color. For one thing, only teenagers can devote that much time to practicing. For another, bones break. Only a teenager would be fearless -- or foolish -- enough to attempt the crazy stunts seen in break dancing.

Craig Long, Houston B-boy since 1983
Courtesy of Craig Long
Craig Long, Houston B-boy since 1983

Dr. John D. Hasenbank, a chiropractor in private practice in Houston, recently consulted a local dance company on the perils of break dancing. It's no surprise that those who stick with it can expect a toll on their bodies over time. "Down the road, they're going to experience some pretty significant problems with the neck and back," he says, citing disc herniation and excessive wear and tear on the rotator cuff. "It's hard on the body, because you're doing some pretty extreme stuff."

He says few studies have been conducted to confirm some of the long-term problems. "It's not that it's too new, it's probably that it's not high-profile enough to have any studies done. There's not a lot of money there," says the chiropractor. "Unfortunately, where there's sports where there's not a lot of money, you're not getting the standard in care and money for research that you do in high-profile sports."

This summer, LeBron James signed a $13 million contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers -- chump change after pocketing a cool $90 mil from Nike. If Moy, one year older than James, had the same set of skills in basketball that he does in B-boying, his future would be set. Heck, if he could flow rhymes with the same ease that he break-dances, he might be able to bank loot on the level of 50 Cent. But Rivas is a B-boy. And those both inside and outside the scene are still trying to figure out what that adds up to -- literally.

"Breaking is like grass. It's not super-super-marketable," says Asia One, the founder of B-boy Summit. "You look at a few certain guys…who make serious money, and it's few and far between." Like others, she can think of only two or three guys who manage to make a living on B-boying alone. As one world-class breaker commented: "How you gon' live off it? You'll be doing gigs for $50 on the other side of the world and then come back to Mom's house -- that's not practical."

Part of the difficulty is figuring out where B-boying fits in. Is it an art? Is it a sport? Brianna Barcus of Clear Talent Group, an agency in Los Angeles that has represented several breakers, notes that, like anything in the entertainment industry, B-boying work is sporadic. "It's hard within the commercial world to make a living, because the skills are so particular and most of them, that's what they do. That's all they do," she says. "You're not going to find a B-boy that's doing jazz or ballet or tap, which is limiting for them in job opportunities."

She thinks that, put in the right framework, you could draw a television audience to watch. The key would be to package it in a familiar way. "If you did something like 'B-boy Battle,' you wouldn't have the audience that you would have for something like X Games, that we're already tuning in."

X Games, though, doesn't know where to put it either. According to Maria Elles Scott, a spokeswoman at ESPN, they've featured break-dancing demonstrations in the past as entertainment, but have never given serious thought to putting it in the competition lineup. "The problem with that is, for the most part for action sports, break dancing and all dancing is still very much not widely recognized as sport," she explains.

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