by Matthew James Babcock
The Nimbleness of a Dancing Master is not at all prejudiced by being taught to move.
From 1983 to 1985 it seemed like every kid, no matter what age, race, religion, culture, nationality, or language was compelled to wear a nylon track suit (usually bright red), tennis shoes (Puma, Nike, or Adidas), headband with wrist bands, and throw a piece of cardboard on the ground to try and emulate the Powermoves that were performed by B-boys.
—Thomas “T-Bopper” Guzman-Sanchez, Underground Dance Masters: Final History of a Forgotten Era
Breakdancing: An Apology
Boogaloo: An Etymology
Boogaloo Two: An Epilogue
Boogaloo Too: A Rap, With No Apologies
About the Author
Length: About 17,000 words
When I was six, I took my first and last dance lesson at Juanita Mauldin’s Furniture & Dance in Jerome, Idaho. The building, a battered brick bunker, squats on Main Street, wisely rechristened Mauldin’s Dance Studio, between Impressions Hair & Spa and the banana-cream office with a monstrous red awning where my friend Danny Lloyd’s dad, Harold, ran his dental practice. I don’t know what my mom was thinking, trying to punch my ticket to Juilliard by smuggling me into a bumper-pool morgue that moonlighted as a shuffle-ball-change clinic for kiddies, but there was no stopping her. After I was married, I asked her why she made me take dance lessons—well, lesson.
“The place said furniture and dance,” I said. “Didn’t that give you a clue? I was the only boy in a class of twelve girls.”
“You had rhythm,” she said.
So I could play my Goofy Greats record on my brother’s Fisher-Price turntable and tap my foot to Ray Stevens singing “Ahab the Arab.” Was that reason enough to march me to the local ballerina barn, past the scabby aquamarine love seats and shotgunned Curtis Mathes televisions, and park me on the parquet to watch me squirm like a nude model in a department store window? Rhythm’s one thing. What about credibility and reputation? If a joint hawks orphan umbrella stands and lambada lessons, shouldn’t you booty pop your business elsewhere? Swedish massage and cesspool service, maxillofacial surgery and vacuum repair while you wait—what’s more incompatible than furniture and dance? Imagine George Balanchine warming up in a warehouse of Elvis lava lamps. Savion Glover in Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Reupholstered Ottoman? I’m no Park Avenue executive, but I’d wager that no entrepreneur outside southern Idaho considered for a downbeat that home furnishings and hoedowns might be the magic formula for making a living.
But in my town, where Holsteins outnumbered people fifty to one, none of that mattered. The day of my dance lesson, I shuffled with my mom into Juanita Mauldin’s back room bazaar. I scuffed my feet to the middle of the floor, where my mother released my hand, and I froze. A worn pine barre, which I mistook for a medieval torture device, ran across one side of the room. Mirrors glared like my future—harsh, clear, unforgiving. On a row of metal folding chairs slouched a coven of stumpy mothers. They clutched their purses like chainsaw-toting clowns fantasizing about trophy cups foaming with college tuition. I considered my reflection: my dishrag body in patched Toughskin jeans and shabby Keds sneakers, my posture projecting all the unstoppable force of a snotty troll with a bad bowl haircut. All around me, pixies in toxic pink swarmed like fire-breathing butterflies, hair in French braids, waists cinched in cotton-candy tutus, all frilly and feminine and floofed, their stiletto tip-toes pirouetting them into statuettes of demonic grace on pedestals of barbed crystal.
Then I stalked in lead boots to a chair, clamped my hands on the sides, and tried to weld my butt cheeks to the seat. A teacher with a frazzled ponytail approached and bent at her waist. Her peppermint breath warmed my ear.
“Matthew, would you like to join us?”
I gulped sawdusty air, shook my head, and watched the teacher glide away across a diagram of imaginary footprints that promised to tango me out the door, past the grinning girl on an old Hires Root Beer sign, never to return for an encore.
…not many years would tick away until, at another awkward stage, I would hustle back to embrace the very art form that scarred me as a youngster…
I suppose it’s every parent’s wish to sire a star. A lady once offered George Temple a “stud fee” to impregnate her with another Shirley. I confess, when my daughters dance in their recitals, I feel those same proud daddy surges of sunshine. But what I find most curious, when I consider my aborted dance career, is that, at the time, I couldn’t have known—wouldn’t have believed—that not many years would tick away until, at another awkward stage, I would hustle back to embrace the very art form that scarred me as a youngster, not because I felt I had talent, but because there was nowhere else to go. Back then, not even Juanita Mauldin, with her tap shoes propped up in a maroon vinyl La-Z-Boy recliner, could have foreseen the time that, unbelievably to everyone but my mother, I would be known as one of the best dancers in town.
In the “Yellow Pages Goes Green” directory, there’s a listing for a Fred Astaire Dance Studio that “deals in the furniture industry” in Naples, Florida. One morning, I find myself wondering if Juanita Mauldin, in her dotage, rigged up a franchise or just U-Hauled her crappy rosewood settees to the Sunshine State for a new scene. When the person on the other end answers the phone, I hear laid-back music, something sassy and slightly Caribbean bubbling through speakers in a rehearsal studio.
“Fred Astaire Dance Studios,” a woman says. “This is Stephanie.”
“Hi, do you sell furniture and teach dance?”
“No,” she says, cautious.
“It says you do furniture and dance in the directory,” I say. “Is this the place on Tamiami Trail North in Naples?”
“No, we moved.” Stephanie sounds eager to get back to cha-cha-ing the arthritis out of her roomful of retirees.
“So you don’t sell furniture?”
“Nope.” A piña colada lilt pools in her throat. “We could teach you to dance, though.”
Obviously don’t know my history, I think. “Sorry to bother you. Just thought it was strange, a place that sells furniture and gives dance lessons. Kind of a weird combination, furniture and dance, don’t you think?”
“Yeah,” Stephanie laughs. “That is weird.”
The history of our planet could be described as one big dance craze. If we quick-stepped back and peeped through the serpent’s eyes, we probably wouldn’t be surprised to witness the Adam and Eve Bump and Grind, followed by the Homo Erectus Stomp and Bronze Age Boogie. The Ancient Palace of Minos in Knossos was tricked out in wall hangings depicting trios of Cretans pulling off acrobatic bull dancing routines (not like bulls, with bulls). Etruscans had their funerary conga lines, the Tchokwe tribe of Zaire its stilt dance (are stilts furniture?), and Australian Aborigines the kangaroo cult dance-drama as well as, for women only, the slithering, magic-inducing djarada when the men were away. Dances have often doubled as coded, erotic charades designed to freak out a puritanical status quo. Up until 1802, even watching the Mexican jarabe could get you two years in the clink, which didn’t stop Anna Pavlova from winging her version into Mexico City, in 1918, once cultural restrictions had slackened. Not many years before, Nijinksy, assisted by Stravinsky’s tooth-grinding, beatboxing score and Roerich’s primitive duds, ignited a riot at the opening of The Rite of Spring at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées, mostly because Nijinksy and his guardians of the avant-garde turned their toes in instead of out. Then there’s the curious account of the “dance mania” that infected the tiny Saxon town of Kölbigk. On Christmas Eve 1021, a parish priest excommunicated a wagonload of peasants in the churchyard of St. Magnus after they broke out in a flash-mob frenzy that lasted a year. Some blamed the townsfolks’ nonstop shimmy-shimmy-ko-ko-bopping on the diseased grain they ate. Church bigwigs were skeptical of the village dance-a-thon, however, even when some Kölbigkians danced themselves to death. In 1278, a similar outbreak of mass hand-jiving struck the hamlet of Maastricht, and when the crowd galumphed Gangnam-style across a bridge, it collapsed, dumping the revelers in the Moselle River, where they drowned. Clearly, being a cultural pioneer has its cost.
Of course, no clerical crackdown on the Maastricht Mash or other dance disorders could quash the human race’s lust for rhythmic gyration. Bohemian Victorians twittered and gossiped through their schottisches and mazurkas. In the twentieth century, Americans drank too much and did the jitterbug and Charleston, smoked too much and did the Pony and Mashed Potato, shot up too much for pogo and slam dancing, and didn’t think enough about what the boss would say in the office Monday morning before they surrendered all personal decency to the Electric Slide, Funky Chicken, and Pee-wee Herman “Tequila” jig. We packed the YMCA for New York Hustle lessons then hustled to football stadiums for the “YMCA.” We walked like Egyptians through whatever trouble we couldn’t Macarena out of, and for insecure folks the Safety Dance helped if someone tromped on your achy-breaky heart for the mambo number fifth time, and you needed a little tush push to vogue through that next rough patch of cabbage patching. Through all the ländlers, tarantellas, and Cat Daddies, the dance disease has remained steady, though not unchanged. All dance fads fizzle then resurface in other forms, sometimes centuries later, thousands of miles across the globe.
Case in point: the eerie hokey-pokey nature of the Shaker “circles-within-circles” dance, a visual nod to their cosmic theology, but a clear call to put your whole self in and Shaker it all about. Relief etchings in Sakkara show Egyptians in Busby Berkeley symmetry, draped in the Ziegfeld Follies glamor of high-kicking, Rockette chorus lines. The Watusi tribe gave us the Watusi, which became the Batusi for Adam West, only to reappear in Pulp Fiction in the sultry, comeback moves of John Travolta, who knew a thing or three about wiggling his can on Saturday night. Check out the friezes in the Vatican Museum, and tell me if the flourishes and footwork of the nude gladiators getting down-and-Pyrrhic don’t match the bubbly, showgirl hipsway of Carlton’s living room tribute to Tom Jones on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.1 Even in black and white, any kabuki or bugaku dancer might as well be doing the Bartman. Music hall mighty mite Harry Relph (a.k.a. “Little Tich”) threw gravity-defying leans into his Big Boot Dance and, in doing so, slid across eight decades into the cantilevered choreography of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” video. Even Little Tich’s stage name mimics the street monikers—Li’l Pop, Sir Wavelot, Kid Glyde—of those who got birdlimed in breakdancing, the granddaddy of all dance crazes, when every kid with too much time and too little fashion sense whirled like a wind-up dervish in pants as baggy as the bloomers donned by Ukrainian gopak flyers.
I’m sure it’s my age, but I can’t help seeing remnants of the Sequined Age of Urban Dance everywhere. Late Romantic etchings of quadrilles in Captain Gronow’s Reminiscences show men and women getting jiggy with Lady Jersey at Almack’s, fingers interlocked, like a train of supple paper dolls. If I stare, the image goes fuzzy and morphs into Kelly, Ozone, and Turbo doing a wave chain. Paintings of Krishna multiplying himself to swing with as many honeys as possible in a rasa mandala recall the rings of breakdancers on street corners during the Reagan years, the face-off battles and practice of “turning out” opponents with hand insults and poses. T’ang Dynasty “sleeve dance” figurines channel the full-body voltage of Bruno “Pop N Taco” Falcon’s leg jolts and double-arm waves. Bangladeshi Manipuri dancers could pass for “tutting” diagrams in Alfonso Ribeiro’s Breakin’ and Poppin’, and on a limestone fragment from the Ramesside Period, a spidery Theban woman arches in the same backbend as Crazy Legs when he exits his backspin, whips off his sneakers, and freezes with them on his hands to end the battle between The Rock Steady Crew and New York City Breakers in Beat Street. Lump together style, substance, and pure panache, and we could say all dances—the Balinese trance dance, Burmese makuta, and Disco Duck—evolved into breakdancing, and that breakdancing spawned everything after, from Da Dip and Da Butt to the Harlem Shake, Stanky Leg, and Dougie.
