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On a grassy patch outside his Hoffman Gardens public housing project in early-1980s Hialeah, teenager Ricardo Fernandez spent hours practicing break-dancing moves. Little did he know he'd work over the next two decades to keep the form alive.
The Havana-born Fernandez -- a.k.a. Speedy Legs-- came to South Florida in February 1967. His family eventually settled in Hialeah after his mother moved him around, and he attended four different elementary schools. He kept getting into fights and took up martial arts as self-defense.
"The fights used to come to me," he recalls, "because I was a quiet kid and I kept to myself."
Breaking changed that. By 1977, he began to lose interest in the fly John Travolta suits and disco moves that his aunt taught him. Two years later, he saw street dancing for the first time, when guys in the neighborhood opened up their Cadillac trunks with thumping sound systems and began popping (a robotic-looking form of street dancing), which was the craze at the time.
In 1981, Speedy Legs met Flex, a transplanted New York City teen who was part of the legendary Floormasters crew. Flex was his b-boy inspiration. "When I tried to get into it, I didn't know what I was doing," Speedy Legs says. "I didn't know if it was fad or if it was what I really wanted to do. Then when I finally embraced it, I started training every day."
Saturday mornings on the tarmac at Hialeah-Miami Lakes Senior High School, Speedy would practice spin moves on the lawn of his housing project until after midnight, when his mother called him into the house. And then he'd showcase his stuff at parties or the skating rink.
"I used to run an extension cord all the way from my house to this basketball court right here in the mid-1980s and power up the neighborhood with my sound system," he says, pointing out a set of nets at his former projects.
In 1982, Flex introduced him to fellow breaker Ozrock. Speedy Legs credits his buddy with taking breaking out west, where popping and locking, the fluid, moonwalking-type of dancing that Michael Jackson popularized, dominated. When breaking reemerged in the '80s, Speedy Legs says, it brought these two forms with it.
"We never thought this dance would leave the street," he notes. "This was something we thought was going to last forever in the community center. We were like ghetto celebrities."
When Ozrock returned to Florida in 1985, break dancing had fallen out of favor. "We wanted to bring breaking back," Speedy Legs says. "We didn't like that breaking, all of a sudden, was not a part of hip-hop anymore." So he and Ozrock journeyed to New York City to find the old b-boys from the infamous Rock Steady crew. "When I went up there, nobody was doing it anymore," Speedy Legs laments. "Everybody was into house and free-style dance music. I was excited but at the same time a little disappointed, because I didn't run into any of the people that I thought were still doing it. I felt it was my mission to continue. So I came back here."
Speedy wanted to put together a show with all the components of hip-hop -- graffiti, break dancing, DJing, MCing, and rapping. But it wasn't until 1992 that he would get the project started. That same year, Speedy Legs met hip-hop DJ Domination, and they started bringing breaking back into the clubs, he remembers. "Homeboy started throwing on all these old break records -- 'Just Begun,' 'Give it Up,' 'Turn It Loose' -- and people would be in a circle on the floor. I started breaking, and a bunch of young kids would watch me. And some people would dis me -- like some people would throw beer bottles on the floor so we couldn't break." They soon befriended a graffiti artist from Louisiana named Seam (a member of the Miami Chapter of Zulu Nation, a collective of b-boys, rappers, and graffiti artists started by Afrika Bambaataa), and the three started Hip Hop Elements.
"I wanted to call us 'Hip Hop Elements' because we represent everything in hip-hop," Speedy says. "We don't just break. We do everything, and hip-hop should be recognized as a whole, not just as the piece of it which is called rap." He wanted to turn break dancing into a sport with a competitive edge -- a level it had already reached in Europe. So he started an international b-boy masters pro-am competition in Miami.
In 1993, new crews were emerging in South Florida. Speedy taught basic break-dancing moves to Trol, Quickie, Charlie, Pee Wee, Styles, and Stiff Rock -- who started Streetmasters, a second generation of b-boy crews to come out of Miami. Other crews such as the Flipside Kids, Ground Zero Crew, and Skill Methods would follow.
"A b-boy will last for five years; then he will fade out," Speedy states. "And then a new generation will come up again. So every five years, a new generation of dancers come out of the woodwork.
"I always say, this breaking shit could end tomorrow," Speedy says. "So will I still be who I am? Oh, to the fullest. I still will be Speedy Legs, even though I'd be working at Home Depot or wherever. I'll still go to the community center after 5 p.m. and still put on events for the young people and give them a stage to express themselves. I love to see people under one roof having a good time sharing their skills and knowledge and their culture. I don't regret one moment of it."