It's a scene straight out of S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders. The greasers are gearing up to fight the soches in the big rumble and everyone's dancing about, combing their hair just right, checking to see if they look tough, laughing and slapping each other on the back. And, of course, everyone's waiting for the one guy in the gang who's late before they can peel off to the symbolic equivalent of a dirty, vacant lot.
"Where the hell is Quba?"
We've all been asking for the past half hour. It's a miserably hot afternoon outside the house of one of Soul Mechanics' three Denver members. Quba was supposed to host the gathering; instead, he ran off at the last moment to snag a pair of shoes at the mall. His mother and sister graciously entertain, while tapping feet take the boys back and forth between the cool indoor shade and acrid streetside.
Finally, the vibe, thick with electricity and impatience, is broken by the sound of bells, one block up.
It's not Quba, but better: It's the ice cream man. Crisis averted. Everyone surrounds the cart and digs for their favorite flavor. The only bad to come out of the moment is when Vicious Vee, the baby of the crew, drips some pia colada down his new shirt and plaid pants, onto his red Chuck Taylors.
In the competitive breakdancing world, image is everything. A lot of b-boys and b-girls and dream of being the best dancer in the world the problem is, too many think they are. And that's where battles, like tonight's, come into play.
Hungry, hungry flip-os
Soul Mechanics are Colorado Springs' premier b-boy crew. Ten members strong, the boys have won the last three events in which they've competed as a full crew, and in the three short years since becoming a family, they've forged a national reputation.
Focus One and Reach 1ne have known one another since high school; they, Munchie, Quba and Dela have been breaking for over a decade. Jake the Ripper just returned from an exhibition in South Korea, where he was a guest of their government, and half the crew is competing in the world-famous B-boy Summit in Los Angeles this September.
As the boys tell it, they even caught Denver crew, GWT (Get With This) napping and now they own the region.
"We were the hungry guys from a city that nobody's heard of," says Reach 1ne. "We didn't get any love. We had to go out and prove ourselves."
For a b-circuit city, it's nothing short of remarkable to stand level with or above a larger metropolis in the scene.
"Anywhere we've been, they already know about us," says Jake the Ripper. "GWT pushed us around for a long time, but now we have their respect."
Outside of formal competitions, the neighboring crews meet a lot in open circles (see glossary, p. 18) at concerts, clubs and hip-hop events. In many ways, they've helped one another come up and create a legitimate scene in Colorado. Even though the talk and body language are tough, everyone tries to stay civil outside the circle.
Occasionally, scuffles do break out in the heat of battle, but as a Brooklyn b-boy in the hip-hop cult film The Freshest Kids points out, "If a person can't handle themselves in battle, they don't deserve to be called a b-boy."
Don't call it a comeback
B-boying stands as one of the four core elements of hip-hop, along with graffitiing, DJing and MCing. Back in the day, a true b-boy short for "break boy" mastered all four elements. Some community insiders call beatboxing the fifth element of hip-hop, while others insist the vocal percussion is only a sub-talent of DJing. Tight threads and fashion also fall under elemental consideration, but what flies in one crew might be challenged by another.
The entire movement inarguably traces its roots to'70s New York City ghettos, with several family tree-branches stemming from that scene. Rock Steady Crew and other hip-hop originators became living legends, and now cities worldwide have become synonymous with certain crews in the underground.
"People think hip-hop died down [after the mass commercial explosion of the early '80s], but it just went underground," says Focus One, the co-founder of Soul Mechanics and "godfather" to other members. "Hip-hop's been back. If you haven't been around it, though, you wouldn't know the soul that's put into it."
Focus One graffed before he began dancing. He currently runs with a graffiti crew locally known as the Day Star Tribe, which is responsible for the West Side Tattoo, F-N Jeep and Wooglin's Deli tags around town. He's fought a recurrent knee injury and traveled the most of any Soul Mechanics member. But approaching 30, and a father of five, he admits he's distanced himself from the scene lately. Other members whisper the "r" word when asked about him.
"I'm not exactly retiring," he says. "There are plenty of b-boys in their late 30s who're nasty as ever. B-boying is my soul. I'm always going to dance when I hear music, but I need to start focusing on my family."
Three years ago, when he helped form Soul Mechanics out of solo dancers and members of other crews, Focus One opened a coffee shop on Colorado Avenue. Designed to be a local epicenter for dancing, the shop, also called Soul Mechanics, ultimately failed as the boys took off, growing into the type of crew that can top rock for two hours before even touching their power moves.
Looking back at his original hopes for the shop and crew, Focus cites losing some battles as a necessary evil.
"If you're always winning, you're not learning anything. You lose more than you win.
"But Soul Mechanics isn't just about winning comps. When I leave a circle, I want people saying, "Man, did you see what that guy did?'"
Unlike mainstream gangster rap, which glorifies violence, hip-hop began as a revolutionary movement away from the bleakness of the ghettos, with a focus on self-expression. Thirty years later, b-boying brought some members of Soul Mechanics away from drugs and unproductive idle time into a constructive, yet still highly charged, environment.