For those who battled puberty in the 1980s, breakdancing was more common than Lonnie Rashid Lynn, Jr. All over the planet, it seemed as if alien deejays had hijacked the human nervous system. In movie theaters, breakdancing broke out like the bird flu in Breakin’ and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. Independent films, such as Style Wars and Wild Style, crashed into American consciousness by copping the camera angles, cropped scripts, and acting chops of bad martial arts movies. In a single year, one estimate claims, major studios had over fifteen breakdancing movies slated before the fad flopped flat on its backspin. At the height of the poppin’ and lockin’ fever, however, breakdancing was as ubiquitous as kudzu in Catoosa County. You couldn’t turn on the TV, glance at a magazine, or look in the mirror without sensing in everyone the animal hunger to bust out and start jerking like Howdy Doody in the throes of delirium tremens.
Is failure training for gratitude? Why love something you never master?
But if breakdancing was a pandemic, it was also panacea. Poppin’ zits? No problem, just pop your chest like the monster fetus from Alien is bursting through your breastbone. Can’t get a date? Just tie your eighteenth multicolored bandana around your forearm. Simply put, in the ’80s, it was just not possible to be sad while you wormed your way across the kitchen floor under your mother’s confounded gaze. And there was plenty to be sad about: nuns shot dead in El Salvador, Lennon killed point-blank outside The Dakota months after Chain Reaction melted the silver screen with their cholo-style crossover locking in Xanadu. There was AIDS, the air-traffic controllers’ strike, The Hyatt Regency collapse, the pope and president gunned down, The Falklands, Grenada, Walter Mondale. If the deaths of Princess Grace and the ERA weren’t enough, Brezhnev’s eyebrows alone could make one weep. Even when the Soviets bagged the Olympics in Los Angeles and Lionel Richie, in the closing ceremony’s breakdancing mega-spectacle, tripped over a little floor rocking nipper and narrowly missed his chance to sue America, it still felt like a victory. Any day of the week, VHS owners could zap the most stubborn bummer by playing back Paul “Cool Pockets” Guzman-Sanchez getting slinky and robotronic on a railcar in Rod Stewart’s “Young Turks” video. No matter the challenge, you could nix it because you could spin on your knee like an unbolted teeter-totter. No matter the personal roadblock, a tsunami of flamboyant posters, books, and commercials urged you to forget your pain by hopping into expensive sneakers, flailing to the point of blackout, and dressing as if you dipped your body in honey, rolled in Liberace’s cosmetics, then streaked with George Clinton’s hairdresser through a Japanese flea market into Captain Hook’s pajama closet just to see what would stick. Unfortunately—or perhaps fortunately—the things that didn’t stick for most not-so-hip-hoppers were ability and awareness.
“There’s no stopping us!” Ollie & Jerry sang, as saccharine as bubblegum. And truly, when I look back, there wasn’t, or didn’t seem to be anyone in my town who could have stopped our breakdancing, though clearly, somebody should have tried.
Is failure training for gratitude? Why love something you never master? When suffering becomes a performance, who hasn’t clung to technique, to routine, to memorized steps and rote drills just to skate through with the hope that you might emerge from that darkened practice room, accompanied by more than the uncertain applause of your own regret and wonder?
At the age of forty-three, I drive west on Highway 33 on a cool, cloudless Saturday in October. Black cows grow drowsy in the sun. On every farm, windburned men and women in down vests and hooded sweatshirts straddle four-wheelers and grip pliers, twisting repairs into wire fences. The earth looks as if it will never know rain, the sky as if it will never burn out of blue. Idaho National Laboratories waits in a diluted haze amid blunt volcanic buttes, a tiny outmoded space station on an abandoned planet. In the creases of the ash-colored foothills, thin groves of aspen trees fork in rivulets of tart gold, dusky orange, lime. In Carey (population 604, give or take a Camaro on blocks), a ladybug sign on a weathered, mint-colored rambler says, “Ban T. V. Week! Read With Your Kids!” In a scorched field between Richfield and Shoshone, beer and cooler bottles, amber and green and clear, unroll a reckless constellation for miles along the ragged edge of the road.
Three hours later, I cruise west into town and park outside Mauldin’s Dance Academy. The late afternoon sun douses everything—masonry scaffolding, refurbished shopfronts, the old fire alarm silo (now a cell phone tower) in honeyed glory, purging the old farm town of its flaws. Toward the intersection of Lincoln and Main stands a sturdy block of shoulder-to-shoulder businesses, some topped with upper-floor apartments, including the place where my friend, Jeff Van Orman, lived with his mother, Sue (who taught me first grade), and his father, Lyle. The Van Orman apartment, where I stayed up all night playing Intellivision with Jeff, now sits atop Wild Boy Tattoo & Body Piercing, formerly Van Orman’s Sporting Goods. On the sidewalk, a downcast Max von Sydow look-alike slumps on an overturned bucket, his bloodless neck and arms bathed in an oil slick of inky chaos. The artist’s Mexican sidekicks form a supporting cast, crouching on either side in puffy Baltimore Colts coats and duckbill caps as if preparing to hoist the man in the middle to some heavier level of happiness. Past Wells Fargo, a backhoe hunkers in the gap of charred rubble between businesses where rowdies used to sit at the bar in Wood’s Café and eat French fries, stirring thwarted desires into plates of ketchup.
I step on the sidewalk, hands in pockets, lean forward like an out-of-work Broadway hoofer, and peer through the glass.
During the spring and summer of 1983, Ira Gershwin died, Carrie Fisher married Paul Simon for a while, The Monitor’s anchor was found off Cape Hatteras, Egyptian divers photographed Napoleon’s sunken fleet, Michael Jackson moonwalked on the 25th anniversary Motown special, and people were using their videodisc players an average of 8.5 hours a week. Before being dethroned by The Police’s Synchronicity, the Flashdance soundtrack topped US music charts. Walking to school, my friend, Charlie Skaug, turned to me as a group of screaming girls drove by in a red pickup, and said, “Man, I love the new Flashdance shirts.”
“Why?” I said.
“They’re so low,” he said. “You just reach in through the armpits, and mmmm.”
“Yeah,” I said, clueless as to why he was making yummy-cinnamon-rolls-warm-from-the-oven sounds with his mouth.
I can’t recall these times without being reminded that seventh grade was for me, as it is for many Americans, a time of exquisite, prolonged, and bewildering torture.
You could hear Naked Eyes, Kajagoogoo, Thomas Dolby, and Duran Duran and, if you were lucky, Eddy Grant’s “Electric Avenue” and Midnight Star’s “Freak-A-Zoid” thumping in parking lots and roller rinks. This was the year Bill Stepney, disc jockey for Adelphi University’s campus station, WBAU, aired an interview with Run DMC and played “Sucker MC’s.” Enamored of this track, The Kangol Kid and Dr. Ice—later of UTFO, or “Untouchable Force Organization,” which included the Educated Rapper and Mix Master Ice—popped and glided to “Sucker MC’s” on The Donahue Show, and before Dustin Hoffman could hire them to perform at his daughter’s birthday party, my brothers and I captured the show on our VCR.
Kid and Ice moved like greased gods of antigravity, even when the camera zoomed in on the acne candying their faces. They wore sneakers with soles as fat as cake icing, white gloves, and lightweight suits of shimmery burgundy. Kid sported his hallmark white Kangol cap. Ice donned a futuristic headpiece—a sparkly string thing that partitioned his head into hemispheres, with a knot dangling in back—giving him the appearance of a Battlestar Galactica extra. At one point, Ice stretched out on his back, interlocked his fingers, and, by working his shoulder blades and heels, hovered across the floor like a magician’s assistant in a levitation trick. Halfway through the show, a lady called in.
“This is what Africans used to do,” she said. “It’s what Africans used to do to the beat of the drum.”
“Yeah?” Donahue said, cocking his mic on his hip. “And so what?”
When the show ended, my brothers and I rigged up our tripod and video camera and threw down our baddest corner of Willis and 138th Street on the living room carpet. I wore blazing orange high-top Chuck Taylors, puffy white pants zigzagged with zippers, and an avocado T-shirt with rainbow sleeves my parents bought me on vacation in Mexico. My brother, Mike, rooted the Thompson Twins’ “(Long) Beach Culture” from his cassette tape collection, popped it on the stereo, and away we bopped down Avenue Del Soul.
Viewed today, our extempore foray into breakdancing looks less like a crew of funky-fresh jam kings coldcocking the cosmos with electroshock body rock and more like three epileptics fleeing an asylum in painful heels during an earthquake. Not once—and this still astounds me—did we consider the racial implications of our actions. Breakdancing was slick, urban, black, Hispanic. We were white, suburban, potato-fed cow jockeys. Breakdancing was Chino “Action” Lopez. We were Cheetos “After School Snack” Loafers. Breakdancing was about defending your “turf,” battling for “street presence.” There is no street presence in a town with one stoplight, no turf when your back yard is an alfalfa field. Without a single practice, with no regard for cultural boundaries, in our stocking feet and with our math homework unfinished, with nothing but the high-octane enthusiasm of the novice as our North Star, we launched ourselves onto the spangled stage of the age.
And when we learned our church across the street would be hosting a fish fry for a neighboring congregation in Hazelton, we did the only sensible thing. We conveyed our Donahue videotape across the street, stuck it in the church’s rolling TV-VCR stand, and, as the Kangol Kid and Dr. Ice reprised their pulse-pumping set, looked on with ambassadorial pleasure at the snowy-headed strangers doing the Geriatric Slide past tables of breaded trout, coleslaw, fries, and root beer. Like abductees in a lab of horrors, the gentle folk in line cast shell-shocked glances at the TV and spooned graham-cracker-and-chocolate-pudding dessert onto paper plates as “Sucker MC’s” rattled their dentures.
We were, after all, spreading the good word. Breakdancing was the gospel, and angels in loose Adidas with fat neon laces had called us to blast the newest testament’s intergalactic, heart-attack smack from our remote boom box to every dairy and community center on God’s turf.
I can’t recall these times without being reminded that seventh grade was for me, as it is for many Americans, a time of exquisite, prolonged, and bewildering torture. I bore my allotment of angst and alienation with a blend of escapist pretense and redneck resolve, living each day under a psychological pup tent I propped up to suit the storm, a double life made three times as heavy, considering that I was overweight, I was bullied, and I never shared the true tenor of my life with anyone.
On a trip to visit my uncle’s family in Salt Lake City, my cousin, who was a year older, greeted me by shaking my sides like a butcher sounding a slab of pork, and said, “Your mom’s right. You are getting chunky.”
People are talking about this? I thought. Up to that point, I had considered myself normal on all fronts, about as consequential as bowling shoes or Spiro Agnew. But this spotlight on my pubescent pudge spurred me to join the football, wrestling, and track teams. I started jogging in a floppy red and gray-striped warm-up suit, every night, four miles from my house out to the pheasant refuge and back. On the recommendation of Maxine Bell, our school librarian (and future state representative), I read a young adult novel about a strawberry-blonde girl who took up dance to lose weight (keeping this volume tucked in my jacket, lest anyone notice my literary tastes). Looking back, I’m sure I wasn’t alarmingly overweight, but walking to school every day I felt like a half-ton shipment of slaughterhouse offal, fearing that the courthouse would crumble when I passed, or the tanks in the armory might shake loose from their treads.
