Break on through
Competitive battles bring the localbreak dancing community together
Monolith Bar100 N. Arlington Ave.
Reno, NV 89501
Mateo “Noodle” Hernandez circles the dance floor, staring at his opponent. The 18-year-old break-dancer has a subtle confidence not found in many B-boys his age. When asked to articulate the art of break dancing, he struggles to find the right words. He mostly just smiles and shrugs at questions in a group interview. But in the battle—in the battle, he shines. Here he is a force to be reckoned with.
Maurice Franzen stares back at Hernandez, arms crossed in a casual B-boy pose. Franzen, or Reese, for short, is one of the best break-dancers to come out of Reno. The 26-year-old B-boy veteran has spent the last few years in the Bay Area, where a friend of his says Franzen’s skills went through the roof.
“I kind of think in my head, ‘I gotta kill this guy!’” says Franzen. “Not physically, but mentally.”
Both dancers have energy and charisma. Both appear to feel at home in the battle, in their natural element. Hernandez, a good-looking, baby-faced kid raised in Reno, looks a bit like the fictional graffiti-writer Ramo from the 1984 hip-hop movie Beat Street. Franzen seems reserved—Hernandez can’t make him crack.
It’s an epic battle. Friends of Hernandez, many of whom are also friends with Franzen, gasp when they hear both names called to the dance floor, kind of like how children on a schoolyard gasp when the two toughest kids in school are going to fight.
It’s Saturday night, and a few dozen people, mostly teenagers, are cramped in a small yoga studio inside Arlington Tower for Breakin’ The Silence, a break dancing battle accompanied by freestyle rap open mic sessions and hip-hop performances. On a small platform next to the stage, a DJ spins the breaks. If someone was there painting graffiti art, all the elements of hip-hop would be present.Table of elements
Battling is at the essence of the four elements of hip-hop culture—rapping, DJ-ing, graffiti-writing and break dancing.
Back in the 1970s and early ’80s, MCs would battle it out in the parks. (Hip-hop started in the parks of the Bronx.) Everybody battled. Hip-hop legend KRS-One became known after defeating then-superstar MC Shan.
DJs would battle it out, too, seeing who could find and mix the best breaks (instrumental parts of funk records) and who had the best cuts (manually moving the record on the turntable against the needle) scratching.
B-boy is short for break boy, named after funk breaks; break dancing is dancing to the breaks.
Graffiti-writers in the 1970s and early ‘80s would battle it out on the New York subway train yards, picking out the best spots—location is a prime factor in judging graffiti—coming up with the most innovative styles, and producing the cleanest finished piece.
All great battles of any element of hip-hop are two things: 1) they are original. If you are a B-boy who is known for having one great move, you won’t continually win battles off that one move; and 2) they are improvised. Whether you’re an MC or a B-boy, you have to respond to the situation at hand. If an opposing B-boy makes a gesture at you, or does a move you can do better, you have to respond to his specific actions. B-boys who use planned routines in battles lose battles.
Contrary to some stereotypes, battling is not a negative thing. It’s not a fight; it’s a competition. Similar to martial artists sparring with each other to keep their skills high, hip-hoppers of all art forms continually test their skills against their peers.Can’t stop, won’t stop
“From the B-boy aspect, battling is how we make our name,” says Gerald “Juss Cuzz” Segura. “This is how we get known.” Segura, host of the Breakin’ The Silence battle and mentor to Hernandez, explains that, unlike other hip-hop elements, battling is the main focus of B-boys.
“When you’re a rapper, you can write a dope song. When you’re a producer, you can make a dope beat,” he says. “There’s no other way for us to make our name. … The only way is to battle.”
Battles, Segura says, help keep B-boys sharp and break dancing fresh.
“That’s what elevates it, you know what I mean,” he says. “That’s what keeps it innovative.”
For the BTS battle, Segura—who is a hell of a break-dancer himself—invited established B-boys from the Bay Area to judge the battle, and one of the most respected East Coast battle rappers, Josh “Mad Illz” Carrasco, 25, to host the open mic portion of the evening. All had positive things to say about the evening, and about Reno’s growing hip-hop scene.
“The Reno hip-hop scene, honestly, a lot of other cities don’t take it serious,” says judge Chris “Rakaman” Talbot. But Talbot, a B-boy with eight years battling experience under his belt, seems fonder of Reno’s B-boying scene than he does of the Bay Area’s.
“They just breathe hip-hop out here differently,” he says. “I can tell a lot of B-boys are gonna get better if they stick with it.”
Talbot makes a simple comparison to the Bay’s scene from Reno’s: Bay Area break-dancers are better, but the sense of community that Reno’s B-boys have is nowhere to be found in his hometown. “If you’re from Reno, you’re from Reno. Everybody gets along,” he says, almost enviously.
“It reminds me of a better time in hip-hop. … In the Bay, breaking is not fun anymore. Nobody wants to say it—the Bay Area scene is dying.”
“Right now,” he says, sitting outside after the battle, “this is definitely why I started breaking.”
Carrasco describes battling as a learning experience for young people in hip-hop. He tells a story about being a middle school student in Orlando and signing up for an MC battle at a university across town. His skills weren’t developed yet, and he knew he would be tested.
“That’s where the true skills come out,” he says. “And that’s why events like this are needed … you can now look up to [your opponent] and learn. … In a battle format, everything is surrounding you. You can look around and say, ‘Oh, this is what it takes.’”
Carrasco is glad to be performing at an all-ages event. “Younger kids absorb a lot more now than people who are in their mid-20s,” he says. “It’s a lot better for someone who’s not as experienced to be up there with someone who is better and vibe off that.”
Hernandez, still staring at Franzen, finishes circling the dance floor and starts breaking. He hits some power moves—windmills, spins. He nails a couple of great poses—freezing while in a difficult stance. There is some cheering, but mostly people are quiet. His moves are impressive, and everyone is wondering how Franzen will respond.
Franzen does his much anticipated performance. The judges call a tie. Franzen wins in the second round.
After the battle, everyone sticks around, talking and watching the musical performances. All the B-boys that battled chat with each other. Talbot was right—there is a communityhere.