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."

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Jimmy Magahern
Contact: Jimmy Magahern