The bullying started with dark echoes in the hallway. Laughing threats that lassoed my name. Shouted prophecies of bloody noses and compound fractures. I was Mouse Fawley dodging Marv Hammerman, Clifford Peache outwitting Moody. Only when Teddy Lopez accosted me in the gym and started giving me the “So, think you’re tough?” pec shoves, did things get physical, and not in the way I fantasized I might with Olivia Newton-John. It was lunch hour, so I let Lopez get a few more shoves in, walked off, and when he bird-dogged me into the hall through a swirling subway-rush of students, I stood down a second round of his bluster with my back to the lockers before Tim Matthews, our wrestling coach, spotted the budding brawl and dispatched us to class.
For some reason, I was a constant target at all the un-policed moments: before school, in the hall, lunch, after school. In my less-conscientious era of slack social codes, fights were legion. Often, I would be walking across the sunny recreation area after lunch, and I would hear a pop—like a punctured tire, and a groan—and turn to see some poor sucker writhing on the ground, trying to hug the smashed struts of his ribcage back together as a trio of rock-headed goons stalked away. It was like witnessing a mob hit, or sniper attack, that missed you by inches. In my case, threats always preceded the assault, as if my enemies weren’t entirely sure of their cause. At times, I felt like a rookie dodo stalked by weekend poachers armed with fickle blunderbusses. Some kid would rush up to me and say, “They’re gonna get you!” and I would improvise an escape, which usually meant standing next to one of the rec area monitors or loping behind the annex where our choir class rehearsed.
Why direct this Krakatoan rage at someone like me? Girls. That year, the eighth-grade girls descended on us like tiffany-winged sirens from Planet Pheromonetopia. At the beginning of the year, one of the bustiest, blondest eighth-graders, a girl named Traci, ordained me her chosen one—or one of her chosen ones. While I was strolling to math, Traci’s friend, Sherri, glided up in a diaphanous cloud of peach perfume and with the sultry diplomacy of an emissary from Paradise Island announced that Traci wanted to “go with me.” Where do we go? I thought. Not wanting to flout junior high protocol and risk being branded a dunderhead, I agreed. Traci was swallow-and-look-again gorgeous, possessed seductively wet eyes, Southern belle lashes, and pillowy curls of platinum blond that bounced to her shoulders. I couldn’t for a moment understand why she wanted me. But I didn’t question fate, just slipped in step.
Traci’s drift was, of course, to make the eighth-grade boys jealous, but I was unsophisticated enough in my thinking never to suspect such a Janus-faced tactic. I was too busy squeezing bubbles of love magic from my Traci doll, letting our arms touch in crowds, deploying space probes from my eyes into the shag-carpeted star chambers of hers, too busy to see the rabid ranks of spurned eighth-grade ogres circling us in the gloaming at school dances. Thinking back now, I have to say I would have been jealous of me as well, the way Traci and I acted like weasels in heat, as if we couldn’t wait to twine our bodies around each other wherever we wandered on school grounds. We never kissed, but we generated enough friction to boil water when we rubbed our cheeks together during Toto’s “Africa” on the dance floor.
At home, I couldn’t keep my social coronation a secret. I confessed to my dad that Traci, one of the most lip-smacking girls in school, was “going with me.” My dad turned from the TV, dipped his eyeglasses, and looked at me.
“Where do you go?” he said.
I’ve wondered if the bullying I endured—its glockenspiel timing and lynch mob execution—didn’t stem from the misconception that my chub was actually muscle. I was short but stocky, but because of embarrassment, or in order to perpetuate the myth of my Atlas hulk, I religiously avoided removing my shirt in any setting. My more sinewy buddies, eager to showcase their He-Man action figure physiques, would, once outside among the girls’ P.E. classes, fling their shirts aside like May Day revelers, even in November. During the cold months, we ran stair laps alongside the girls in our ancient gym, a 1950s Hoosiers-style edifice, with wooden benches and bleachers nailed permanently in place. Four closed stairwells spiraled up the gym’s four corners, providing dangerous sanctuary for couples who wanted to make out, remove clothing, and—rumor had it—ride the risky Tilt-A-Whirl of love, if enough friends could be deputized as security. I don’t know which administrative ace advised our P.E. teachers to let sweaty, hormone-juiced junior high boys and girls run stair laps together, but that’s the way the cattle caroused. Many of the girls used this opportunity to expose themselves “accidentally,” in minor ways, to the boys in the stairwells, and Traci, one of the most gymnastic cheerleaders on the eighth-grade squad, was notorious for turning cartwheels on the walk above the bleachers, thus giving us lacy glimpses of her bra.
Once I was walking home from school, and—bless my luck!—I happened on Traci and Sherri in the South Park. I was an unchaperoned prince adrift in the marketplace, and they were reclining like nubile Amazons in the shady grass, waiting to cart me on two buck poles into the hedges and subject me to delightful rapine and plunder. I stopped, spluttered a spate of stupidisms, and professed a need to “get going.” Traci mumbled something to Sherri then looked at me.
“Do me a favor,” she said.
Anything, I thought. “What?” I said.
“Take off your shirt.”
Had I been the suave swashbuckler I fancied I was, I would have said: Shouldn’t I be asking you that? Instead, unaware of the double meaning in my reply, I patted my flabby saddlebags and said, “Naw, I’m too white.”
Every afternoon in front of Smith’s Food King, the breakdancers of Jerome (there were maybe five or six) unfolded a queen-sized sheet of refrigerator box cardboard, slotted a mixtape of Grandmaster Flash and Planet Patrol in somebody’s ghetto blaster, and threw down the daily repertoire of spins, locks, and poses—“repertoire” meaning a quickly spent bag of gawky moves shoplifted from television. While nobody complained, silver-haired retirees in sunglasses the size of welder’s goggles often shuttled their grocery carts out and stopped, bunched their eyebrows, and stared as if debating whether to call the police or animal control. Smith’s Food King couldn’t have been farther from Queens than the Shah from Sha Na Na, but to us, it was a breakdancing Shangri-La, this heat-rippled parking lot of tar-filled cracks, gimpy terriers, and dust devils. A sleepy Taco Time skippered by a single blond woman in black sat in the far corner of the lot, as did Pizza Hut to the south, shrouded in hairy evergreens. Across Lincoln Avenue, which split the town in half and ran south to the golf course and the Snake River Canyon’s north rim, you could see strings of rainbow pennants flapping over Con Paulos Chevrolet, a huddle of mobile homes, softball fields, and beyond that, the cemetery, train tracks, and abundant blue sky above a scanty tree line.
At school, the bullying had spiked. One Friday, as classes were letting out, the usual flushed courier skidded up and delivered the “They’re gonna get you!” warning.
The store next to Smith’s, Ryan’s T-shirts, sold custom-made shirts and other trinkets of style. Secretly, I idolized Ryan. I ached to be sultan of my own store, to live the life of the freewheeling bachelor, fending off stacked, dewy-eyed babes like a matador. Ryan was young, wore assorted torso-hugging T-shirts he had designed and tight, flare-legged corduroys or painter pants. He swept his dark blond hair in the feathered, bi-level cut of the times, which made him resemble Gary Sandy (Andy Travis on WKRP in Cincinnati) or Joel Higgins (Edward Stratton III on Silver Spoons). Devoutly, I hoarded my allowance and lawn-mowing money, biked to Ryan’s to watch the breakdancing, and bought grape Bubble Yum and played the coin-op video games Defender and Pleiades. Whenever I entered Ryan’s, a bell dinged, and he would emerge from the back room to service my petty purchases with a sublime smile. He always winked and grinned and, with a bartender’s seamless confidence, moved behind the counter in a way that made me think he knew something I would never be old enough to understand. Ryan’s secret back room enthralled me, and somehow I believed he lived back there with a limber and docile harem of bombshells in bikinis, when it’s more likely he cozied up to a fuse box, mop and bucket, a flickering Magnavox tuned to Ryan’s Hope, and a mini-fridge stocked with ravioli and Mello Yello. Ryan specialized in appliqué T-shirts—fuzzy letters, peace symbols, rainbow unicorns, and Cheryl Ladd. When he draped a T-shirt on his steam press, he worked with the relish of a waiter dressing a table for a czar, slammed the spring-loaded handle down, let the press hiss, yanked it open, and flung the sizzling T-shirt to the customer like a chef sailing a pizza to a sailor in port. When I bought gum or played video games at Ryan’s, I always told him when I saved more money, I’d buy a T-shirt, and he always thanked me for my future devotion. In reality, I hoped if I bought a shirt he would reciprocate by granting me a tour of his back-room sanctum of fantasies.
I wasn’t breakdancing publicly at this time, just haunting the parking lot outside Ryan’s and horsing around in my room to Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks,” trying to get down on it in private with Kool and the Gang. My dinky Sanyo cassette player let me nab songs when the occasional beat bomb sailed on national radio waves through George Strait and Def Leppard into our basement. At school, the bullying had spiked. One Friday, as classes were letting out, the usual flushed courier skidded up and delivered the “They’re gonna get you!” warning. Hugging the vending machines, I scoped the scene through the scarred windows in the steel front doors and saw the entire eighth grade thronging the entry like Selma, Alabama. I escaped out the back and didn’t stop running until I reached my driveway. Later that week, in our cramped student lounge, I clinked a quarter in the jukebox for Phil Collins’s “You Can’t Hurry Love” before a muscular mob of octopus arms dragged me to the floor and mashed Hostess Ding Dongs in my nose, ears, and hair. After cleaning myself off, I loitered in front of the school, ogling Traci and reveling in VIP chitchat with her salon of sweeties. Chris DeLucia, a Martian-faced kid with stallion teeth, started bouncing a basketball off a wall near me. After a series of near misses, he reared back and fired the ball, slamming my head against the school.
“Oops!” DeLucia hooted.
Traci and her ladies-in-waiting shrieked. I tottered toward Chris, narrowing my eyes, as if my vision had blurred, trying to make a joke of it, but everyone could see I was rocked. Days later, at lunch, a mob surged at me, pressed me to a wall, and started a game of Pummel-the-Tubby-Kid until Craig Ainsworth, our counselor, reached into the mêlée and pulled me out. A pariah of style, I tended to favor more preppie clothes, and one day in the hall, a mountainous Hispanic kid, Kirby, saw my pink seersucker with button-down collar and square-bottom red knit tie, cocked his fist, rolled his eyes like an incensed bull, and in a warning voice roared, “Preppie?”
