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In a sweltering, cavernous gym in Miami-Dade County, a crowd of about 50 young men and women, a few small, squealing children, and one really brave grandma gathers on a Saturday night, plopping down in a small, informal circle. In the middle stand ten guys -- five on one side, five on the other -- facing each other. The wall behind them is tagged with a vibrant graffiti mural that spells out what at first looks like "floopl tints," but actually says "floor kings." Static crackles through the PA, and then... the beat drops.
When a b-boy battle gets going, it's like an exorcism. The trunk-rattling sounds of old-school hip-hop literally force their way out of the speakers and into the bodies of each dancer, one at a time, for roughly 15 minutes. Once touched, they move as if they'll explode if they slow down. A muscular guy in a white tank top nails a head spin. The crowd shouts "BOOM!" The next dancer mimics a fight move, pulling out an invisible gun and "shooting" his opponent in time with the beat. The crowd goes apeshit. If one of these guys could physically turn his head 360 degrees or levitate, surely this place would spontaneously combust.
A kid in a black knit cap jumps in and throws down footwork that almost burns a hole in the cardboard, ending in a freeze; only his right forearm touches the floor. A lanky guy on the other side mouths a silent "Oh shit" and unconsciously tries to copy the footwork before catching himself. It's so not cool to bite another dancer's move, but they watch one another intensely. And it's hard not to be mesmerized. The battle is a blur of all types of ill shit -- minute-plus head spins, back flips, Matrix-style freezes, a guy sliding across the floor on his forehead. This was Floor Kings, a b-boy and MC competition put on by Fantum and Popcorn, two members of Broward's Unique Styles Crew.
The gym was a melting pot of young kids from Miami-Dade, Broward, and beyond -- Hispanic, African-American, Asian, Indian, white, male, female -- all there to show off their 15 minutes of game. Twenty-two-year-old David Alvarado, who goes by the name Mex and lives in Sunrise, is clad in baggy jeans and a studded belt, his dark curls plastered across his forehead with battle sweat. He has been with Unique Styles Crew for two years. He's been breaking since he was 17 years old.
"When I was 17, I could throw my body around," he says. "At my age, I have to stay away from the explosive moves because my body won't allow me to keep doing them. Older b-boys beat younger b-boys because they stay clean; they're smooth. The younger b-boy thinks he has to flip three times in the air to make the crowd go wild."
To hear a 22-year-old say "at my age" seems odd. But a b-boy constantly has to advance his moves and push his body into new positions. That means injuries.
A few members have either recently had surgery or are nursing sprains or bruises. USC member Danny Garcia, aka Felix, who lives in Plantation, recently hurt his knee and had to undergo surgery.
"I was paralyzed for a few seconds once," Mex says. "I decided to jump on my head, and I used my hands to push myself up. I did it, and I couldn't feel my right hand or the right side of my body for 20 seconds. Then it went away. Our bodies do get banged up, but it's no different than playing soccer. For the most part, it's little injuries. We don't care; we'll still dance."
Breaking, which incorporates elements of jazz, tap, ballet, and martial arts, originated in the late '60s. Its origin was twofold; part of it was kids trying to copy James Brown's slick footwork, and part was an alternative to gang fighting. In 1969, hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa organized Bronx ghetto youth into a b-boy crew called Zulu Kings, a group that would rather "dance than fight." This is where the faux fight moves came from, as rival gangs had to battle without physically touching. If you turned out a move your opponent couldn't top, you won. In the late '70s, Rock Steady Crew, one of the more famous b-boy crews, added acrobatic moves like head spins to creative footwork.
Mex sees his crew's work as an extension of that old-school spirit. A b-boy, ideally, aims to combine footwork, style, creativity, and explosive power moves. Mex's style used to be more about the blow-up, the physical crowd pleaser. But now he's trying to be more conservative. "I'm starting to feel old because when a kid asks me to show him a move, I will," Mex says.
"And then I see him doing it better than me. I constantly have to change my style, so when I'm 30, I'll be beating b-boys who are 17 instead of being in a wheelchair. I was the kid who went to clubs and sat at the bar because I didn't know how to dance. B-boying opened me up. My self-esteem definitely went up."