There are several things that Moy Rivas can think about in this flickering moment before the music drops. One, he can look down at his light, wiry 15-year-old body. He wants to go air flare this round, but the move has given him trouble before. When he threw it in practice a year ago, his back gave out and left him crippled on the floor with no feeling in his legs or shoulders for six hours.
Across the way Goliath stirs; Moy can also tremble at that. His first-round opponent, the California-based Style Elements, is considered by many to be one of the top crews of all time. Style Elements, though, doesn't have its mind on the first round. One member, Edmundo "Poe" Loayza, is thinking: Pace yourself. Save your best stuff. Moy and his crew Havikoro? Don't trip.
Last, Moy can gaze out into the crowd assembled here in Los Angeles and gulp down the bubbly rush of 1,500 faces sizing him up. Those who aren't looking right past him are probably wondering how in the world this crew -- this Texas crew -- even got in the building to compete at Freestyle Session '99, one of the premiere events in the break-dancing community.
Moy Rivas can suck all of this in, say a prayer and hold his breath. But as one B-boy sage likes to say, "Thinking blocks your flow." So Moy tries not to think about any of it. "My main thing was like, I'm going to go to Freestyle Session Five; I'm going to go do my thing; I'm going to make people remember me," he says.
He zones out everything except the two basics, flow and floor -- the only two things that a B-boy needs. Awareness boiled down and concentration dialed in, Moy begins meditating on tiny details like a Buddhist monk: "I start noticing, like, the way the floor is built, and I look at little things like that because it blocks my mind out from what's going on around me." Ommmm. He can't get too close to the edge of the stage, because he might kick someone with those uncontrollable air flares, and there are speakers, too, to watch out for.
A B-boy has 30, maybe 45 seconds to make his mark. The rules are fluid, the judging largely arbitrary. Yet with all the uncertainty that makes a split second timeless, one thing remains true: When you hit it, you know you hit it. And so does everyone else in the room.
So when Moy skips out to center stage and launches his gravity-defying air flare -- six of them, actually -- inverted on two hands, gracefully floating in a 360-degree whirlwind, legs outstretched like prongs on a blender -- he knows he hit it. It's streetwise and otherworldly. No one has seen anything like this before.
In an instant, Moy Rivas and Havikoro have put Houston on the map. The crowd explodes. "It's like you could surf on everybody's head," says fellow member Jesse Rodriguez. The judges announce the upset -- a breakthrough of stunning proportions.
This crew that came out of nowhere now seemed to be heading somewhere big. Moy had stayed low to the ground. Now he could almost touch the sky.
Becoming an underground superstar would take him around the world and put dope clothes on his back. But the underground could take him only so far.
B-boying can make you a lifestyle. It cannot make you a living.
On a drizzly September night when summer begins to fade into fall, Moy Rivas and four other B-boys are stashed in the back of a dark, cold theater, waiting for an art-show crowd to wander in. Armando "Boy" Alejandro and Marlon Perla slap at each other -- playfully arguing over who's better at a certain move. Oliver Velasquez, the baby face among them, screws around killing time with a plastic cup of Crayolas and a coloring book he found. Bruce Ham has on a snug D.A.R.E. T-shirt. Given the reputation of the group and Bruce's own professed sobriety, this might be the first time in recorded history a 20-year-old has worn the shirt without being ironic.
Marlon, 23, sketches out this contradiction: In order to please the crowd the most tonight, they'll hold back on their best stuff. This audience, the B-boys assume, can be wowed with things like flips and spins. Something more intricate or innovative or subtle -- that might get mad props at a hip-hop event -- won't register as much with these folks. Through no fault of its own, the crowd doesn't understand, says Marlon. Instead, they'll focus on showmanship rather than technique, spotlighting "simple" stuff like freakish flexibility and dizzying acrobatics.
Moy is talking on his cell phone with another member of the group who forgot they had a performance tonight. "I told you, dude, I told you," he says. "I told you Wednesday, I told you Thursday, I told you last night." He hands off the phone to have someone else give directions and slowly rises from his seat. While the other guys stay loose, cheerfully clowning around, Moy slips on his battle face. He stretches out some, then plants one hand on the floor and slowly hoists himself into the air. Veins in his forearm pop out like blue rubber bands as he rests his knee, and the weight of his entire body, on one elbow, legs curled out. They call this move an air baby.