Why didn’t I fight back? Inform the principal? The few verbal memos that drifted my way from teachers and counselors suggested that, somehow, I had breached some unwritten code of conduct and, ultimately, was to blame for not “knowing my place.” Anyway, I knew ratting would label me a whiner, a weenie, a wimp who couldn’t tough out the times. But how does one Spartan fight Troy? Many of my tormentors were technically my friends, and only when they stepped on the illuminated disco floor of school grounds did they change into chuckling demons in a punch-drunk danse macabre. Some were the usual gutter scum vying for bigger fan bases, but some were in my Boy Scout troop and camped with me in the summer. Two of them sat next to me in church. Even when they loaded me headfirst into an oil-drum trash barrel near the flagpole, I was shocked, when I emerged to claw banana peels and butterscotch pudding cups from my hair, that I felt no animosity toward anyone in the brigade of jeering, tiki-faced headhunters. Inwardly, I raged against the bullying, but outwardly I stood like a mute spear-carrier in a melodramatic opera of surreal fatalism, unable to comprehend the script. I walked the same weary mile-and-a-half to school every morning, past the rest homes and Circle K and Towle’s Motel, under the same Jekyll-and-Hyde sun that keeps every seventh-grader’s shadow swaying down a cracked sidewalk of questions.
So I zipped to class, kicked Quaker State cans down weedy alleys, soaked myself in cologne for each Traci tryst. As a gesture toward solidarity with Corey “Icey Ice” Montalvo and the rest of The Bronx’s Floormaster Crew, I started wearing baggy brown zippered pants and my wrestling shoes to the dances. From the waist up, I was a Georgian page, from the waist down, astrophonic and dyno-ramic, the High Kommissar of Krush.
Halfway into one dance, Traci broke from my side to giggle with her coterie, and somebody tapped my shoulder and hissed, as expected, “They’re gonna get you!” Throughout the gym, strobe lights pulsed like a stellar migraine. Teachers wandered back and forth with the dumb detachment of shooting gallery ducks. All around me, the crowd pressed in, assassins converging on a political rival. In the middle of the song—I can’t remember the group, a country tune or top forty hit—at the precise moment the Dobermans attacked and the ninjas leaped, I started breakdancing, nuclear-meltdown style. My body just went. My arms, my legs, my electric centipede spine. My head jerked side to side like a disconnected toy part. A loosey-goosey vibe shot from ankle to shoulder, spinning a rubber ball in the cylinder of my chest then firing a lightning EKG through my neck, out my other arm. People stopped dancing. A circle formed. Teachers turned and gawked. The walls flashed red and blue and purple and gold, and for the first time I saw kids in the bleachers, ascending in loneliness—the geeks, the nobodies, the hooded lunatic fringe—disco lights spraying starry buckshot across their open-mouthed faces. With my brain on automatic pilot and a livewire in my shorts (and hoping the song would end soon), I glided in zero-gravity shoes, wormed across floor and ceiling, floated in lotus position, fired photons from my fingers, rolled a thunderbolt of liquid gold love jones through my jelly bones like an uncontrollable totem pole of soul.
Then the song faded. Someone clapped. The crowd, afraid I might infect them with this rhythmic virus from Planet Spaz-Plazmo, parted to let me through. At the edge of the darkened gym, I sat on a bench, breathing heavily, one eye on the exit.
“That was great!” somebody said. “Where’d you learn that?”
The next song passed, and the next. Dark bodies of students and teachers zigzagged across the kaleidoscopic floor, a two-way parade of silhouettes crashing in and out of a partner-less flamenco of near misses. I waited, scanning the floor for anything that resembled a pack of marauders. Then I walked out and met my dad where he was waiting to pick me up in his yellow Sunbird. On the way home, I kept mute, but when we pulled into the garage, I let loose.
“You wouldn’t believe it,” I said. “I was breaking on the floor, and everyone was in a circle watching me.”
My dad stared ahead, lips puckered. The Sunbird’s headlights blazed on his cluttered workbench, a corkboard wall of screwdrivers and jumper cables and crescent wrenches on hooks outlined in black Magic Marker.
“That’s great, son,” he said. He held his hand out as if smoothing a tablecloth of air. “But with you, you want to keep a low profile.”
Monday at school, a hand clamped my shoulder and spun me in a whiplash pasodoble. It was Mike Corbett (Traci’s former boyfriend, I would later discover), a swarthy eighth-grader in blinding white pants and royal blue Izod shirt. The alligator insignia on his breast glowed like a fiery pimento.
“Traci wants me to tell you,” he said. “You aren’t going with her anymore.”
I nodded, shifting the load of binders and books in my hand. Kids shoved past us, angling their bodies sideways to slip beyond the shoal of quick exchanges that Corbett and I formed in the two-way current.
“You understand, right?” His hand made soft chops in the air. “You’re officially broken up.”
I shrugged. “Yeah,” I said.
Then the slipstream of kids promenaded Corbett to the far end of the hall, where I drifted like a dutiful page, planted my feet below the buzzing west staircase, and watched the stampede throng the upper floor where, with perfect synchronicity, Sherri and Traci turned, smiled, and gave me the wave.
I press my hand against the door—the original—and tug the battered knob. Dirty white paint flecks come away on my palm. The traffic light blinks red, clogging Main Street with a hobbled bunny hop of cars. The air smells of diesel and chaff. An ugly white Ford pickup hauling chunky tires guns its engine.
The walled-off furniture nooks that acted as display windows have been knocked out, the floor refinished. “Dance with Shari” in loopy plum script adorns the back wall and the sign that hangs from the storefront. Juanita’s daughter? Another buoyant command trumpets: “Home of the Elite Dance Force!” Faded portraits of obscure dancers and celebrities array the walls like a family saga of cheap glamor. The hardwood floor resembles an abused basketball court. Placid mirrors panel the east and west walls. Other items speak of ordinary dreams lived large on the daily stage: a desk and file, computer, bulky sound system, whitewashed cubbies for backpacks, coats, and shoes.
And trophies. Fat as tank shells. Slender as switchblades. Glittering scarlet, faded magenta, tacky orange, and streamlined pink, each tipped with a golden dancer in an à la seconde turn or backbreaking firebird leap. Hundreds of tubular, glitzy awards packed and shelved like ordnance in a Taliban bunker. Apparently, I picked the wrong time to quit.
Clunkers grumble past the blue-paneled Redemption Center, former home of Hamilton Drug, where, after school, I ducked in and hid from my pursuers among the mirrored shelves of Smurfs figures, perfume bottles, and greeting cards before sidling into the candy aisle to buy Pop Rocks. A tubby family of four, all in spicy orange T-shirts and floppy white sneakers, squeezes out of a gold Chrysler and toddles toward Idaho Youth Ranch.
Gazing into the studio of my history, I see a prismatic overlay of eras: my younger self marooned in a horde of little harpies in leotards, the town behind me like stage scenery about to blow over in the wind, the traffic wavering through the reflected ghost of my adult self. My hand shades my eyes, a tired salute. I look like the kid who still wasn’t invited after thirty years. A stranger who wandered into town, bandy-legged, dazed, and disoriented. Someone who stumbled out of a teenage barn dance, about to tumble on the rump of his past unless someone slides a high-backed wicker chair in to catch him before he falls.
Breakdancing: An Apology
Purists will quibble with the use of “breakdancing” as a portmanteau word.2 As a remastered mix of cultural fallout, breakdancing reaches back to East Oakland’s Larry Thompson, founder of Pirate and the Easy Walkers and Castlemont High School’s mascot, doing the Skate, the Harold, and Camel Walk at halftime. It sweeps back to Jerry Rentie in People’s Park, Berkeley, worming, posing, freezing, creeping, and clocking at the outdoor concerts on Sundays. It’s Chuck Powell and the Black Messengers posing hard like an eight-armed avalokiteśvara god at His Lordship’s Restaurant before stopping time as Mechanical Device in whiteface makeup on The Gong Show. It was kids mimicking the herky-jerky quirks of cartoons and movements of movie monsters. It was “Robot Charles” Washington riffing off Robert Shields’s mime act in front of the Hollywood Wax Museum and Toni Basil, Don Campbell, and Fred Berry (Rerun on What’s Happening!!) hop-kicking and “Uncle Sam” pointing in fruity pastels as the Lockers. It was Granny and Robotroid, the Zulu Kings, Starchild La Rock, Electric Boogaloo, the Fantastic Freaks, the Pop O Matics, High Times Crew, Blue City Crew, Radio Crew, Ice Cold Crew, the Majestics. It was Soul Boogaloo, Funk Boogaloo. It was ticking and popping, top rock and floor rock, b-boying, gliding, the knee drop, sinbadding, doing the cyclops, the baby, the headspin, windmill, and Twist-o-Flex. It was Mike “Deuce” Donley, James “Skeeter Rabbit” Higgins, “Easy Mike” Torres, Manuel “Mongol Rock” Andujar, and Matthew “Glide Master” Caban. It was Reseda, Oakland, Brooklyn, the Bronx.
It was a harassed fat kid in Idaho.
“I have breaking dreams,” one street dancer told Sally Banes in her original Village Voice articles. “Then I wake up and do it like I saw it.” Kip Dee, another dancer, told Banes he dreamed of spinning on his chin. “But then I woke up and tried it,” he said, “and almost broke my face.”
It’s Rick Moranis failing to woo Sigourney Weaver in Ghostbusters. It’s Madonna cavorting with urban street urchins under an overpass in the music box intro to the “Borderline” video. In 2004, it’s la danse hip-hop in the Journal of Arts Management, Law, and Society, according to Roberta Shapiro’s “The Aesthetics of Institutionalization: Breakdancing in France.” It’s part retro-demo and historical lecture at Wave Waikiki nightclub in Honolulu, says Halifu Osumare’s “Global Breakdancing and the Intercultural Body” in 2002. According to a 2009 study in the American Journal of Sports Medicine, it’s the cause of over 1,600 “acute musculoskeletal” injuries to teams who have competed in the “Battle of the Year World Final” in Braunschweig, Germany, since 1990.
In Jorie Graham’s poem “Breakdancing,” it’s “the secret nobody knows like a rapture through his limbs, / the secret, the robot-like succession of joint isolations / that simulate a body’s reaction to / electric shock.”3 Graham writes that it’s the “pops, ticks, waves and the float,” the otherworldly whorl, the numinous news, the mountaintop ecstasy that jolted Saint Teresa of Avila in her epiphanic pas de deux with Jesus, the sumptuous pain of the seraph’s flame-tipped lance of gold jabbing her heart with the most heavenly, rock-solid rhythm.
To a seventh-grade boy who groaned under the weight of daylight, it was poetry, religion, transformation. It was a way to unzip the sumo-suit of his skin and fly like a flint-boned phoenix of fire.
Meet the Smalltown Breakers! A) Bill Irish: high school senior, vulpine, sleek as a swimmer, whose specialties were grooming a salon-perfect mustache and mullet, hanging out with kids too young for him, resembling Sean Cassidy, flaunting an almost grotesque twenty-two-inch waist, confiscating any money we earned from shows without telling us, and using breakdancing to lure as many women as possible into the nearest broom closet. B) Ryan Irish: affable, funny, spiky Billy Idol hairdo, whose specialties were being somewhat heavier than I was (which made me feel better), crossing rooms in the knee-bouncing style of the Gamorrean guards in Return of the Jedi, and looking nothing like his brother, Bill. C) Some kid named Chad: specialties were gliding, body popping, a mess of freckles, a curly sponge of orange hair on his head, and being some kid named Chad. D) Jamie Chapman: specialties were monastic silence and an itty-bitty French waiter mustache. E) Joe: my younger brother, whose specialties were a loose caboose, a humdinger of a cowlick, and a discolored front tooth. F) Me: specialties were swallowing aggression, glandular malfunction, and chronic daydreaming.
