Hundreds of people gathered in the Anderson room of the Michigan Union last Saturday, forming a giant circle. Some spectators stood on chairs around the edge of the huddle. Police officers stood guard around the back. Others gathered toward the middle, leaving a small section of floor exposed like the center of a stadium. In front of them were two teams of three on opposite ends, each waiting for its turn to throw down.

An MC took the mic and spurred on the battle. One dancer after another, passing from team to team — the b-boy competition had begun.

This was the Diag Hip Hop Festival — relocated to the Union due to rain. The event was planned by a brand new group on campus called Hip Hop Academy as a way of generating attention.

The festival was straight out of a dance film, and overwhelmingly impressive for being witnessed in reality. During the b-boy competition finals, the dancers used their turns, timing and teammates to perfection. Every big move inspired a collective “Oh!” to sweep over the crowd. While the competition was isolated to six participants at a time, there’s no question the b-boy performances get everyone involved, no matter the age and no matter the experience. From the DJ to the dancers, from the MC to the crowd — everybody elevates to the same level.

B-boying

The words “b-boying” and “b-girling” constitute another way — many would say the proper way — of referring to the style known as “breakdancing.” While considered a street dance style that values improvisation, it has concrete elements and a clear structure within which performers work. And despite its ability to impress the crowd, b-boying can be a fiercely personal activity.

Such is the case with campus b-boying group Element 1. A drastically less competitive atmosphere characterizes the mood at the Mason Hall posting wall every Monday and Wednesday night, when the group holds it meetings. Music blares through the building — sometimes three or more songs in different areas of the hall — and b-boys and b-girls practice their moves while passersby look on.

There are no battles like those in the weekend’s Hip-Hop Festival, but rather a casual air of self-discovery and collective positivity. Some are there preparing a specific routine, while others are purely practicing technique. In these past two weeks, as Element 1 has been bringing in new members, many of the participants are learning the art for the first time.

LSA freshman Eleni Zaras is one such newcomer. In her second week with the group, Element 1’s leaders could see Zaras beginning to improve. But as many are with new endeavors, she was nervous to start.

“I came last week,” she said. “It was the first time I came and I got there really early, which was a little scary.”

Zaras didn’t have to worry for long, though, as an older member quickly helped to get her started on some basic moves.

Element 1 has resources for people of any level looking to b-boy. At the same time, it has an elite Performance Group for which the group holds tryouts every year. It dances at student and charity events, and uses its opportunities to spread its art on campus. Every year, Element 1 holds an event called Master the Art, which draws crews to Ann Arbor from around the country for a competition and celebration of multiple dance styles.

In developing dancers’ performance talent, Element 1 prides itself on self-improvement.

“B-boying is really individual,” said LSA junior and Element 1 President Jun Tai Kim. “In my opinion, b-boying is all about creating your own style. Everybody comes out and people can give you feedback on your stuff.”

Despite the perception of breakdancing as a male-dominated art, there is a healthy balance between b-boys and b-girls at Element 1 practices.

Megan Kao, a sophomore in the School of Engineering, is on the board of Element 1.

“I’m a b-girl,” she said. “Element 1 has inspired me to be a lot more creative … and a lot more self-confident. You know, if you’re not confident in b-boying, then it’s not going to look good.”

Element 1 is an unconventional dance group, but its structure feeds directly off the personal nature of the art form. Unlike some hip-hop campus dance groups, which feature choreography and group dances, Element 1 focuses on individual dancer development through instructional leadership and workshops for beginners.

“We have our group out here to show the different aspects of it, like the actual art of b-boying,” Kim said. “This is not simply about fancy moves, this is not simply about impressing the crowd, this is a dance and this is special to oneself.”

The overly bombastic depictions of breakdancing in film and media are rather different from the ideals of breakdancing espoused in Element 1, which seeks to spread b-boying and other funk dance styles as true art. At the same time, though, increased exposure of the art form has helped Element 1 remain popular at the University.

“If there’s something good that comes out of that, it’s that some of the negative perspective of b-boying dies down,” Kim said. “People won’t see it as an ‘only people that are up to no good’ type of dance.”

Kim added that flashy depictions of b-boying have created a false standard for the real thing.

“That’s actually the opposite of what b-boying is about,” he said. “The spinning on the head and all that is really nice and fancy, and if you can do it, use it. But people mistake it. People lack that understanding of the art itself.”

The Basics

There are four main elements to every b-boying routine: toprock, downrock (sometimes simple referred to as “footwork”), freeze and power moves.