"It's a super-positive culture," Jake says, adding that he doesn't know where he'd be without b-boying.
"But confrontation is the key to the scene. Battle is personal. But we battle with our skills and try to stick to the form."
The demands of the lifestyle are rigorous, particularly when there's a drive to move up in the scene. On par with the dedication that aspiring bands must have, Soul Mechanics regularly dedicate up to 15 hours a week outside day jobs to hit a homemade, cardboard-padded square of linoleum in Reach 1ne's garage. Before a big competition, like tonight's, that time commitment usually doubles.
As four of 10 crew members are family men, trips to babysitters en route to practice are common. They rely on crew moms and girlfriends for understanding and support. Many members concede that it's especially difficult to find a balance between their passion and daily responsibilities, though Jake jokes: "We met our girls through b-boying ... "
The implied finish: " ... they knew what they were getting into."
Philosophy of the dance
For anyone who's never happened upon an open circle or seen b-boys live, the spectacle may be best described as body movement as ritual combat. Beginning with their top rock (see glossary, page 18), b-boys and girls will match beats with swift footwork, then drop into a floor routine, which combines ground shuffling with power or blow-up moves. Headspins, flips, gymnastic acrobatics, vaults and picture-perfect inverted freezes are the language of upstaging one another. Usually, a big blow-up serves as a climactic finish for a round; open circles may stay active for hours. A true victory doesn't come in one move, but in fluid consistency.
Much of what makes Soul Mechanics vibe together as a family stems from a core, shared philosophy of the dance. It would be fair to label the group "traditional," as relative to the fundamentals and symbology laid out by the East Coast's founding fathers. Many kids coming up in the b-boy world today fail to research their roots and head straight for graduation, according to Focus One. But all blow-up minus any classical theory does not make a b-boy.
"You can't have new-school with out old-school," says Focus. "It's encrypted in the dance. It's not about the tricks, it's about the dance. A lot of kids just want to go out and do the sickest move and say, "I killed it,' but they're forgetting about all the other things that make up b-boying. They're forgetting about the culture."
He insists that the open circle determines what type of b-boy you are. "We live for the open circle."
In order to refine their collective years of knowledge and become "official," as Jake puts it, Soul Mechanics members recently pooled $100 each to fly renowned Florida b-boy, Elmo, from the Streetmaster Crew, to Colorado Springs for a weekend training.
"Elmo taught us the original New York dance," says Vicious Vee. "He taught us traditional moves, how to dress and how to carry our style."
Like modern-day Samurai, crew members eat, breathe and sleep their trade. When they travel and dance, they give one another constructive criticism and talk shop incessantly. When they chose to come together under one banner, it was a move to place crew identity above individual identity.
"We look at who's tight and who's hungry," says Jake. "We're a family to help each other come up. It's the same philosophy when we dance."
Into enemy territory
Back in Denver, with Quba finally on board, Soul Mechanics' vehicle procession ends at a dimly lit community center gymnasium, mobbed with boisterous spectators and high-school-aged b-boys from as far away as Albuquerque. Below raised basketball nets and a lofted judges' platform, a small dance circle hosts a series of two-on-two battles that precede the 15-minute battle between Soul Mechanics and GWT.
The great majority of the younger kids in the room look up to GWT; they're the home team, though Soul Mechanics do elicit a fairly warm welcome from a handful of b-boys as they file in through the back door.
As the two-on-twos wrap up in the competition circle, Soul Mechanics form a casual open circle at the back of the gym to warm up. Kids jump in, then scatter about the area, stretching and occasionally tuning in to the two-on-twos. The classic hip-hop version of "Apache." originally a 1960s Brit-pop song, blares in the background.
After half an hour, most of the boys have sweat rings on their shirts. Stooping over with hands on their knees, or crouching down, balancing on the balls of their feet, they rest. They've hit stride.
Before the battle begins, the crew steps into a loose huddle outside for a final discussion on tactics and strategy. Earlier in the afternoon, Munchie had pulled me aside to make sure I understood the significance of this battle. "This is a historic day. It's been a while in the making."
More than once, the boys have insisted that GWT is predictable. Nobody conveys anything that could be construed as a put-down, as mutual respect is a tested virtue among the b-boys, but they use neutral terms like "a difference in philosophy" when speaking of GWT. The general consensus reached before battle is to let GWT come hard with all their flashy power moves while holding back with solid top rock. Then ... smoke 'em.
One of GWT's members, Ray Ray, apparently gained notoriety by appearing on the FOX reality show "30 Seconds to Fame." His name surfaces most often in the huddle; it's clear that everyone wants a piece of him.
Once inside, Soul Mechanics mass on their side of the circle before meeting GWT in the center for cordial hugs and handshakes. The friendly coin-toss moment masks years of mutual enmity.
As soon as the 20 boys pull apart, things get pretty then they get pretty ugly.