In the high school cafeteria, I body-locked and sugar-popped to the Gap Band’s “Party Train,” whipping up a whooping hullabaloo…
The year the Smalltown Breakers crystallized, Footloose, Breakin’, and Beat Street plowed through movie theaters like a caffeinated convoy of clown college dropouts. Arnold Schwarzenegger became a US citizen without learning English; cops beat Michael Stewart to death for graffiti tagging in a New York City subway; Vanessa Williams became the first black Miss America for a while; the last hand-cranked telephones were pulled from service in Bryant Pond, Maine; Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney released “Say, Say, Say”; the Thriller production held auditions; and United Street Force blew the dome off the Richter scale at the White House to the delight of Ronnie and Nancy Pants. On a Saturday morning, I was manning the hardwood entry to our house, aping some footwork from television, when someone rapped on the door. I opened it and beheld Dee Herfel, Shane Jund, and Todd Amundsen, three of the most popular, athletic guys in town, standing there like teleported Chippendales dancers. When I say popular, I mean these guys wore girls the way Mexican banditos wear bandoliers of bullets. I blinked, stepped back, smiled vacantly.
“We heard you did some moves,” Herfel said. “We want to see.”
With the gushing solicitude of a sycophantic bootblack, I ushered them in and without music demoed my measly wares, a few waves, body pops, and spins. Like too many quarterbacks in the huddle, they grinned and tried on the style, laughing and socking each other in the arms. It was heady company for a junior high kid. They thanked me on the way out.
“You got people talking about you at the high school, man!” Herfel said.
Somehow, I got invited to the next high school dance, and I was told the jet set would expect me to unload a complete and unabridged bad-boy breakdown. In the high school cafeteria, I body-locked and sugar-popped to the Gap Band’s “Party Train,” whipping up a whooping hullabaloo among the boot scooters and cattle rustlers and inspiring the pegged jean, mousse-spruced, Esprit-and-Topsider elite to fold their collars down, slip on their street feet, and get fantastic elastic, when in reality most of them ended up stumbling around like cross-eyed toddlers in cardboard pajamas.
The weekend following my high school debut, my brother, Joe, padded up to me in the living room.
“Some guys are making a breakdance group,” he said. “Someone’s letting them use a building.”
I looked up from my Cracked magazine. “Where?”
“That dance place,” he said. “Mauldin’s, where there’s furniture. Have you been there?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I have.”
Who can forget Fred Astaire’s whimsical romp to Burton Lane’s “Sunday Jumps” in Royal Wedding? In this sequence (before it became a Dirt Devil commercial), Astaire flounces and flits around a cruise ship’s exercise room with a coat rack as an erect but elegant partner. Astaire frolics with a pommel horse, parallel bars, and exercise clubs.
“Who do you think you are?” Ozone asks Turbo in Breakin’, as they lock up the store. “Fred Astaire?”
“Who?” Turbo replies before he steps on the dark street to perform his mesmeric floating broom dance in homage to Master Fred’s coat rack number, all to the synth-pop hypno-track of Kraftwerk’s “Tour de France.”
Later in Royal Wedding, Astaire, a towering inferno of love in his belly for Anne Ashmond (played by Sarah Churchill) warbles “You’re All the World to Me” and capers up the walls and across the ceiling, spinning a chair, bouncing off a couch, toe-tapping across a chest of drawers, even getting streetwise with a butt spin near a ceiling lamp. For this shot, the movie crew bolted the furniture to a specially designed room that tumbled slowly in sync with the camera so Mr. Astaire could project the illusion that dance could conquer gravity, as well as the sturdiest drawing room ensemble.
Using the same rigged room and rolling camera trick in Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, Turbo, with a royal crush on charcoal-eyed, cinnamon-lipped Lucia, floats and pops all over his rainbow-blown boudoir, up the walls and across the ceiling like a mercury-jointed, suction-cup footed Spiderman on overdrive. He worms across his bed, skates up and down a mirror, and knee-spins on a skylight with Mark Scott’s stripped-down studio cooler, “I Don’t Wanna Come Down,” in the background.
So maybe I was wrong about furniture and dance.
Back at Madame Mauldin’s, by choice this time, I reveled in week-long afternoon highs at one of the lowest points in my life. To the pot-gut dairy farmer shambling past Juanita’s to Ram Sporting Goods, we looked like a cage of lobotomized spastics, I’m sure, but inside we were freedom and redemption in motion. Our rehearsals weren’t rehearsals per se, just a bunch of bums bulling around and doing our best not to topple a bundle of bunk bed parts or Smokey the Bear dresser. The passage of time compels me to confess, shamefully, that I probably wouldn’t have mixed with any of my dance mates—my brother being the exception—if we hadn’t felt the need to restart our lives pulling us together like a tractor beam. We rolled from different parts of town but gathered for the same reason: rebirth, resurrection, a renaissance of rejects.
Even with my six-year-old cameo in Juanita’s Bolshoi of Terror behind me, I still found dancing for the big mirrors daunting. Doing a breakdance duo with your reflection as a stout seventh-grader is like jogging past a store window in your forties. (Note: I still work out, as if I’ll never exorcise my inner fat kid, the doughy doppelgänger with whom I’ll be forever locked in a David-and-Goliath capoeira joust, a Highland dirk dance to the death.) Back then, with my eyes on the ground, I could snap and pivot in the clouds, but if I flashed my eyes at the mirror, my most arrogant visions of myself crumpled like the bag of Fritos I chowed the night before. In my head, I was a break-licious beat boy, His Electric Eminence in a spacesuit of northern lights with thousand-amp grooves, but when I glanced in the mirror, I saw a bubble-butt landlubber who couldn’t beat an egg for breakfast. Even now, when I jog downtown, I’m thinking Bruce Jenner (before the sex change), Edwin Moses, or Steve Prefontaine—until I pass a tux rental place and in the glass I glimpse the image of a man lumbering like a three-legged armoire, a mastodonic montage of W.C. Fields, Fink from Meatballs, and Oliver Hardy with bad ankles.
But on rehearsal days, we gathered and breathed invention. Someone brought a boom box and mixtapes, “Jam on It” by Newcleus and Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” being our fave raves. Dance was our drug of choice for these free rides, and as we whirled away the daylight like unsupervised toddlers, it was easy to float for a while above the moments that threatened to crush us. During these unscripted hours, I added my own moves to my curriculum vitae of cool. One I called the “thumb wave”—a spin on traditional thumb twiddling. For this bite-sized bit, you interlocked your fingers, touched thumb tips together, and pulsed the wave through your thumbs, similar to Turbo’s “smile wave,” where he sent the wave from one hand, through his smile, into his other hand. I also pioneered “The Frog”—stole it, from a television show about circus performers. For “The Frog,” you sprawled on your stomach, reached back and shot your clasped ankles heavenward, popping your stomach out and casting yourself, frog-like, into the air.
Our “practices” took on a serious tone, though, when Bill announced a paying gig in Twin Falls, across the canyon. Suddenly, we were all grit and game faces, chests pumping the blood of the big city, putting in longer hours at Juanita’s, sometimes until night sapped the orange glow from the crumbling sidewalk outside. For that first gig, we jammed at poolside at Weston’s Lamplighter Inn on Blue Lakes Boulevard, for a business party or chamber of commerce confab, while traffic boomed in the background and slack-faced onlookers chatted over wine coolers and Swedish meatballs. Our routine featured synchronized footwork and staged solos, a six-man roller coaster elbow wave, and a Frankenstein’s monster vignette, where I reclined on the “table” of my friends’ hands, and they slowly floated me to my feet, hands churning like cogs, until I stood upright, grimacing and gesturing like the monster shocked to life. This was pure plagiarism—lifted, in toto, from a breakdancing TV show—but it went over like mediocre theater to people who occasionally turned from their punch and petits fours to squint at the nervous circus of teenage freaks near the folded towels.
We videotaped the show and decamped to our living room, after midnight, crammed on the couch, and watched our set with a kind of estranged sickness. As usual, the vision in my head didn’t match our performance on tape. In my ramped-up imagination, we were Sheik Shazam and His Solar Flares. On tape, we were the village idiots someone forgot to chain to the wall of the reformatory. We sat on the floor like kids at Christmas and gaped at the grotesque spectacle of ourselves—Jamie, Chad, Ryan, Joe, and myself—while Bill and his hottie girlfriend, Betty, cozied up and ever so slowly tilted together until they were locked in a body-groping battle of suck-face that could have shamed any Humboldt squid. We envied Bill, of course. He was the only one in the group with a girlfriend, and Betty looked like a Charlie perfume model, with her blond hair in feathery curls, skimpy silk track shorts, creamy calves, and baby blue ankle socks. Before Bill and Betty started peeling off clothes, we packed up our tape and swapped notes for the coming weeks.
As summer approached, the group dynamics grew frayed. We may have grown tired of performing so Bill could raid the company kitty to buy condoms and cigs, or we may have simply sensed the end, but before that happened, we crammed into Bill’s little copper-colored hatchback, tooled north to Fairfield, and set fire to the pantaloons of the rubes at the Camas County Fair. That night, we ripped through our routine on an eighteen-wheeler flatbed. The air was thick with the greasy, sugary smell of funnel cake, the rancid reek of hog pens. Small tornadoes of mayflies swirled under the lights that shone on tables of needlepoint pillows, God’s-Eye weaving, and 4-H water conservation dioramas. Kids in cowboy boots scampered to the foot of the flatbed, gawked at us with snow cone-stained faces, then galloped away, laughing. An auctioneer stopped his spiel to announce our fabulous fare.
“And for your entertainment,” he called in a yokel drawl, “we have the Japanese National Kung Fu Team!”
I had never imagined anyone would mock our art. The realization banged in my guts like a blacksmith’s hammer on a horseshoe. We looked stupid, and everyone but us knew it. Deflated, ashamed, and, frankly, dumbfounded that I would squander my life on something so silly, I finished my pop-and-lock solo, and paratrooped to the ground, landing flat-footed on packed dirt.
At the end of our show, nobody approached us. Through the mealy stench of chickens and sheep, I wandered around the fair, a grounded superhero in hick heaven, unable to hide the malice I felt toward myself, my fellow bozos, and our banal bop borrowed from Brooklyn. Round men in overalls and silver crew cuts pressed like runt piglets against rickety wagons for caramel corn. Hunky jocks in navy blue and gold varsity jackets popped puffs of cotton candy into their girlfriends’ mouths. The spreading wound of the sky sank in feverish reds and purples behind the black towers of granaries, telephone wires, and wasted cottonwoods. At the Ping-Pong ball toss, a kid with a sleazy mustache slouched against his whitewashed pavilion, surrounded by day-glo posters of Jimi Hendrix and KISS, brightly feathered roach clips, and a gallery of melted and stretched soda bottles arranged to look like a flock of alien, wavy-necked waterfowl. Somehow, I found Chad.
“We outta here?” I said.
Chad flashed his goober chipmunk smile, half-embarrassed, half-aroused. “Bill’s gonna take a girl to a room,” he said.