Every b-boy’s routine starts with toprock — moves performed standing up. Toprock is broad: It can involve anything from footwork to interacting with the crowd, but it sets up the rest of the routine by establishing the dancer’s style. With toprock, dancers have a unique opportunity to display their own personality and differentiate themselves.

“Toprock is like a way to kill time before you go down into the more complicated stuff,” Kao said. “At the same time, toprock is the basis behind all of b-boying. If your toprock isn’t good, usually your footwork and your power and your freezes aren’t good. It’s the foundation that everything else sets up on.”

After toprock, the dancer drops to the floor, and there commences downrock, a display of quick footwork and handwork, with the dancer’s weight supported by hands and feet at different moments.

The dancer performs freezes at his or her own discretion. (a well known technique that shows off full body strength.) Freezes are performed to match the beat of the music; for example, a one-second break in a song might be met with a one-second freeze before the music’s return sends the dancer back into downrock.

The fourth element, power moves, require experience and a mastery of the other elements. Many power moves involve spinning of some sort, whether it’s a “headspin” or a “windmill” or a “flare.” The dancer puts his or her upper-body strength on display while torquing with the lower body.

Two other important forms of dance that many b-boys explore are popping and locking. While not technically considered b-boying, popping and locking are often assumed to be under the umbrella of breakdancing, and Element 1 includes all three in its purview. Popping involves the rapid contraction and relaxation of muscles, which is sustained for a full song. Locking is distinct in that it features dancers “locking” into position before moving to another position before doing the same. Both are precise, full-body dance styles.

Like other forms of art and dance, b-boying has a culture surrounding it — a culture clear in environments like this past weekend’s festival.

“It’s a dance, but there’s definitely a subculture,” said LSA sophomore and Element 1 Vice President Jason Do. “It’s also the type of music, the songs — the hip hop, the rap — that we use.”

B-boying attire is another part of its subculture, but Do sees it as more practical than anything else.

“For attire, it’s really about comfortability and how well you can move in it,” he said.

Some of the garb worn by the participants at Element 1 meetings is also determined by the type of dance they are trying to explore. For example, Do pointed out a few dancers wearing beanies with specially designed padding on the front.

“Those are headspin caps,” he said. “They’re actually designed for spinning on your head.”

Those who can do, teach

Fancy stuff aside, Element 1 starts its new members on the basics.

Element 1 meetings are open to anybody — not just members who sign up at the beginning of the semester — and dancers from novice to expert are welcomed. Element 1 offers many instructional resources, including beginner workshops at every meeting. The group’s leaders are quick to mention the rewards they get from teaching others.

“Teaching other people, you strengthen your fundamentals,” Do said. “It’s always good to go back to basics. I know it’s also good to give back, to get more people involved. Bringing them into it, they get to learn part of the culture.”

“Certain b-boys, they can go in the wrong direction,” Kim said. “They forget their foundation in a way, and it’s actually the most important thing.”

In one workshop a few weeks ago, the dedication to developing newcomers was clear. On this day, Kim and Do were teaching the basics, starting with toprock, and showing a few ways for dancers to go down into downrock. Kim demonstrates a technique called the “knee drop,” which looks far easier than it is in practice. The move involves jabbing one’s foot into the back of the knee before falling down on that foot and keeping one’s balance on the floor. He sent it around the circle, and some found more success than others.

Next, Do exhibited a standing-up hip-spin that corkscrewed his body down to the floor and sent his feet swinging out into downrock. Newer dancers had trouble with Downrock, but there was no lack of effort or casual acceptance of difficulty.

The last thing Kim and Do taught the newcomers — a Freeze — seemed especially difficult without prior experience. It started with a stab, which requires the dancer to place his or her hand flat on the floor, and keep the forearm perfectly perpendicular to it while jabbing their elbow into the side.

Each dancer uses that arm to elevate his or her body, using the other arm to form a “platform” while lifting both legs into the air. Many of the beginners had a tough time keeping their bodies elevated, but Element 1’s leaders patiently persisted until each dancer got his or her feet up.

After going through a few workshops, Zaras said she was happy to be learning the basics from other students.

“I think they’re really good,” she said. “People volunteer themselves, which is really nice.”

On her future with b-boying, she wasn’t quite sure how far she’d go.

“I don’t know about performance,” she said. “But I want to get good.”

Element 1 values that self-motivation. The group shows that b-boying is more than a simple crowd pleaser; it is a genuine form of art that’s just as important to the dancer alone as to a crowded room of spectators. With or without a stage, each b-boying routine is an expression of personal attitude and style, and a unique creation in movement.

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