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Antonio Berumen spends most of his rehearsal time upside down, spinning and bouncing and bending his body into various positions -- all of which appear equally painful. His fiercest skill: hopping on his right hand. His record: 75 consecutive hops.
In April, Japan's Nippon TV network flew the 22-year-old b-boy to Tokyo to appear on its new show, World's Best. Berumen was expecting to test his stamina, but, when it came time to film, he learned he'd be taking on three competitors -- a b-boy from Japan and circus performers from Montreal and China -- in a 10-meter race.
I was preparing to go for distance, Berumen reports, so when it came down to it, I had to go on speed, which was something I was not working on, and my leg ended up tapping the ground about halfway through.
The trip was excellent, though. I was treated like a star.
Not bad for a guy who's never taken a dance class.
Born in Mexico City and living in Phoenix since age 5, Berumen admits that he auditioned for Nebellen by accident -- he drove a friend to the audition and was talked into trying out. His only pre-Nebellen dance experience was competing in b-boy battles, and the concept of choreography intimidated him.
It used to take me two weeks to learn eight counts, he says. But now, in his second season with Nebellen, Berumen keeps up with the best of them.
When he's not hand hopping, he's spinning on his head -- no hands required -- propelling his body by alternately bending and extending his legs, like an inverted figure skater. Cuts and bruises are all in a day's work, but he no longer gets gravel lodged in his scalp -- he straps on a helmet before putting his head to the ground.
It was something to do, he says. Back then, I used to be a little knucklehead -- getting into trouble, getting into gang stuff and all that.
At 14, he says, he was caught lifting pants from JC Penney and did community service through the first offenders program. At 16, dancing began to distract him from gang life.
That's all I was able to do. That was all I could think about. Go to school, do my work, and then go home and practice, wait for the next competition.
These days, he doesn't drink, smoke or touch drugs. He's prime role model material. Through his job with Phoenix Parks and Rec, Berumen supervises participants of Project SCRUB (Stop Crime Remove Urban Blight), which provides work for youth offenders ordered to complete community service. You gotta be tough, he says. You have to tell them exactly what to do.
Despite his rhythm and street cred, Berumen admits to being a bit nerdish. During rehearsal breaks and at dinner with his troupe mates, he's buried in books such as Nuestra Arma Es Nuestra Palabra (Our Weapon Is Our Word), a 456-page chronicle of the Zapatistas rebellion in the Mexican state of Chiapas. It's his idea of leisure reading. His red tee shirt pictures Emiliano Zapata and the words Rage Against the Machine. Next on his reading list: The War Against Oblivion: The Zapatista Chronicles.
But Berumen isn't all business. While learning the salsa at a Nebellen company class, Berumen lowers his partner into the splits, then leaps over her, landing in identical splits and raising his hands in a grand ta da! finale.
And at Nebellen's April show in Alabama, he grabbed a mike backstage and belted out I Will Always Love You. The mike was hot; the singing, apparently, was not.
Awful, Ellen Rath recalls. Just awful.