I turned and saw Bill and a girl in track shorts staring each other down, not ten feet apart. The girl’s two-tone shorts, three sizes too small, were a shimmery pistachio and pink, like a court jester’s tights. She wore a ketchup-colored tank top, arms crossed under her pointy breasts, and her chopped blond hair appeared to have been coiffed in a car wash. Her nose jutted out like a claw, and when she grinned, revealing her rack of braces, I wondered if Bill had failed his most recent eye exam. The strange thing was the way they ogled each other, bodies angled magnetically away, like two storks in heat, vainly resisting the genetic urge to romp in the bushes. Bill spoke like a man addressing the pizza he was about to devour, slice by slice.
“She’s gotta lotta leg,” he said.
At that moment the burlesque bell of the sledgehammer game clanged in my skull, and I saw my dance career as the comic opera it had become. I wanted to sprint a thousand miles from everyone without stopping. At home, I whipped off my Smalltown Breakers uniform, balled it up, and chucked it in the closet.
What sidereal shaman’s garments did I cast into the bonfire of my youthful past? A black crewneck sweatshirt with “Smalltown Breakers” circled in cherry lettering (pressed at Ryan’s T-shirts) over the right breast. Fireball red Chuck Taylor hightops. Hand-sewn pants designed by—you knew this was coming—my mom. Altogether, my mom stitched six pairs of billowy black pants with parachute slits of rocket red down the sides, all on her little humming Singer. Though it never happened this way, I still imagine my mom whirling away at her sewing station in the basement, like Rumplestiltskin in a sunflower housedress, late into the night of her grandest hopes for me, stopping for a moment in a haze of sewing-machine smoke to call me in to check her work: “Is this def enough, Matthew?” As she strokes the fabric with her thumb, “Is this too fly?”
Because her boy had rhythm.
Boogaloo: An Etymology
From the guanabana trees of Colombia and the piccolo trill of the ruby-crowned kinglets of Cuba came this sensuous, hip-rolling style of music, Bugalú, which serpentined north through sun-smudged skyscrapers and settled in the colder, smoggier climes of 1960s New York City. Its savory smoke seeped into the fibers of padded recording studios, forever elusive in Mongo Santamaria’s “Watermelon Man” and the Joe Cuba Sextet’s “Bang Bang” (whose “aw, beat, beat!” chorus a ragtag team of mongrel wrestlers chants as they clap hands to rally their Latino teammate, Palumbo, to keep him from losing his match in the obscure Edward Herrmann film Take Down). Then in 1966, the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, schooled the Action Kids in boogaloo basics on ABC’s Where the Action Is! On some invisible wavelength, James Brown’s soul boogaloo wove its way into the misty breezes of the San Francisco Bay Area to give rise to the funk boogaloo generation, with Tony Rome doing the Slide (grandfather to the Moonwalk) at the Arroyo Viejo Center in 1967. Jump forward a decade, and we catch Creep’n Sid and Tick’n Will of Electric Boogaloo challenging Chain Reaction to contests in clubs like the Ozone and McConahay’s in Orange County. Who knows why glam rocker Marc Bolan of T. Rex repeated the word so frequently at dinner that Ringo Starr felt driven to commit his charming nugget of rock doggerel—“Back Off, Boogaloo”—to vinyl? My favorite definition of boogaloo, according to Urban Dictionary, would have to be an “orgy by a group of island native midgets,” which is what may have kept Ringo always looking over his shoulder. From Fresno came Boogaloo Sam, of the Electronic Boogaloo Lockers (later shortened to Electric Boogaloo). Michael “Boogaloo Shrimp” Chambers (a.k.a. “Turbo”) adopted the rhythmic sobriquet most publicly, and it was the word I heard shouted over the P.A. at the intersection of Main Street and Lincoln the summer of 1984, when Jerome, Idaho, held its only official breakdancing contest, sponsored by the local radio station, Z103.
“And now,” Logan Tusow, Z103’s deejay, boomed. “Boogaloo Two!”
By then, I had defected from dance, and in my “Black Bandit” football practice jersey and sweatpants, I hopped on a tailgate to gaze over the heads of the crowd. Somehow, Z103 had bargained with the city to shut down the main intersection for the contest. Hundreds of people packed the center of town, straddling bikes and lounging on sidewalks in front of First Security Bank and Prescott & Craig Insurance. The glossy black Z103 van throbbed next to a raised wooden platform covered with white linoleum, firing bazooka bombs of Herbie Hancock and Run DMC into the chests of spectators. Logan Tusow, a dead ringer for Duane Allen of the Oak Ridge Boys, perched on a corner of the stand, looking pinched in his leather pants, trying to tack commentary to the action. As often as he could, he spilled a few nervous syllables into his microphone. Then the next song sawed through the speakers, and my brother, Joe, and Ryan Irish side-stepped into a choreographed show, complete with hand slaps, timed spins, and parallel footwork. They wore their red Smalltown Breakers Chuck Taylors, but they’d traded the team’s black garb for scarlet windbreakers and spacious white pants.
“That’s Boogaloo Two,” Tusow crowed, as they finished to raucous applause.
One by one, my former dance mates shredded the platform surface. Some spider-legged out-of-towner in silver-studded pants pulled off a headspin, and then Bill Irish threw his shoulders to the floor and whipped his eggbeater legs in a high velocity helicopter spin, or “windmill,” the move none of us had been tenacious enough to master.
Years later, I choked on envy and regret again in our dark auditorium when, as a junior, along with the rest of the school, I watched the Class of 1987 present its homecoming skit, in which Meg Harper, one of the varsity cheerleaders, read a tribute to her class, and Ryan Irish, dressed like a kamikaze samurai, bebopped on stage and dropped a megaton of electro-plasmic pump-action satisfaction on the unsuspecting crowd, throwing down a space-age magazine of some of the flashiest footwork I’d seen. Then he spiraled into a flurry of kung fu floor rock, flipped on his red sweatshirt hood in mid-backspin, and popped into a proud back arch.
As a high school graduate working the meat saw at Bob’s IGA, around closing time, I saw Bill Irish stride like a test pilot into the store and stalk through the cramped grocery aisles. I hadn’t seen him since leaving the group—five years. He wore tight Levi’s 501s, a sleeveless gray T-shirt. I wiped my hands on my apron and approached the cash register, where our only checkout girl, Tilly, was working. Through the automatic doors, I followed Bill into the parking lot, stepping around two lame shopping carts that rested basket-to-basket. A fanged hole marred the glowing red and white Bob’s IGA sign—someone had lobbed a rock through its smoked-glass skin. Opposite St. Benedict’s Hospital, the old howitzer mounted in front of the log-cabin Moose Lodge fired ghost rounds into the lucid quiet. I breathed the brittle scent of sagebrush, the burned odor of curds from the cheese factory. On the highway, trucks sounded doleful horns on their endless migrations. I stood and watched Bill mount a BMX bike, and with a jug of milk in one hand, he pedaled up the street to a block of apartments behind the store.
The boy stands in a shabby dance studio in an agricultural American town. His mother has skedaddled from his side—the way people flee from lit fireworks—in order to launch him into the galaxy of talented people, where she thinks he belongs. Skinny girls in hot-pink tutus gambol around him like lithe assassins. He fires glances around the room, face flushed, jaw strained. The desire to bolt for the door charges through his blood, but he remains cemented to the floor. He is six years old, but he has known for some time that the world is a rigged audition in which any misstep summons the wrath of parents, God, and bleachers of monkey-faced rivals. He risks a sideways glance at the exit and sees a man standing on the street. The man looks like he could be his father, bent over, hand shading his eyes, peering through the dirty glass from the other side of a jumble of bookshelves and orange crates of mismatched doorknobs.
The boy examines the man. The man gazes back. A beat of contemplation—about what has passed and what lies ahead—passes between them, as if a slipper-footed squad of extras in swan costumes has made a late entrance, a sweep of hurried steps from a choreographer long dead.
The first street dance battles were chaotic, unscripted, confrontational. Opponents who wanted to swipe your sneakers and T-shirt colors, or chomp a chunk out of your turf, weaved vulgar, insulting, and violent gestures into their solos, with the sole purpose of castrating your mojo.
Soon, breakdancing routines evolved into elaborately staged—and far less interesting and meaningful—bouts of unchained synchronicity, slick but canned compositions of side-by-side footwork, cookie-cutter power moves, tag-team body waves, and tandem hop-skip locking. In a matter of weeks, dancers left the street corners, where they once scrapped and jousted like Tanzanian ostriches, and entered the world’s television studios to caper like caged birds of paradise with the polish of Rogers and Astaire.
A seventh-grade boy is a battle royal of body and soul. Desire and shame, rapture and loathing, elegance and raw aggression. Every seventh-grade boy is two dancers warring under a street lamp on a sticky summer night.
Dance is the body showing us what the spirit could do if we followed its lead. Dance is the cry of the spirit to be freed from the clichéd choreography of the flesh.
Dance is what my breath did in my chest, the fall of my freshman year of high school. Late August: I was slouching on the concrete floor, feet in football cleats, listening to the jubilant roar of dude-speak rolling down the yellow cinderblock hallway that led to the locker room. Like everyone else, I was armored in practice gear—helmet, shoulder pads, bad attitude—ready to churn the field to a cloddish mire with the junior varsity squad. Through the gray network of my facemask, I surveyed the scene, trying to snatch strands of meaning from the howling muddle, the trumped-up tales of sexual conquest and slaughtered bull elk my teammates continued to lob like sonic hand grenades. I counted a dozen guys who, months previous, had ganged up to guillotine my spirit before summer break granted everyone a social mulligan. One grade older, we sat like Navy SEALs cocked and ready to leap from our transport, our hearts set on “kill.”
Then the door at the end of the hall clanged open, and in strutted—not our coach—but Mondo Aragon, a known loner to whom breakdancing had bequeathed new popularity. He wore a sleeveless jean jacket, red headband, and fluttery black rayon pants with shiny tabs running down the sides. Gaudy as a Chinese pheasant in a hutch of mud hens, he hopped nimbly over the feet of the now silent ranks of jocks, a feather-footed reminder flitting through the tire drill of my recent past. My heart went stale when I realized he was headed for me. How he recognized me in my football gear—how he knew I was a former breakdancer, I’ll never know—but he squatted on his haunches, looked straight in my face, and said, “Can you do a Thomas twirl?”
His question rang like a reckoning through the school. I dragged my gaze from his and spoke to the floor through tight teeth: “No.”
As if pushing a “play” button, my answer cued the return of lusty chatter. The hall of wannabe men and their ship’s-galley rumpus dismissed Aragon without hesitation, escorted him away, and with him, a throb of innocence that wandered out of me and tailed him like a rejected sibling, while I stayed behind, a wallflower guarding my spot in the brotherhood of betrayal.
Traci stands on the basketball court, ensconced in her band of beauty queens. She flashes me a glittering braces-smile and turns to walk toward the girls’ locker room, her tight white pants and sleeveless magenta top making a giddy belly dancer do a seven-second “Dance of the Seven Veils” in my stomach. I’m so distracted that when a flabby-lipped kid named Tim rushes up and warns me of my imminent sandbagging, I barely hear him, transported, as I am, in The Traci Zone.
I’m dimly aware of a stampede of eighth graders—thirty, forty, maybe more—thundering like spooked wildebeest into the boys’ locker room…
“They’re gonna get you,” Tim hisses. “In the locker room. I heard!”
