Robot Wars

A thriving Arizona break-dancing culture rediscovers the state's grandmasters of boogaloo

Most adults simply don't get what hip-hop is about – although they're becoming increasingly interested in reading about it, as evidenced by the slew of scholarly books on "the hip-hop generation" now crowding the bookshelves. Tomes such as Nelson George's Hip-Hop America and William Upski Wimsatt's Bomb the Suburbs have attempted to make sense of the cultural phenomenon that's led to rich white kids practicing dance steps and speaking in a vernacular their parents can't begin to penetrate.

But here, in the back of the hall, hidden behind the towering speakers, there's one graying 51-year-old white guy who's definitely down with it. Dressed casually in a dark suit jacket tossed over a black tee shirt (but still looking suspiciously like a successful businessman slumming on a Saturday night), he smiles while a young dancer practices his steps, and then – to everyone's surprise – he breaks into some seriously dope power moves himself.

Playfully grabbing the water bottle out of an onlooker's hand, the AARP homeboy launches into an amazingly fluid series of top-rocking moves that make it appear that he's just been submerged in a room full of water. All around him, tough-looking teens look on with jaw-dropping awe as the old dude pops and freezes in classic robot style – a style he performs so effortlessly, you'd think he invented it.

Kevin Scanlon
Emily Piraino

"Y'all heard about grandmasters?" a black Californian named Reuben "Flattop" Hall – apparently old enough to remember the mystery man from late-'70s television – asks the onlookers. "Well, this man is a true grandmaster of pop-locking – a dude who opened up the whole art. Robert Shields, of Shields & Yarnell!"

Shields looks around for recognition, but mostly, he sees confusion. None of the b-boys and b-girls are old enough to remember the male half of the mime duo who rose to fame on the Sonny & Cher Show and on their own 1977 CBS variety series. And if any do recognize him, the sight of the Marcel Marceau protégé bustin' loose at a break-dancers' convention seems even more surreal. Still, they continue to watch Shields re-create his robot, by now a standard move in break-dancing, as if they're watching vintage newsreel footage.

The Robert Shields Design studio store in Sedona is not a shop you'd think would be hot with young hip-hop heads. From its rustic Western-postcard exterior to its tongue-in-cheek oil paintings of poker-playing coyotes, the store, centered in the upscale artsy community, seems almost deliberately designed to repel urbanites. Let's face it: No matter how flossy a baller you are, that sterling silver and amethyst "Mama Kitty" necklace will not work with the Rocawear track suit.

Nevertheless, the company's main Sedona studio at "the Y," where Highways 89A and 179 intersect, lately has marked a pilgrimage for hip-hop devotees. Only they're not coming for the polymer and pewter. They're rolling up to give props to the owner.

"Ain't that neat?" says the perpetually "on" Shields, tracked down at the store about a month before the Furious Styles Crew show. "I get so many people coming into the store and e-mailing me about that now. Dancers hunt me down and show up, wanting to learn how I did the robot. It's kinda cool!"

Weirdly enough, the former San Francisco street mime – a guy who rose to fame wearing whiteface and never uttering a word – is now getting shout-outs as a pioneer of hip-hop culture. Thanks to a trend in hip-hop to pay respect to everyone who's had a hand – or foot – in the culture's development (best represented in Erykah Badu's video for "Love of My Life," which comically traces three decades of hip-hop and features cameos by MC Lyte, Fab 5 Freddy, DJ Kool Herc and Chuck D), Shields is now being hailed as an old-school originator of break-dancing technique. Or, more specifically, the precise, rhythmic popping and locking moves that influenced everything from Michael Jackson's early robot choreography with the Jackson 5 to the Harlem Shake popularized in recent Eve and G-Dep videos.

"Michael Jackson called me once a week to try and learn my moves," Shields swears, recalling the days when he and then-wife Lorene Yarnell were riding high with their TV show. Shields believes the duo's moves were never publicly acknowledged in the early days of break-dancing because the trend erupted at the precise moment the world grew weary of silent clowns on street corners.

"All of a sudden, we became the scapegoat for a nation of really bad mimes," he recalls. "And you had all the mime-bashing going on. What should you do when you feel an uncontrollable urge to shoot a mime? Use a silencer.' If a tree falls in the forest on a mime, does anybody care?'" Now, the Sedona businessman is clearly digging the love he's getting from the hip-hop community. In fact, when told about the upcoming b-boy summit in Phoenix, Shields literally jumps at the idea of attending the show.

Nevertheless, about two weeks before the Furious Styles Crew's blowout, Shields begins to feel stage fright.

"I was watching the video by that boy from *NSYNC – what's his name? Justin Timberlake?" Shields says. "And all his moves are just flash, no magic. If that's what these kids are doing now, I don't know. . . ."

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