Robot Wars

In the last place anyone would expect to unearth hipness the Arthur Murray Dance Studio in central Phoenix one of the West's biggest annual hip-hop cultural events is halfway through its weekendlong stint. In a school cafeteria-size room normally reserved for slimming seniors with herniated disks, nearly 700 kids, most in their late teens and early twenties, gather for the Furious Styles Crew's Sixth Anniversary B-Boy Summit.

Like other events that have sprung up around the country to celebrate hip-hop dancing the Rock Steady Anniversary, Freestyle Session, Breakbeats, Mighty 4, Out For Fame the summit is a giant break-dancing contest that brings together all of the best breakers, poppers and lockers from the Southwest and West Coast in a fast-paced weekend showcasing some of the street's wildest moves.

Over a bone-rattling sound system, an agile DJ spins bass-heavy favorites like Gang Starr's "Full Clip" and Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force's "Breakers Revenge." Hundreds of teens dressed in baggy camos, do-rags and graffiti-plastered tee shirts some with slogans like "got skills?" are gathered in a huge circle, watching others take their short 30-second turn on the floor.

One after another, the kinetic young b-boys and b-girls (so named because of the hard-driving "break" section of the records the original practitioners saved their most impressive moves for) swagger to the dance floor and slam into their routines. A tiny Asian girl in an Atlanta Braves cap swings her arms like the star of a '70s martial arts movie on fast-forward and then drops to the floor, tucking her arm and shoulder back on one side before flipping onto her head and spinning. A Latino boy in old-school Pro Keds swan dives to the floor, flips onto his back, pumps his shoulders up by his arms and thrusts his lower body into orbit, windmilling back and forth so maniacally you'd swear his torso had been reattached by Hasbro.

"The great thing about street dancing in Phoenix is the natural mix we get here," says a local dancer who goes by the name Mr. Groove. "Because by the time a move gets out here from L.A. or New York, it already isn't in its purest form. So we have to take what we got and work within the parameters of what we think it should have been. And that just makes us more creative."

The moves fly like the quick-edited clips of a hip-hop music video.

"That's where a lot of us learn the moves," says Hollie Morgan-Garcia, a 20-year-old popper who arrives at the contest in a tight designer-torn top and freshly braided hair, looking like she stepped off of a video shoot herself. "You usually only see a few split seconds of a dancer's moves in a video, so that's why we learn to keep it quick."

"It's like sprinting," says House, leader of the Phoenix-based Furious Styles Crew and organizer of the event. "People think it's really easy, because the dancers make it look easy. But then when you try it, you discover you really gotta have the stamina. You can't go out there and dance for, like, five minutes at a time. It's like a sport that you have to pace yourself for."

House, who won't disclose his age or real name, but who admits he's old enough to have danced to Bambaataa's 1982 masterpiece "Planet Rock" when it came out, notes that a good majority of the competing dancers are between 15 and 17.

"Of course," he adds, "it doesn't hurt to be young."

For an event teeming with youthful energy, the stodgy Arthur Murray ballroom seems like an odd venue. As it turns out, the Phoenix chapter of the 90-year-old dance studio franchise was not the first choice.

"We wanted to have it at Eastlake Park," says House. There, in south Phoenix, it's not uncommon to see freestylers throwing down cardboard platforms on an average weekend and practicing their head spins, back swipes, freezes and corkscrews. House also contacted a couple of nightclubs while looking for a suitably hip place to hold the annual b-boy blowout. Each time, however, his request was met with the same guarded concern.

"People get really scared when I talk about booking a hip-hop event," he says. "They're real hesitant to throw these events at the recreation areas. They'll be like, No, no, we can't have it. The kids from this neighborhood aren't going to like kids from other parts coming to the park. There'll be trouble.'

"But then, after it's over," House adds, "and they get to feel the energy and the positive attitudes going around, they're always like, Omigod! You had all these African-American kids and Asian kids and Hispanic kids and white kids together, and they all got along so well!' To us in the hip-hop culture, it's just normal. Like, Why are you acting so surprised? I mean, it's 2003.' But there's still this misconception among older people that makes it hard to get sponsorship, or even just support."

Indeed, while hip-hop music and culture have caught on with virtually every race and class, the one gap it hasn't yet bridged is generational. The crowd at the b-boy summit is like a microcosm of all of the Valley's ethnic groups, but there's a noticeable absence of anyone older than 30. Even Morgan-Garcia's mom, a proud parent whose living room walls are adorned with poster-size prints of her Hollie decked out in stylish b-girl gear, wouldn't dare approach this madhouse.

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.

"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. . . ."

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!"

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.

"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.

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."

Flash, whose fertile L.A. Lockers also turned out choreographer Toni "Hey Mickey" Basil and Fred Berry ("Rerun" on the TV show What's Happening!!), comes from the same "make 'em laugh" school of entertaining to which Shields subscribes. The Lockers, in fact, remain best known for their Basil-choreographed, break-dance-meets-ballet performance on an early Saturday Night Live, which had the baggy-pants street dancers back-flipping over tutu-wearing ballerinas to the music of Swan Lake.

But as Shields, like many of his generation, sees today's hip-hop kids spinning on their bandanna-wrapped heads, and shrugs, almost defensively, "We already saw all this stuff in the '80s," the fortysomething Flash buzzes around the room, making contacts with many of the dancers, convinced these kids have discovered new, profitable directions that the original break-dancers never imagined.

"I'd love to get into commercials, for stuff like Gatorade, Pepsi, Nike whatever," he bubbles. "I see that they're respecting our art right now, even in things like that. And all the videos you're seeing are really showing it. I saw Wiggles in the latest Missy Elliott video he's a friend of mine. And that's cool. You're starting to see moves that were made popular by guys like me and him and people are actually starting to seek us out!"

Watching old-timers Shields and Flash arrive at the event and spin off into entirely different directions is like monitoring a fascinating sociological experiment. Two influential figures are dropped into a scene they helped spawn and, within minutes, one assumes the role of a professor as the other transforms into a card-collecting groupie. While Shields spends the rest of the evening brainstorming ideas for bringing the show biz back to break-dancing, Flash rushes about, meeting the young dancers and circulating his e-mail address, jonesing for a spot in the next Pringles commercial any of them may catch wind of.

"What wonderful, lovely bodies to mold and make into stuff," beams Shields, getting ready to head back to his second home in Scottsdale. "But there's so much more they could be doing!"

"Here's my address," Flash says, handing a flier to a group of kids standing by the table where a vendor sells break-dancing videos and tee shirts. "E-mail me!"

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