A piledriver of boredom drills through my shoulders to my feet. I sag against the wall, hands in pockets. The attacks, while bothersome, have become as predictable as key changes in a Barry Manilow song. On the basketball court, pickup games mimic prehistoric warfare. Kids lounge in the bleachers, chomping gum, nodding like beatnik philosophers. I’m dimly aware of a stampede of eighth graders—thirty, forty, maybe more—thundering like spooked wildebeest into the boys’ locker room, and when Steve Aslett, Mike Corbett, and others corner me, laughing and advising me to go easily, I don’t resist, but surrender like a dime-a-dance girl to a pack of Russians fresh off the submarine.
The locker room doors are kicked open. The mob shoves me through, as if to the gallows, cackling and hooting like fraternity brothers at the beach.
“Where? Where? In there!”
For a moment, I resolve to ascend the scaffold alone. But they hoist me on their shoulders, a troupe of gibbering natives conveying a virgin to Kong. I glimpse small dramas. Water dribbling into a floor drain. Puffs of linty fuzz bumbling across concrete. Sunlight bleeding through bubble-glass windows, masked in cobwebs peppered with dead flies. Mr. Rutledge, one of the P.E. teachers, in lemon golf shirt and gray coaching shorts, strides past like a busy butler, swinging a clipboard, his muskrat’s mustache barely hiding a smile.
In the closest toilet stall, they upend my body, as if to torpedo me down the sewer pipes. Like Lady Jane Grey, I am forced to assist in my execution, and my hands flail for the chopping block of the black toilet seat. One of the guys pumps the flush handle, and I watch the water spiral.
“Do it! Come on, let go!”
A manifesto of defiance builds in my lungs with geyser force, but when it blows, it wheezes out as a squeaky plea: “C’mon, guys.”
My pitiful last words only stoke their passion, and they push my head in the toilet water—I let my arms bend—and they bang away through the locker room like orangutans fleeing a raid.
That weekend, I pedal my bike to Smith’s Food King, past Rod Lattin’s Mobile Butcher truck, the frowzy chicken coops in Bob Jackson’s backyard. At Smith’s, I coast to Ryan’s T-shirts and enter. A bell dings, and Ryan emerges from the presidential suite of his back room. He wipes his hands on a napkin and tosses a Taco Time wrapper in the trash, a perfect hook shot.
“What’s up?” he says. “Anything I can do for you?”
“I want a shirt,” I say, as his eyebrows jump. “One of these.”
From a circular rack of psychedelic bargain shirts, I select a custard-colored model with black stitching around the neck and sleeves. I place it reverently on the counter with my money.
“Anything on it?” Ryan offers. “Name?”
Samples of iron-on numbers and letters hang behind Ryan, like little exotic patches from a hunting expedition, some peeling away in the company of silvery butterflies and happy-eyed Corvettes. One rainbow-and-unicorns decal coos, “If You Love Something, Set It Free. If It Returns, It’s Yours. If It Doesn’t, It Never Was.” Some of the iron-on numbers and letters are big and black, some blocky, others chubby and fuzzy, red and white. I jerk my chin upwards, indicating a palette of black, hard-edged letters.
“Captain Swirly,” I say. Ryan smiles and nods as he places letters on my shirt like a chess master setting pieces on a board. “On the back.”
The next week, I wear my shirt to school, walking up and down the halls like somebody who won’t leave the floor after the last dance.
The year the hull of my life threatened to burn and bottom out, my family took a California road trip. We spent a day at Knott’s Berry Farm, where, not many years before, the original Lockers competed in dance-offs at the Sopwith Camel and Cloud Nine Disco. In the switchback stanchions for the log ride, I was dreaming away the minutes, dreading our return to the potato fields of purgatory, when the rumble of an advancing riot shook my reverie. I glanced toward the ruckus and saw a tight phalanx of black men, each built like a linebacker, marching at a steel-jawed, militaristic clip through a mob of hysterical girls. In the center of the moving octagon of titans strutted a snappy figure in flashy sunglasses, much smaller than his protectors but whose light-footed gait drove the party through the hopping-mad admirers.
Our log docked alongside us in the sloshy current, and the staff ushered us aboard. From my seat in the log, I sensed a tremor in the air currents. A boisterous group had cut in line, bustled its way through the exit, and now waited where we had stood, anticipating the next log.
“Oh, boy,” my mom said. “Look at this.”
I turned my head to the right. At eye-level, where I had placed my feet, I saw a glossy black loafer, glittery sock, and an ankle the color of creamed coffee. The ankle extended into a snazzy tuxedo pant leg. Like a dumb puppy, I raised my eyes—I didn’t have to look too high—into the face of the King of Pop. He was looking around, shaking his shoulders to some universal drum track. He didn’t return my gaze, even though he knew I was staring. With his sequined glove hand, he adjusted his Fedora, and a flash circled his hatband like a twinkling comet. He grinned like an excited kid, rolling his shoulders and shaking out his knees as if preparing to explode in a meteor shower of moves that would knock the earth from its axis.
In a kind of drunken stupor, I realized his foot was close enough to grab, and for one woozy second my arm twitched and my hand reached out to grasp his ankle. I wasn’t thinking, of course, just sunning myself in the solar wind of his planetary presence and hoping that some of his moon dust might rub off on me,
hoping that if I made contact, a plasma bolt from his supernova of talent might ripple through the conductor of my arm and flood my life with power and grace. At the last second, a merciful troupe of winged cherubs in bear-claw earrings and hachimaki Rising Sun headbands telegraphed me a vision of a big black badass stomping on my forearm and snapping it like a balsa-wood airplane. So I raised my goofy gaze, waved, and croaked a husky, “Hi.”
A grin split his face. He laughed at my antics, returned my wave, shoved his hand in his pocket, and chirped, “Hi!”
Then a chain hooked our log-boat, and we splashed ahead, clunking up the mechanical incline into the darkened maw of a fake mountain. We spent the whole ride craning our necks, whipping around to get a glimpse of the star-fueled log behind us. At the exit tunnel, white glare flooded our faces, and as we perched on the lip of the final plunge, we looked down and beheld the Promised Land of a Thousand Dances. Besieging the base of the ride was a bounding carnival of loons, a magical mystery tour of brightly dressed men, women, teenagers, unattended children, pets, park employees, runaways, and law enforcement officers, all jumping and gaping, pointing and clapping and flapping their hands, a Woodstock-sized American Bandstand run amok in a derailed rehearsal for the Red Shoes, all of them doing the time warp, the running man, the twist, the hitchhike, and the hippy hippy shake, each fanatic fan tripping on some dynamite dance drug and blaming it on the boogie. It was a faint notion, a weak pulsar in the womb of my heart, but as I gazed at the massive crowd, their wild assembly seemed to signify a swerve in my fortunes, as if they had mobbed the base of the log ride to cheer me on. I couldn’t have known it then, but as we plummeted down the final drop, spray in our faces, I was mere months from the moment my body would decide to shoot up three inches to the point that I would tower over some of the schmoes who tried to kick my life to rubble. I would have been amazed to know that my body would leap ahead of my grief, that the very next track season I would run the third leg in the 4 x 100 relay and wonder, with everyone else, why anyone had called me a slug. At that moment of thrilling descent, this dormant clairvoyance still thrummed on low volume, however, a reserved gift to be claimed through waiting—sometimes in agony—for the song to end. As we bobbed and bonked around the final turn of the log ride, fanned by the euphoria of swooning cries, shiny balloons, camera flashes, swinging purses, pudgy babies, and hundreds of arms waving like people-eating plants, I took the chance to forget myself and do what any rookie star would do.
I smiled, raised my arms, and waved to my fans.
A flight of Leonard Bernstein chords drops from the rafters, and the boy, instead of retreating, draws himself to his full height, hoops his arms, and pulls a tour en l’air, and with Baryshnikov agility sails across the room like the cow over the moon in a grand jeté. He skids an arabesque to the door, nose inches from the dirty glass. The boy and the man the boy will become examine one another, like agent and prodigy, breath fogging the vision between them.
The fading sun sweeps a largo arm of cool orange light over a pendulum-less grandfather clock and Tweety Bird high chair. On the street behind the man, an Australian sheep dog passes like a bored producer in the bed of a dented blue truck, tongue dangling.
The man steps back, puts his palms together as if to applaud, then stops and squints. The glass stops him from speaking to the boy, who is poised to take his cue from the man, but the man with dramatic mummery and overblown expressions tells the boy to keep going, tells him that the only thing he can do is dump his costume chest of fear and failure on the floor and shatter the contents under his heels in a gleefully wicked sailor’s hornpipe.
For evidence, the man points to the studio shelves. You can’t see them yet, he pantomimes, but those shelves will be stocked with trophies—love, pain, regret, a gallery of memories, rousing reviews and raw deals—a rack of prizes you’ll win, even though you’ll live out your days feeling as if they should have been awarded to someone more deserving, someone with more skill.
The boy steps back, snaps into a regal fifth position. The man bows, dusts his hands on his hip pockets, slips into his car, and drives away.
As if to spite me, God sends me four daughters, all of whom become limber, lyrical dancers—singers and actresses to boot. Once more, the studio grows crowded. In an effort to connect, I audition with them and get cast in a series of semi-professional musicals at the Colonial Theater, thirty minutes down the highway in Idaho Falls: Annie, Willy Wonka, The Wizard of Oz.
We rehearse in a one-hundred-year-old church converted into a city council building in the one-horse, three-meth-lab town of Iona. The library downstairs is a barricaded room that tempts idlers with abused paperback romance novels for fifty cents a box. The whole building is an abandoned time capsule of army-green carpet, warped floorboards, leaded paint, and radiators that hiss and knock. Dads with shaved heads and spiderweb tattoos on their necks escort their daughters into the foyer and slink outside to smoke. One night, a kid with bleached hair brings a pellet gun and sends panicked munchkins and flying monkeys scurrying away in fright, clutching cell phones and half-eaten Hostess cupcakes.
Three weeks into rehearsal, the director, a wonderful woman who unfortunately reminds me of a porky
female Ronald McDonald, shows me the choreography for one of my numbers.
“Now run it back for me,” she says.
With Irene Cara on stadium volume in my head, I rip off the spins and flurries and hully gully like Gloria Estefan on acid, then turn to face her. She gazes at me, eyes half open, elbow in her palm, forefinger across her upper lip.
“Good,” she says. “Now, do it like a dancer.”
What am I to think when I read Curt Sachs’s 1937 study World History of the Dance? That his insights reveal anything new? “In considering peoples attached and peoples indifferent to the dance,” Sachs writes, “we have found a fundamental contrast between dances which are in harmony with the body and those which are not. Perhaps it is this contrast, wakened and somewhat obscured in the Hellenic world, which Plato referred to when he distinguished two types of dance, one ennobling the motions of the more beautiful bodies, the other parodying with distortion the motions of ugly bodies.”
But, Curt, what about beautiful movements in harmony with attempts to hide the seventh-grade boy’s lard-bucket body?