Word circulates that they'll have 15 minutes to perform before the documentary screening. Fifteen minutes split up among six guys. "Eight minutes is a good length," says Charles Rotramel, the group's coordinator. Fifteen minutes is an eternity. Moy hears how long they'll perform. "Fifteen minutes? You know how long 15 minutes is when you're dancing?" he says to one of the B-boys who's shrugged off the news. "A long time, dude. It's not that easy."
The crowd starts to filter in from the art gallery lobby. The B-boys each pick spots in the order. Moy will go last. Their DJ cues a scratch intro, one track strained down to a voice shrieking "YA," which is the nickname for Youth Advocates, the community center that most of them either work or hang out at. The scratch gives way to a nasty bass line and the group breaks out of a huddle, encouraging the crowd to clap along with them. Each has his own style. Boy's legs become propellers as he executes aerial after aerial. Bruce drops to the stage and rides a wave of windmills, polishing the floor with pelvic twists. Marlon goes inverted, flapping one-handed scissor kicks. He mixes in some "popping" as well -- a kind of robot-worm shimmy that passes through his arms and shoulders like methadone shivers.
"Everyone has an individual identity," says Marlon. "If you don't stand out, you're not doing it right." The point is originality; as with any artistic medium, you learn the rules in order to learn how to break away from them. Marlon claims he can identify a B-boy within "half a second" based upon his style. Bruce compares it to writing style. Staying with this analogy, beginner B-boys spew sloppy gibberish, fumbling for Faulkner, while Moy's Hemingway stays quick, clean and terse.
Oliver, 16, may have just a few years of B-boying behind him -- far less than the rest of this squad -- but he's no sloppy Faulkner rip-off. The older guys have flown around the world because of their B-boy talent. They often remind Oliver where it can take him if he stays with it. Moy, in particular, probably sees in Oliver a younger vision of himself, what with his baby face and sinewy frame. Fittingly, as Oliver flies into a set of air flares -- that move made legendary four years ago -- Moy hovers over him, pumping him up as the crowd oohs and ahhs: "Come on -- keep going, keep going, keep going, don't stop!"
Pop in his break-dancing video, The Newborn: Moy's Solo, and you'll see pretty quickly what kind of guy Moy Rivas is. He introduces himself from his airplane seat mid-flight. He gives thanks to God, and then he adds: "But, uh, I don't want to make this too long so check out the video, and if you don't like it..." He pauses. You're expecting some cocky hip-hop clich like "I don't give a fuck." Instead, you get a soft "I'll try harder next time." And a big grin stretches across his face.
By numerous accounts, Moy is one of the most humble, God-fearing B-boys around -- peculiar to a scene that is, by its nature, about showing off. Still, an aura of quiet, charismatic confidence hovers around him like powerful aftershave. His parents emigrated from Mexico and his mother still speaks only Spanish. A faint Hispanic accent seasons the edges of words in his own speech. At 19, he's grown out of the tiny teenager, but not by much. His eyes, the color of dark wood, convey intensity without affectation and, intentionally or not, he uses that in battle.
The youngest of five, Moy, born Moises Rivas, remembers seeing B-boying for the first time at age six, when his older brother Julio was practicing at home. Typically, B-boys discover the dance from friends, family or at school. Moy's friend Jesse Rodriguez, for example, saw kids breaking in the lunchroom. "I liked the whole way they drew a crowd and everybody was real interested and they kind of made a show out of nothing," he says. "It just kind of blew up in my face right there." Nearly every B-boy seems to have had that moment of epiphany. Most of them come from the inner city, where their art is, by necessity, a case of making something "out of nothing."
Moy stuck to basketball before B-boying truly grabbed him at age 12, when he saw it again at a middle school talent show. Outsiders look at break-dancing contortions and see impossibility. Moy was already watching it play out in his mind.
"When I seen it, I was like, I know I can do it. Because I've seen it and I pictured myself doing it. Sometimes I'd be like, if I see something amazing, I try to picture myself doing it. If I can't picture myself doing it, I ain't even going to -- it's not even worth trying," he says. "So when I seen, like, breaking, I pictured myself doing it, so that picture came clear, you know."
