Robot Wars

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

"I get paid $22 an hour to teach basic hip-hop choreography, so you can learn how to dance like the back-up dancers in Janet Jackson and Britney Spears videos," she says. "It's what I do." It's valuable career training for today's high school hottie: One of the girls Hollie works with recently scored a coveted slot grinding behind Christina Aguilera in her "Dirrty" video. Besides darting around town to teach her in-demand dance skills at four different locations, Hollie also takes regular trips to Los Angeles, padding her own résumé with video and concert work.

"I travel to L.A. and take classes myself so that eventually I can be out there and be a dancer," she says. Hollie's multi-ethnic good looks, her mother believes, give her an edge in nabbing those career-boosting hip-hop video jobs. She's got that sought-after exotic appearance and fly fashion sense not to mention the mad dance skills that should help her fit right in on any multi-platinum rapper's ghetto-fabulous yacht.

That's not to say Hollie's commitment to hip-hop is any less real than that of House or the other b-boys and b-girls in the room. If anything, her keen awareness of her marketability has as much to do with hip-hop culture today as an ability to flow rhymes or spray art from an aerosol can. After all, it's hard to rock out every day to rhymes rife with alligator-upholstered Bentleys, red gold medallions and St. Tropez weekends without eventually sniffing for a little Cheddar yourself.

The break-dancing contest was held in, of all places, an Arthur Murray Dance Studio.
Emily Piraino
The break-dancing contest was held in, of all places, an Arthur Murray Dance Studio.
Emily Piraino

It's Saturday night at the Arthur Murray Dance Studio, midway through the b-boy summit, and a curious Robert Shields has just arrived to check out the competition with his friend Flash X, an early member of the legendary L.A. Lockers who now lives in Arizona.

As teens in Survivor-style bandannas, Puma track pants and Lugz sneakers jostle by the old cats without offering so much as a glance, Shields, clearly used to being recognized, is already beginning to feel sadly out of place.

"These kids don't know who I am," he shrugs. Worse, the rapid-fire acrobatics of the dancers, in which Shields had hoped to spot some of his influence, have so far left him largely unimpressed.

"Where's the theatrics?" he complains. "Most of these kids are so concerned with looking tough, they don't let any of their personality show on their faces."

Finally, Shields gets what he came for in the person of Flattop, a Venice Beach street performer, who bounces out on the floor wearing an oversize striped suit and a Larry Blackmon-circa-'85 hairstyle perfectly befitting his nickname. Rocking to Roger Troutman & Zapp's 1983 funk hit "Doo Wa Ditty," Flattop engages the supportive crowd with a short dance most notable for its pauses. Dropping down to a split, the nattily dressed dancer takes a full four measures to rise again, as if depending on some invisible helium balloons to lift his muscular frame.

Suddenly inspired, Shields darts behind the sound system to meet the dancer and, sure enough, Flattop turns out to be a fan of the mime master. Between comparing moves and offering mutual admiration, the two new friends begin plotting the future of break-dancing.

"This is the kind of stuff that needs to go on the next time around put a little humor back into it," Flattop says.

"I'd like to get these kids going, and maybe even do some classes," Shields exclaims. "Get their heads thinking. Get them to see it's not just here," he says, pointing to his feet, then to his head, "but here, too."

Sitting on the floor, meanwhile, a group of younger dancers is being interviewed for a video being produced for the event. As if overhearing the old hoofer, one thuggish-looking white teen pokes his thumb to his chest and tells the cameraman, "It's in here. This kind of dancing ain't something you can just learn in a dance studio. It's gotta be inside you."

Says another young dancer, "In the beginning, you might get into dancing just to be cool and get the girls. But eventually, you become it. Suddenly you wake up and say, I am hip-hop. I eat, drink and sleep hip-hop.'"

"It's not like other dance styles," observes Koko. "It's not like ballet, where it's very stringent and disciplined. I mean, the way a ballet dancer dances in Phoenix is the exact same way they dance in France. It's the same way they danced 50 or 100 years ago. But this dancing," he pauses, struggling for an analogy. "It's like Kool-Aid: You like yours unsweetened, he likes his with sugar, she like hers with lemon. Well, bring it on! You take the basics and add your own individual flavor."

It's that "flava" that Flash X, now a fledgling record remixer (his latest project is a dance remix of the current Common/Mary J. Blige single), picks up while watching the young dancers update some of the moves his generation invented.

"I see some recycling," he allows. "But they're also putting a new spin on it. It's like remixing: If you're gonna rework something, take what was great about the original, but turn it into something different. It's all about being creative. And I'm seeing that."

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