Breaking into the beat

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B-boying crew King Library Rockers spin together as family
text / video: Jessica Schlegelmilch / images: Basil Sar

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Music vibrates through the sunlit passageway in front of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library where a group of people bounces from right to left and up and down into flying spirals and impossible body suspensions. Each move is coordinated and calculated, but they make it look easy and natural all at the same time.

B-boying — or more commercially known as breakdancing — is a dance style originating from the streets of New York in the 1970s. The dance consists of a set of moves: freezes, threads, power moves and flares.

It takes influence from other “traditional” forms of dance like those of the Latin persuasion and even ballet. B-boying also has roots in athletics such as gymnastics and martial arts.

This dance style requires a generous amount of control, balance and strength, but it has not been recognized as a high-art dance form and is generally considered secondary to traditional forms of dance.

Andrew Yeh, who has been b-boying for seven years, said that criticizers do not see that “there is an enormous essence of musicality” that goes into breakdancing.

“We’re not just tumbling around on the ground. Everything we do has a purpose,” he said.

Perhaps its public platform as well as acceptance of people from all backgrounds is a part of its negative perception. Yeh said he believes that “it’s just really hard to break those stereotypes.” Regardless, it is these features that define it as a dance medium and set it apart in the dance-art world.

The King Library Rockers (KLR) is a group of about 50 people who meet every week to breakdance together underneath the awning at the MLK library, under the leadership of the group’s president, Mark Pereya.

The group began meeting together in 2003. In the beginning, there was tension between them and both the city and San José State, resulting in a fine for a noise complaint.

It was not until Spring 2013 that the group became more organized and it has recently been officially recognized as an SJSU student organization.

The members of KLR come from all different backgrounds.

“What brings us together is the dance,” Pereya said. “Different people are into different things and that reflects what kind of personality they are.”

Since Pereya’s presidency, the group has jointly bought T-shirts and a new stereo system for its dance practices.

When someone new wants to join the group, the group’s basis for learning is in-group teaching.

“We are very close — we want everyone to learn how to dance,” Pereya said. “If they’re good at what they’re doing we learn from them,” adding that years of experience “doesn’t matter.”

Teachers are not necessarily chosen or restricted to those members who are the “best” at breaking. “If they’ve got swag then we’ll ask them,” Pereya said.

To improve their skills, the King Library Rockers also do drills. In each drill, the dancers must hold one move for an extended period of time in order to build muscle memory and stamina. Basic training techniques such as sit-ups and push-ups are also used and some of the members are athletes in martial arts and other sports.

Injuries are not uncommon and they are the leading cause why b-boys stop breaking. Pereya, however, admits that even he starts dancing again before he is 100 percent healed.

“It’s pretty addictive,” he said. “If we hear music, we’re going to want to break.”

Traditional breakdancing music is usually hip-hop or electronic. Popular among the dance genre are “samplings” or “breakbeats.” Breakbeats take a part of a song, usually from the ‘70s, ‘80s or ‘90s and put an electronic beat to it. Anything with drums, bongo or a hard bass line is preferred.

As far as places to dance, the King Library Rockers, like most b-boy crews, are very liberal. “We just need a place with good floors,” Pereya said.

He notes that some dance studios offer open practice spots for breakers. In the future, Pereya would also like to reserve studio space at the SJSU Event Center.

Although the practices are generally freely constructed, the KLR do sometimes have organized shows, giving each individual dancer the spotlight in a large circle called a “cypher circle.”

“We come together to share the spirit and the essence of the dance,” said Andrew Nguyen, a former KLR president. “You’re omitting energy and you’re feeding off it, too. It’s a beautiful thing.”

One of Nguyen’s dreams when he served as president was to go to a dance competition called Schools for Fools in Fullerton. He said he wanted to “grab the potential I see here and bring it there. I’m glad I have Mark for that (now).”

The University of Washington holds the competition for dancers in California universities. The KLR recently participated in the SJSU-organized Spartan’s Best Dance Crew, which helped enhance recognition of the crew as a legitimate dancing group.

Pereya said “the event set the tone for us as a club” and to show that “we’re not dirty and we’re not rude. We’re b-boys and we’re dancers.”

He said that the group has been “building a lot of momentum,” in recent months. One of the group members’ goals is to get the student body to fund their trip to the Schools for Fools competition.

A more complex obstacle to overcome as a dancer in the breakdancing style is for girls who participate in this largely male-dominated art form. Rhea Mallari is a b-girl, the female title for a break-dancer. Mallari has performed in various events in her San Lorenzo community and describes herself as someone who wants to “show I can do what guys can do, too.”

Her inspiration originally came from a YouTube video of an all b-girl crew she saw in high school. People underestimate her because she is a woman but she is determined to prove them otherwise.

“People think I’m weak,” she said. “I want to prove that I am strong.”

Despite challenges, it was her fellow b-boys that encouraged her to keep pushing when she wanted to give up. Many of the King Library Rockers describe the club members as their family.

Mallari sums up the open-minded atmosphere of the group, saying, “If anyone wants to learn how to dance, just come by.”

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