Sachs addresses what he calls “dances out of harmony with the body” and “pure convulsive dances” before continuing: “Opposed to the meaning and nature of the body is the out and out convulsive dance, as we found it in the arrow dance of the Vedda,” he observes, including “the Chukchi of northeastern Asia” and “the secret society of the Wayeye in Unyamwezi” that “meets under the full moon,” as well as the spasmodic grooving found in the Solomon Islands and Marshall and Gilbert Islands. In the category of “weakened convulsive dances,” Sachs observes, “The black man rattles, pants, and kicks like a steam engine.…For hours at a time his posterior springs up and down over his bent legs.…At the start the participants generally zigzag to and fro in short steps with their feet dragging, or walk forwards and backwards with short, stamping steps.…As yet they show no sign of fatigue. On the contrary, the tempo becomes more lively, the dance wilder and more passionate. From the circle of dancers a skilled artist now steps forth, comes to a stop in the center, and begins to make very convulsive contortions with the upper part of his body, bringing especially his abdominal muscles into play.”
Following Professor Sachs, we swing swiftly to the period of urban American history that spans April and October of 1981. Martha Cooper, armed with camera, is doing the Shutterbug in the subway. Sally Banes is slinging out Village Voice articles about the arrest of the High Times Crew for “fighting” and “rioting” in the Washington Heights neighborhood. At the police station, the cops, forced to admit their error, ask the High Times kids to demonstrate a head spin, floor rock, and the baby before releasing them. Banes sums up the moment, “White America has perennially turned to black America, especially black and Latin dance and dancing music, for revitalization in times of cultural exhaustion.”
When I consider Rudolph Zallinger’s iconic “March of Progress” illustration from Early Man, I see a solo dancer rising from a pose or backspin, someone toe-gliding into the Robot. But I also see someone, a bit slumped and tired—someone educated by failure, matured by time, someone tired of being a kid—walking off through the purple rain, desperately seeking Susan for some dirty dancing, someone weary of the old gig, a man who has evolved and moved on to the next trend of sorrows.
I see somebody walking away.
I see a man whose only grooves are in his forehead, someone prone to standing on sidewalks and gazing through the dirty studio glass of the past. I see him “standing there in wallpaper shoes” with “socks that match [his] eyes,” like an overgrown teenage boy pretending he’s tougher than he is, singing with Ringo Starr, “Back off, Boogaloo!”
On closing night, the joint is jumping as the cast throws down a Count Basie-bottomed rendition of “The Jitterbug” in The Wizard of Oz. As the Scarecrow, I get whipped up in a frenetic ballroom flurry with a wild sorority of enchanted trees, flying monkeys, and girls in black body stockings. From the balcony and the rows of gaudy red velvet seats, the crowd sends their approval.
The trombones blare at the climax like elephants doing the rhumba, and the stand-up bass kicks action into our average but inspired bones. Unable to restrain myself, I go mental in the moment and break from the assigned choreography. Dorothy, the Lion, and Tin Man jitterbug away, and I start popping and locking and floating and freezing in the strobe lights, in a flash, transforming into Ray Bolger of the Barrio. The audience screams like a gymnasium of junior high girls.
Boogaloo Two: An Epilogue
Joe tells me that after I left the group, Bill Irish phoned our house one night. Our dad was in the living room, watching TV, so Joe answered.
“I’m through!” Bill said. “I’m done!”
Apparently, a rival group had formed on the streets across the canyon in Twin Falls. The trash talking had reached sorority girl levels, so Bill and the Smalltown Breakers, Joe included, were going to strike back like chain lightning in a dance duel behind the Lynwood Plaza. This historic contest between the unemployed riffraff from Jerome and Twin Falls counties would decide which group deserved to be crowned Grand Masters of the No Loitering Zone, and which group would have to suck on second place in a bracket that contained the only two breakdancing groups in the state.
Joe donned his dance gear and solemnly informed my father that he would be leaving to clash rhythmically with some juvenile detention escapees in an unsupervised alley across the canyon.
“Okay!” my dad called over his shoulder. “Have fun!”
Following the battle—supposedly declared a tie—Bill told Joe and Ryan they weren’t good enough to stay in the Smalltown Breakers, an executive order that produced the splinter group, Boogaloo Two. Joe also tells me he was so embarrassed at the Z103 contest in Jerome that he left the stage almost in tears, none of which I detected from my vantage point in the crowd, looking on, as I was, in awe of Joe’s performance, and berating myself for being a quitter.
Hungry for history, I escape my buzzing home tonight—the lights in the house ablaze, my kids swarming computer and TV, my wife awash in projects—and hike down the soggy, leaf-strewn hill behind our home, hopping over sloppy shoals of March snow. In the thickening purple dusk, I shoulder into our musty garden shed where I’ve stashed my keepsakes, and amid the smell of old grass clippings and gasoline, I pry open a big blue Rubbermaid tub and rummage through football cleats and spelling bee trophies to find my seventh-grade yearbook: 1983 Time of the Tiger. With the slim orange volume to my face, I flip pages. Papery poplar leaves from last season crackle under my boots. A car alarm wails, chirps twice, and goes silent. Somewhere outside, the neighbor kids squawk over who gets to be the boss of the next game of freeze tag. Near the end of the yearbook, I land on a page that shows a picture of Traci. She’s wearing her soft black-and-orange cheerleader sweater, smiling at me through the crooked window of years. In swooping blue ink, her last words to me remain preserved, like a song or dance routine on endless autoplay: Dear Matt, I’m sorry for being a pain in the (crack) in the past. I’m sorry we didn’t have more time together. I still like ya, but it’s a little late, right? Well, maybe later we could become closer and maybe go together. Sorry for being so forward. High school is coming and I won’t forget the little people. Don’t forget when you’re a studly eighth-grader that I can still beat you up. That’s a laugh, right? Well, see ya later. Love, Traci. P. S. Thanx a lot for at least being a friend. (I miss you).
Boogaloo Too: A Rap, With No Apologies
Storytime! No reason or rhyme, just a small-town kid big on hard times. A hometown Joe, from Idaho, yo! A tough-luck Chuck, with nothing to show. Uh, that’s right, rewind! Take it back to find, you wake up in the world and—whoa!—it’s unkind. So, nothing’s changed, gone strange, deranged! Now, you’re runnin’ and you’re gunnin’ for unlimited range! Jump back, it’s a fact, you’re white, not black. Not beatin’ the dawn, just stayin’ late in the sack. You know, you just wanna blow. But mamma says no, you could take it all the way to a Broadway show. Now, just stay sweet, don’t cheat, compete, but the prima ballerinas knock you off your feet. So, you say “No way,” ain’t time to play. I don’t need no Juanita with a capital J! Shazam, no, ma’am! I’m the chowder in the clam. I’m a Hubba Bubba Chubba. I’m fatter than Spam. But the dream don’t die, I ain’t gonna lie. I’m heavy as a Chevy, but this kid’s gonna fly!
Now, it’s a phase of malaise in my school days. I got ’em sockin in the locker room, rockin’ my ways. Uh, well, Traci B., what do you see? Gonna be a rough ride with this kid called me. Gonna make it, don’t fake it, they gonna try to break it. There’s a gang on my case, and I just can’t shake it. You don’t like the dance, won’t take a chance, gotta jump off the school just to fight in your pants. So walk away, you got nothin’ to say. You’re gonna bail, no sale, we’re D.O.A. But take care, don’t stare at my savoir-faire. I’m gonna rock you like a freaky-fab Fred Astaire!
I said Smalltown Breakers, come blow your mind! Put your hands in the air, and shake your behind. There’s Bill walkin’ tall, and Ryan, his bro. And some kid named Chad, he’s a one-man show! We don’t take no guff, don’t dish no smack. Smalltown Breakers like a big Cadillac, come rockin’ down the avenue, shakin’ Town Hall, givin’ out what we’re gettin’, and havin’ a ball! We got Jamie and Joe, and me, I’m no slouch. When I move, I kinda groove like a secondhand couch. That’s hard to believe, but I was born to achieve. I said Smalltown Breakers, gotta trick up a sleeve. In high society, of notoriety, can’t stand up to our soul variety. The ladies come callin’ (at least for Bill), we got love from above, forever to chill.
I’m M.J.B. I’m the older me. I got a wife, five kids, and a PhD. They call me Doctor Rock, I don’t like to boast, but my story is the glory from coast-to-coast. My home’s Jerome, that’s where I roam, when I sink and need to think, I take the road unknown. I’m raw. I’m a geek. I’m flash. I’m chic. I’m triple-decker trouble très magnifique! Gotta think good times, gotta face the bad, from sad seventh-grader to full-time dad. I missed L.A., I never saw Queens. I was a breakdancing fool in Levi’s jeans. So, call me a poser, call it all whack. Try to shoot me down, but I won’t take it back. Leave the beat on the street, where the days were young, and don’t choke, don’t joke at the hard battle won. ’Cause the kids like me lived on to see that the world didn’t end in 1983. Don’t bleed, don’t fade, don’t say it wasn’t you. The dance goes on, and the story rings true. I said who can ever say why we do what we do? All I wanted to do was boogaloo too.
The night of dress rehearsal, I’m walking on stage, full makeup, costume. Crew members in black jeans and turtlenecks scale metal ladders like lethargic ninjas. The supporting cast loiters in the green room like clownish courtesans. Painted cityscapes, archways, ornate gates, and backdrops hang in the flies, a huge guillotine of colorful plywood and steel framework suspended over our heads. The music director, a plump bearded pirate persona, futzes with his green silk pocket scarf then raps his baton on his music stand.
The sound of a barnyard emanates from the orchestra pit.
“Matt,” the producer calls to me. I turn to face her. She carries a messy clipboard of papers and wears a black stretch-knit dress suit over a silky peach blouse. She bites her lower lip as she chases me down, clonking across the battered black boards of the stage in sturdy heels. “Have you given us your bio sketch for the program?”
“A little paragraph,” she says. “Some people like to dedicate their show to somebody.”
“I don’t need to dedicate it to anyone,” I say, starting stage left. Then I freeze, spin, and point to her clipboard. “Wait. Say he dedicates tonight’s performance to Juanita Mauldin’s Furniture and Dance.” ■
1 Tom Jones, at the Chicago Playboy Club, once asked Tick’n Will Green (of the original Electric Boogaloo group) to teach him how to backslide. Green replied, “Only if you pay me.” (See Guzman-Sanchez, Underground Dance Masters.) RETURN TO 1
2 See Thomas Guzman-Sanchez’s letter to the editor in Vibe Magazine in 2000. Guzman-Sanchez, who in 1984 played Tino on the “Breakdance” episode of Fame, exclaims, “There really is no such thing as breakdance!”—“breaking” being the bent elbow move, or “break,” in the arms of Chain Reaction’s original generation locking style of street dance. In his landmark study, Guzman-Sanchez writes, “Dozens of fad groups were put together to take advantage of the Break dance trend that was sweeping the nation. The names of these opportunistic trend groups usually ended with the word Breakers. Any group that had the Break in [its] name was clearly created after 1983.” RETURN TO 2
3 “Breakdancing” from The End of Beauty by Jorie Graham. ©1987 by Jorie Graham. Reprinted courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers. RETURN TO 3
Matthew James Babcock’s essays have appeared or will appear in The Fiddleback; War, Literature, and the Arts; Aethlon; and Atticus Review. “The Handicap Bug” was listed as “notable” in The Best American Essays 2012. His fiction collection, Future Perfect, is forthcoming from Queen’s Ferry Press in 2016, and his literary criticism can be found in The Journal of Ecocriticism and Private Fire: The Ecopoetry and Prose of Robert Francis (University of Delaware Press). He teaches composition, creative writing, and literature at BYU-Idaho.