To be a world-class B-boy, the commitment requires nothing less than what it takes to fulfill NBA dreams or Broadway stardom. From the very beginning, Moy established a military regimen at his house. He would get home from school around 3 p.m., inhale a snack and charge up the stairs to start practicing before the food could settle -- dancing late into the night, sometimes until 11 or 12 o'clock. A voice-over on the seminal documentary The Freshest Kids: A History of the B-boy, testifies to this obsessive dedication: "You can't just do it two hours a day and, okay, I'll do it when I go to the gym. You need to eat, piss, shit, drink, think B-boying." Some warn of doing too much.
Moy had the passion and it consumed him entirely.
"I would wake up, thinking -- breaking. I would think about B-boying every place I would go," he says.
In the early days, a scene grew up, right in Moy's room, with sometimes 20 guys squeezing in to practice every day. Maya Morin, who also became well known, recalls his emotional first meeting with Moy, where they "spilled the beans on each other" and became fast friends. Maya had been involved in neighborhood gangs, stealing cars and hustling drugs, but like so many B-boys, he found redemption, or at least distraction, in breaking. Thumbing through a dictionary, they found the word havoc, urbanized the spelling, and their new crew Havik was born. The teens formed bonds that made them family in all but name, family that was stronger than their own blood.
"We would sit down and the dance was like our counselor. We couldn't express it to anyone else, because we didn't want to show our weak side. We could do it through dance," says Maya. Another B-boy in their crew called it therapy. "Some people were crying, some people's dads are dying, some people's moms are dying, some people's brothers are addicts " When the beat dropped, they could escape all that.
"It made you a whole different person. You dress different, you walk different, you talk different," Maya says. "It was more than just a dance. You sleep with it, you wake up with it, and you get hurt from it." Marlon found that as B-boying changed him, he lost street cred with his older friends who were still getting in trouble. "In the hood, you're kind of looked down on because you're not a G anymore," he says.
Moy seems to have needed the least turnaround, although his adolescence was not without its challenges. His mother says, through an interpreter, that it was difficult for him not always having the support of a father. Moy says that he learned from the mistakes of those around him. "I think it's just that I had too many friends and older brothers that were a lot, like, involved and I seen it. I seen everyone, like, being involved in all that crap and I was like, it looks stupid, you know," he says. Perhaps. But blunts and 40s and tech-nines seem uncool much more quickly if you can drop to the floor and blow people away.
"Once breaking came into place, I didn't even think about all that," says Moy, who adds he's never been into drinking or drugs. "I was like I gotta get good, I wanna be a performer, I wanna be performing in front of people, I wanna do this, I wanna start traveling the world."
One of their first trips following the dazzling debut at Freestyle Session '99 was a competition in Dallas. Moy was supposed to ride up to the event with Maya and two other friends in Havikoro, the crew that had formed in the merger between Havik and an older Houston squad called Koro. Moy says a bad feeling kept him home that day. It may have saved his life as well. On the drive up, the car crashed, spilling B-boys out onto the freeway. The driver, Mark Anthony Perez, known as Vamp, spent two and a half weeks in a coma. Doctors expected him to remain a vegetable, though he did learn to walk again. Maya was so haunted by the trauma he began drifting away from B-boying from that point forward.
"Basically, I look at it like, flying out the window of that car, seeing one of your mans lying on the ground " His shudder is almost audible over the phone. "I'm never going to be right because of that."
Nor would Mark. His hopes for the commercial and global success that followed for Havikoro died somewhere along Interstate 45. He never got to cash in like Moy. Nowadays, he hobbles around the YA rec center doing clerical work and answering the phones. He can't get down anymore. But he's always down with his boys.
"I love all them fools. Everybody always says, 'Doesn't it hurt you to see breaking?' When it's people I don't know, yeah," he says. "But when I see Moy and them dance, I kinda get happy. When I see Moy and all the fame he's gotten from dancing -- he's one of those that loves the dance -- it makes me happy."
It's one of those odd quirks of history that Charles Rotramel's YA became ground zero for Houston's B-boy scene. He'd never known anything about it at all, really -- he just wanted to do youth advancement with at-risk kids, and B-boying wound up being the way to do that. From a few early stragglers back in 1995, their Thursday hip-hop night grew and now draws, on average, more than 100 young people, mostly Hispanic, from all over town. In a year's time, Rotramel says, they'll see 1,000 different kids, as young as 12 and as old as 25. Their brick building sits in the clattering shadow of I-45, a building coated with tripped-out graffiti tags, squiggly, twisted neon letters updating what had been an abandoned unionist hall. When Havikoro wasn't practicing in Moy's room, they were chilling out here.