Power meets patience
Within the first two minutes of the battle, it becomes clear that GWT has choreographed and planned their entire routine, like cheerleaders in a halftime performance. Two to three guys jump out in synchronized steps, and everyone launches directly into power moves without much top rock or setup. But they're tight, well-timed and flashy.
The crowd their crowd devours the candy with regal applause. The judges on high, behind graffiti banners and card tables, smile coolly. The surrounding crowd "oooes" and "ohhhes" and waves arms. Wrist-snaps and pointed fingers demand: "Answer that."
Soul Mechanics stick to their plan, with measured top rock and modest floor moves. One by one, they take turns heading in; nobody really blows up. Their fluid dynamic goes wholly unrewarded by the hostile audience, as no singular spectacular move gives them reason to cheer.
At what must be the halfway point, GWT sneaks a toddler dressed as a b-boy into the middle of the circle. The child puts up some moves, and the crowd hoots and squeals with pleasure. But Soul Mechanics have seen this stunt before. To them, it's old news, and the lack of originality combined with the crowd's reaction changes the dynamic.
Things grow noticeably more intense. Dela dances directly in front of GWT's line, nearly touching noses with many of their crew, and Jake half-interrupts Ray Ray's routine by parodying his moves on the sideline.
Suddenly, the two sides close in on each other. As in a sitcom when someone has said something loud and inappropriate, the music scratches and stops. An event coordinator hops on the microphone, saying that the speakers are malfunctioning, just as the circle suddenly breaks into a pushing match.
Everything descends into chaos, as the b-boys step toe-to-toe and begin a less graceful dance one that quickly disappoints and angers the crowd, which boos loudly. Fortunately, no one throws a punch. Soon, an outspoken mother from the crowd forces her way onto the microphone and begins maniacally preaching about non-violence.
GWT is done, Soul Mechanics never really got started, and the crowd, of course, blames the outside crew for instigating. Fifteen minutes aren't even up yet. Most of the Soul Mechanics crew had only stepped out once. Randm Rok, the crew's popper, never got to slide his vintage Hush Puppies across the floor, or to drop any hat tricks.
The battle couldn't have gone worse for nine guys who just minutes ago were so hopeful and confident. Nobody had wanted or expected this.
A few days after the Denver fiasco, Reach 1ne calls me to apologize and to deconstruct the event. The whole crew is still feeling the sting of the battle, he says, and the members don't want the public thinking that occurrences like this are the norm, or that this is what b-boying is about.
To some extent, the boys still feel set up. They also feel that they can't get a fair battle in Denver.
"We may as well have been dancing in Ray Ray's living room," says Reach. "It wasn't consciously set up to make us look like jerks, but we didn't get our fair set. GWT's battles are always short, especially when they control all the variables."
Adding that they're resolved to keep trying and proving themselves on the road, Reach tactfully uses the half of the battle that did take place to highlight his opinion of how GWT and Soul Mechanics differ.
"We're circle b-boys and they're show b-boys ... there's a difference between smiling for a camera and having a game face in a battle. They want to look pretty; I don't disrespect it, but we're on different wavelengths. We take pride in being different instead of making people clap. Battle is not for entertaining we battle."
I catch up with Jake a few days after he steps off the plane from the b-boy exhibition in South Korea; nearly three weeks have passed since the botched GWT battle, and it's all history to him. He's as invigorated as ever, buzzing over the Korean b-boys' blow-ups and power. "It was intimidating," he says. "They were incredible."
While he learned a lot of new moves, he also shared Soul Mechanics' principles and philosophy with his hosts.
"The b-boy culture is different over there they don't do open circles but people are really hard-working, humble and positive," he says. "Out here, it's a little more cutthroat. Over there, it's a better learning environment. They were all showing love to what I was doing. I respect their dance. Nobody in the world is doing it the way they are."
When asked about his ambassadorial role, Jake explains how it goes. "We have a lot of pride in our home. When we're in-state, we always represent the Springs. When we're out of state, we represent Colorado. Out of the country, we represent the U.S.
"But we're still telling [b-boys] that don't know us that we're from Colorado Springs."
Blow-up: A big, climactic move, usually coming at the end of a set.
Floor work/foot work: Phase two, with ground shuffling around a center pivot; often a prelude to power or blow-ups.
Freeze: A fixed position that a dancer holds, often while poised, inverted, on one hand.
Open circle: A free-for-all community dance circle in which any b-boy or aspiring b-boy can practice and show off his moves; circles usually spring up at hip-hop shows and events.
Popping/locking: A dance style started in California, also called "ticking." A b-boy performs a series of abrupt hits; similar to "The Robot." Power moves for a popper often involve tricks with a fedora, derby or bowler hat, any of which can accompany the style.
Power:An individual's flair; jumps, flips, spins and gymnastics that tend to win crowds and impress newcomers.
Top rock/up rock: Dance done while standing up; the traditional beginning phase of b-boying, meant to be aggressive and antagonizing.
Members of Soul Mechanics plan to appear at the "Flaunt: Fashion Under the Bridge" event at 213 W. Colorado Ave. on Thursday, Sept. 7, from 6:30-9 p.m.