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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."
High self-esteem, though, can come off as cockiness. "We use our feet as brushes," Mex says. "You get people who say, 'You're whack,' and it's like 'No, you are. Check yourself.' That's the tradition from back in the day. It's all in the way you carry yourself."
Twenty-one-year-old Phillip Albuquerque, whose b-boy name is Spee-D, has been with USC for about two years. He says he's the flipside of Mex. "I'm the power guy of the group first," he says. "I try to do the flares, head spins. But I'm just getting over a neck injury, and my arm is still kind of weak, so I do the footwork for now. But I think I'm a pretty well-rounded b-boy."
Though a few members live in Miami and one in Orlando, USC collectively reps the 954, with the bulk of the crew scattered between Plantation and Deerfield Beach. The average age of the crew is 19, and currently, it has 12 members.
Broward residents and twins Namek and Squid, as well as Trigger, are the founders. Seventeen-year-old Popcorn is, naturally, a popper and regarded as one of the best in America. The other eight combine footwork and power moves.
With that many unique styles in one crew, you can imagine the pressure at a battle. "There used to be a lot of rivalry here, but it's getting better," Mex says. "The scene used to be rough, but the younger b-boys seem to just want to have fun -- no beef, no drama."
Mex cites the jams he's thrown across Florida, such as Outbreak and Civil Warz in Fort Lauderdale, as a source of the change in attitude and camaraderie among b-boys.
"I just do the jams to bring Florida together, and the younger crews decided to participate," he says. "I'm bringing people from out of state too."
USC has done some damage in and out of Florida. It won first place at Pro-Am in Miami, Breaklanta in Atlanta, and 3 the Hard Way in North Carolina and placed at Spinfactor in Boston and B-boy City 10 in Texas. This weekend, Mex is putting on a jam called Yo! Pack It Up! at USC's practice space in Pembroke Pines. The winners go to Rhode Island to represent Florida in the Spinfactor National Championship Finals.
The possibility of breaking becoming a mainstream commodity is very real; ESPN has started televising b-boy competitions, bringing local and national crews into the spotlight. Pop tartress Christina Aguilera featured b-boys in a recent video. Then there are urban dance movies like You Got Served, in which dancers battled with choreographed hip-hop video moves. Some b-boys are concerned that movies like that diminish the grit and creativity of old-school breaking. But Mex says the current state of hip-hop music is more to blame. "People think hip-hop is bling and spinners," he says. "In reality, it's not like that. It's about b-boying, graffiti, MCing, and DJing. I rarely listen to hip-hop -- unless it's the real stuff -- but I listen to the Cure, Radiohead, and Depeche Mode too. You know, there are people who like the Cure who break. I mean, like, I used to have a mullet. You look at my crew and it's like 'How are these guys friends?' I tell some of them, 'Ya know, I wouldn't hang out with you if we weren't b-boying.' That's the common thing. We identify as one."
As USC continues to defy stereotypes as well as gravity, Mex admits he's not nervous about breaking going mainstream. As long as there's a floor, he and his crew will be down.