After Freestyle Session '99, around the same time YA blew up locally, Moy Rivas became the flavor of the week. When he returned home to Houston, he had 126 messages in his e-mail inbox -- "and none of them were junk mail," he says proudly. He stayed up till dawn responding to requests from people who wanted to fly him out to perform. A few months later, Tribal Gear, a San Diego-based clothing company, called up to offer an informal sponsorship. They sent him out a box of clothes and told him to get his passport ready.
"I was like, man, I just can't believe this, you know what I'm saying? This is like one of my other dreams that just came true -- I wanted to get sponsored by this company and it's happening right here. I did it." Fo' shizzle. Tribal flew him out to Japan for a Limp Bizkit tour. He met Fred Durst and danced in front of 13,000 fans on a Tokyo stage. Five more trips to Japan would follow, as would flights to Paris (twice), New Zealand (twice), Australia, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, England and Korea. In three years' time, his passport saw more action than Snoop Dogg in a porno. He says he's also performed with Coolio, Blackalicious and De La Soul.
All this before Moy could legally buy a drink. Not that he would, of course.
His mother, Albertina Rivas, gets teary when talking to an interpreter about how far the dance has taken her son. "He goes these places to make my life better," she says. "Today, I am very proud of him." Still, success has its failures.
"He leaves for Japan, he leaves for other places, and I don't like it because he leaves the house," she says. "Oooh! A lot of places. This I don't like, because I have to be independent from him and I'm his mom and I'm afraid when he leaves."
She adds: "He leaves for other places and my heart hurts, but he likes it, my son."
Moy's name pops up frequently on Internet B-boy message boards, especially by those proposing theoretical battles or asking for shout-outs on the topic of "Most Liked B-boy." "Moy the name that strikes fear in people across the U.S.," one B-boy genuflects. Another claims, "Not very many people are on Moy's level."
Success draws the haters, too, although Havikoro's decency as guys seems to block some of that. "They pretty much have everyone going against them," says Juan Sanchez, manager for Vicious Germs, a rival crew. "Everybody loves them because they're great guys, but they're out to get them." Moy doesn't run his mouth off much at battles. That helps. "To me, he's a dog that doesn't bark, he just bites," says Style Elements' Poe Loayza. "He's quiet, he'll give props when he has to, but he doesn't get up in people's face."
As for style, it seems to defy narrow definition. "[Moy is] powerful and technical at the same time. Real clean. Real articulate with his steps," says Bruce. "You hardly ever see him mess up." Indeed, if break dancing is considered a language, as Bruce argues, Moy Rivas seems to know exactly what he wants to say when he hits the floor. On tape, he exudes an astonishing precision in his movements; in this underground world of gunslingers, he seems to be one of few throwing darts. Moy gives away his secret one night at YA: It's not that he never has a misstep, it's that he never lets the crowd know it. "Moy's more like, you can call him, I call him fully loaded. He's everything. He's the leather in the car, he's the custom panes, he's the cold a/c," says Maya. "He has everything a B-boy would want."
Yeah, but does that put food on the table?
Born in the boogie-down Bronx some 30 years ago, B-boying blew up and caved in long before The Newborn ever got hold of it. The term originated from "break boy," as participants would dance to the break in beat when the record would skip. (Fortunately for the movement, "skip boy" never caught on.) Some think capoeira, a fight-dance developed by African slaves in Brazil hundreds of years ago, has some deep, distant relation. Others point to influences as diverse -- and fresh -- as James Brown, Bruce Lee and the Harlem Globetrotters. It's still underground enough that you can't really study it in a class, and it has few codes like the belt-rankings found in the martial arts. Instead, it relies on a kind of transmission of the street: watching, learning and practicing on your own. And then battling.
