Big Steps

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.

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Michael Serazio