Every battle is a story. It starts with a swagger, builds power through dramatic tension, and closes with an exclamation point — a statement that the warrior is done, for now.
In the world of competitive break-dancing, the story’s told in 45 to 90 seconds. One night last weekend, 84 dancers organized into two-person crews sweated out their stories at the Cirque Events Center. Before them, 24 others competed in the street-dance technique known as poppin’, demonstrating their prowess in the rapid, robotic moves of that style.
The Mighty Four International B-Boy/B-Girl Competition (the "B" stands for "break") was the culminating event in the sixth-anniversary celebration of 206 Zulu, the Seattle chapter of the international hip-hop organization Universal Zulu Nation. The competitors were multi-racial, female and male. They battled for respect and for money: $500 in the poppin’ contest and $2,000 in the two-on-two.
Universal Zulu Nation was established by hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa in the mid-1970s as a means of bringing together oppressed peoples, particularly of African ancestry. Its outreach today is worldwide and multiethnic, and its mission is to empower youth through a practice of hip-hop and to create positive change in communities through knowledge and education. Zulu Nation members break-dance, deejay, emcee, write graffiti, and educate, write, and mobilize people to support community development and political uplift through and around hip-hop.
The Seattle chapter formed in 2004. “The significance of having a Seattle chapter was that it was able to help unify different camps and crews,” says deejay and community organizer King Khazm, who leads 206 Zulu.
Seattle’s hip-hop community is small but highly diverse. Participants practice, perform, and teach hip-hop’s arts at a variety of venues including community centers, churches, schools, and all-ages and 21-and-over clubs. Often, participants would work alone and not interact with the larger community. “People started to see the importance of collectivity and being able to support each other on a larger level,” says Khazm. “It was just something that was needed, not just for the hip-hop community but for the youth who need something positive to go towards.”
The chapter now supports a radio show, a variety of educational events, and shows featuring hip-hop’s core elements: b-boying and b-girling, deejaying, emceeing, and graffiti writing. Its anniversary celebration included a hip-hop education summit for youth, a live graffiti writing expo, deejay and musical performances, and tributes to hip-hop heroes, including James “TalkSick” Sullivan, a 206 Zulu member who died in October after contracting swine flu and pneumonia. Attendees ranged from toddlers scribbling Crayola ink onto butcher block paper to 60-year-olds feeling hip-hop’s positive vibe for the first time.
Love and peace may contradict more popular perceptions of hip-hop focused on commercial rap music that glorifies consumerism, hyper-sexualizes women, and advocates violence. Zulu’s goal is to counteract that form of hip-hop. Many of Seattle’s current hip-hop community leaders grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, and recall break-dancing after school at Westlake Center, writing graffiti in empty spaces, and rapping at the Pike Place Market. Many were inner-city youth who found in hip-hop an escape from potential trouble and a mission for their life.
One b-boy — Marcus Sharpe, who goes by Fidget — for instance studied salsa, tango and a variety of other dances at Ewajo Dance Centre in the Central Area before embracing hip-hop at age 12. He and two other teens founded their b-boy crew, Fraggle Rock, at age 15, and now operate a record label, video production company, entertainment company, and clothing line. Three of Seattle's approximately half-dozen competitive b-girls — Anna Beth Nagy (Naj), Colleen Ross (Bean), and Mary Lee Nagy (Lee) — are among the crew’s seven Seattle members. Naj and Bean have competed in international competitions and Naj now travels regularly with the crew to national competitions.
“I turned to b-boying after I’d tried out every other dance,” says Fidget, “all in an effort to find myself.”
If hip-hop promotes self-discovery and peace, why is the main event a battle? Simply, because the battle is not a fight between enemies. It’s a fight within the b-boy or b-girl that comes out, as a dance and the story told of the dancer within the dance.
The story begins with a dance move called a top-rock. Surrounded by rings of spectators, dancers enter a circle called a cipher, moving to the hard-thumping, primal beat created by deejays working turntables. The top-rock is the walk, a stylized walk that lets everyone — adversaries, spectators, and supporters — know what the dancer is about. It can be accompanied by a smile or a scowl. But the underlying message is, “You might think you’re good, but I am better. Watch this now.”
The middle of the story is the footwork: Rapid, intricate movements that take the dancer to the floor, with the toughest, most powerful moves they are capable of performing: head spins, hand stands, somersaults, flips. The final touch is a "freeze" or "lock" – a swift closing point that Fidget explains “lets everyone know I’m done, for now.”
The doors to the Mighty Four battle last Sunday (Feb. 14) opened at 6 p.m. Within minutes, dancers were on the floor. The poppin’ contest began two and a half hours later, and the two-on-two battle started a little after 10 p.m.
The 42 teams in the two-on-two battle fought the first round two teams at a time. They faced off in the cipher, danced hard for approximately a minute each, and were eliminated by veteran b-boy judges who dropped the field to eight. Shortly before midnight, the last two teams battled for the $2,000 prize.
Battles developed in the 1970s when b-boys crews from various neighborhoods in New York City would fight, not with fists but with moves that came to comprise break-dancing’s initial repertoire. As the art attracted a following, formal battles were organized with cash prizes.
Behind the battle, however, always lurks the opposite: peace and love. Adversaries end their fights with handshakes and hugs. At the after-parties that follow, they dance together.
“Battling, dancing, everything is about relationships, friendships,” says Fidget. “I have b-boys from all around the world who come and stay with me and I don’t even know their first or last name.
“There’s an understanding, a community, of what you’re dedicating your life to and trying to be.”
That shared understanding forms the core of hip-hop. In the early days of breaking, dancers would perform on concrete sidewalks or at parks. Spectators and other dancers would form a circle, creating a safe space where dancers could let go of their inhibitions and express the rage, the loneliness, the joy, or frustration residing within themselves without fear. Ciphers today exist for similar purposes. Within those spaces, hip-hop artists discuss personal emotions and the dialogue on solutions plaguing their communities. And they sing, write, and dance. Dancers come to battles knowing the competition won’t begin for at least a couple hours. So they form ciphers and begin conversing, with their bodies.
The anniversary event receives funding from the City of Seattle, numerous hip-hop sponsors, and contributions from 206 Zulu members and supporters. The organization maintains a Web site of hip-hop resources, classes, and events, and welcomes new volunteers and participants.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!