B-boying is often described as a substitute for criminal activity, a chance to put idle hands, legs and heads to creative work. Nowhere is that catharsis more apparent than in a battle -- a stylized square-off where two crews line up opposite each other and send individual dancers into the fray, trying to outdazzle the other side. (Think Sharks versus Jets, with baggier pants and more roof-raising.) At major competitions like Freestyle Session, B-boy Summit and Battle of the Year, B-boys are judged on things like execution, creativity and performance skill.
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.
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.
In the meantime, over the past 30 years, rap, more easily commodified, went bling-bling and muscled its way to the forefront of hip-hop. B-boys grind their teeth when people use rap as a synonym for hip-hop rather than a subset of it. They constantly remind that rap came from the original "four elements of hip-hop" (deejaying, emceeing, B-boying and graffiti), even though rap has become the "spoiled little brother," as one B-boy tagged it. "Rap had product. It had something you could sell. It had something you could take home," says Michael Holman, a New York-based producer, during an interview in The Freshest Kids. "You couldn't take a breaker home with you."
The problem gets worse with employers who try to get B-boys on the cheap. Asia One says she gets calls every other day from people who want breakers but don't want to pay. "The thing is B-boys are prone to look for exposure," writes Cros One. Marketing firms and Hollywood know how to make use of that. "To be in a commercial you should get paid good money. But some kids would do that work for free just to get exposure. It's hard to say to a kid you ask for money when he or she just wants to do it cause he loves to do it and he wants to be on TV." At the same time, Cros One points out, this cripples those who depend on such work to make a living. Poe Loayza puts it more bluntly: "B-boys need to stop being happy with 50 bucks."
B-boys seem caught in this dilemma: They want to bring mainstream awareness to their world (and thus increase profitability), yet they prefer to stay among their own, who will appreciate the nuances and not see it as a novelty act or passing fad. One Houston breaker who graduated from college and got a white-collar gig in a downtown high-rise says that he had to take the hobby off his résumé when he was applying for jobs, because hiring directors would ridicule him for it. Even now, he keeps his passion a secret from the rest of the office. Charles Rotramel, YA's director, often tries to push B-boying into the mainstream with performances at malls, other nonprofit centers and art shows. In time, the B-boy world will figure it out.
"Anyone who wants to do it [as a living] has to move to Cali, get an agent and sell your soul, to some degree," says Asia One. Even though Moy and other Havikoro members are as good as, if not better than, some of the B-boys who show up in commercials and music videos, they'll never be able to compete as long as they stay in Houston. For instance, Moy and Boy say they had a Jolly Ranchers commercial locked up, but the talent agency decided to save money and use an L.A. crew rather than fly them out.
These days, Moy does full-time casework at YA. He started community college last month, studying graphic design.
Near the end of an interview, he goes quiet and reveals a temptation that he's told few about.
"I had this lady from L.A. I don't really want to give her name or anything, but she offered me a lot to move to L.A. and she was like, you have a big career here and you have a look that a lot of casting directors want and you've got the skills and the talent and everything that a lot of casting directors want and if you ever want to move to L.A., just call me, I'll set everything up for you and you're guaranteed a life that you're going to want to live," he says. La-La Land calling. Just sign here.
"And she told me that, and I'm like -- I was just like -- I'm not ready for that yet. I told her straight up, I'm not ready for that yet. It's kind of hard, but " He trails off in something of a stammer. "To be honest, I don't really care about that right now, you know what I'm saying? Eventually, later on, I probably will, but right now I just don't.
"It's kind of hard to explain. To be honest, I don't know why I turned it down."
He does, though. A minute later it's clear.
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"Every time I go out of town now, I gotta be there less than five days. Even though it's a place I've never been to, I just gotta get there, do the show and get out. Because I don't want to spend my time looking around everywhere. Although I do want to do that, I'm like, man, I gotta go home. I'm like, I can't be here forever -- my mom, the people I love, girlfriend, brothers and everybody -- they're not here with me. I gotta go home."
B-boying took him to faraway places. It put clothes on his back and a car in his driveway. It gave him a sense of purpose and a reason to stay off the street. Whether it can do anything more is something Moy -- and all B-boys -- have to figure out.
"Once you come into our world, it's like, you'll see how far it's gone. You'll feel the love, the respect," he says. "Because B-boying is a relationship between lots of people, you know what I'm saying?
"I don't know where it's gonna go to -- I don't know if it's going to get better or worse, but, I mean, we'll just see what happens. I guess that's up to us."