Robot Wars

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

The veteran performer catches himself.

"Look at me!" he exclaims, laughing at insecurities he apparently hasn't felt in more than 30 years. "I'm an artist; I run a design company. My payroll is, like, almost a million and a half dollars. And yet, when I think about walking into this place with all these young dancers, it's like I'm starting all over. It's kinda scary!"

Emily Piraino
Dancers take their turns in the solo competition. "It's like sprinting," says House. "It's like a sport that you have to pace yourself for."
Kevin Scanlon
Dancers take their turns in the solo competition. "It's like sprinting," says House. "It's like a sport that you have to pace yourself for."

It's 9 p.m. on Monday at Royal Dance Works in north central Phoenix, and evening classes are winding down. Carpool moms wait for their Bethanys and Breannas to gather their sequined ballet costumes and get home in time to finish their homework. In one room, a former Ms. Soul Train has just finished rehearsing her class of fourth-grade girls in the art of partnering and pompom handling. In another room, an intense-looking Mexican break-dancer sits hunched in a corner, chilling out after four hours of teaching Paradise Valley's Little Miss Populars how to rock out to "Sk8er Boi."

"It's great to be able to make a living doing what you love to do," House reminds himself, eyes focused straight ahead while his Furious Style-ists begin arriving to practice for their big weekend party, now just a week and a half away. "But the minute that I come in here and it feels like work, and I feel like I have to teach these people, I don't wanna do it."

House is chided by Koko at 37, the old-school historian of the mostly young, ethnically mixed group House has assembled.

"We didn't used to go to a studio like this to practice street dancing. That's why we called it street dancing. Our school was the street; that's where it all started. On the asphalt, on the concrete, at the parks. Sometimes we'd practice in somebody's bedroom and if it got too hot, we'd take it out on the patio!"

House listens while Koko, a pop-locking specialist who dances with the Phoenix Mercury Hip-Hop Squad and other local dance crews, discusses the contributions of fringe influences like Shields & Yarnell (yes, he watched them) and even the brothers Warner.

"We discovered it was so cool to be able to make our bodies do things like Bugs Bunny did in cartoons," he says.

Like all hip-hop heads, House is happy to see the history of his art form finally getting its own installment at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But he's also more than a little frustrated that b-boy culture is too often dismissed as nostalgia, something most of Middle America thinks died out after 1984's Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo.

"When people ask me what I do, and I say I break-dance, they're like, Break-dancing? Do people still do that?,'" he grumbles. "To someone who doesn't understand the culture, it's just moves, just tricks. And once they've seen somebody spin on their head a few times, they get bored."

But in Japan, where House and the Furious Styles Crew performed during a two-month tour last summer opening for the award-winning Tap Dogs cast, it's a different story.

"In Japan, they look at American hip-hop like their martial arts," he says. "It's disciplined and serious, and you have to love it and know its history. You have to know who its masters are and know all the different styles. And if you're an American hip-hop dancer who performs there, the respect you get from the audience is like no reaction you could ever get over here. We do shows there, and people are crying, saying, Thank you so much for giving that to us.' Over here, it's like, Hey, good job. Nice moves,' you know? It's not like you're doing anything important.

"There's a lot of things going on in the world that we don't have a say-so in," House continues. "But right now, hip-hop is 30 years old. It's everywhere, and the people who've made it what it is are finally getting respect. But as for what direction it goes next and what is done with it from here on out, we have complete say-so over that. It's up to the people who are doing it today, and we know now that eventually we'll get respect for what we create."

He puts a CD on the studio's stereo and works on the new moves he's got in mind for his crew.

"It'd just be nice to get a little of that respect right now," he grins.

Hollie Morgan-Garcia, who also goes by her b-girl name, Hollie Wood, adjusts her white Kangol cap and practices fluid but precise upper-body moves in the wall-length mirror.

"I'm a little nervous working with all these break-dancers," the young woman confesses, pointing out that the popping style she and Koko bring to the contests is different from the leg-flying and head-spinning of the Furious Styles Crew. "I really have to concentrate on my footwork."

Born during the Wild Style era, when break-dancing first became a hit with the masses, Hollie is too young to share Koko's memories of busting loose on the basketball court to Bambaataa and the Fat Boys. In her universe, hip-hop dancing is something that's taught in after-school dance classes and rewarded with back-up dancing gigs in Sean Paul and Big Tymers videos.

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