Sacramento hip-hop dancer breaking through
B-Boy Morris left it all behind to become a pro
It’s December 2004, and hip-hop dancer B-Boy Morris is meeting up in north Sacramento with the members of his dance crew, Flexible Flav. The group’s just earned a spot in a competition called Chelles Battle Pro in France but still hasn’t committed to crossing the ocean to compete in the event.
The 20-year-old wants his team to take the opportunity seriously, so he offers to quit his job for the second time in four years in order to focus on practicing. Unconvinced, Morris’ friends call his bluff. So, to prove himself, Morris picks up the phone and calls the Golden 1 Credit Union office. It’s after-hours, so he leaves a message.
“I had some issues come up,” he tells the answering machine. “So I won’t be coming into work no more.”
Finally, after months of intense practice, B-Boy Morris feels as though Flexible Flav is ready to compete. In March 2005, the crew flies overseas, but his team falls short, losing the battle—badly—in the first round to Pockemon, a French B-boy crew.
Where some might have felt defeated, B-Boy Morris views the experience as motivation to practice harder, learn new moves and dance in events throughout Europe and Asia. In the coming years there would be numerous setbacks. But that initial disappointment sparked a desire in Morris that wouldn’t let up: He knew he was meant to compete at a higher standard.
Today, Sacramento’s B-Boy Morris, born Morris Edward Isby III, is known as one of the world’s best competitive hip-hop dancers, or B-boys.
Now 27, the dancer travels the globe, flipping, flaring and top-rocking his way to winning battles and the hearts of B-boy fans worldwide. In 2010 and 2011, the Bboyworld website named him “B-Boy of the Year.” Bboyrankingz, a site dedicated to the energetic dance, has ranked him its No. 1 battler since 2008.
“I’ve stayed on top [at] No. 1 for like three years straight,” he says. “Now, my thing is to try to inspire others … and just add more to the culture.”
His current schedule is hectic. Between trips to France, Moscow and Los Angeles, Isby barely finds time to spend with friends or family. Instead, he follows a relentless routine: Practice, perform. Practice, perform.
“I’m constantly dancing,” he says. “When you’re in it, you just want to stay relevant. You just want to keep moving.”
On a recent day at home, Isby enjoys rare downtime in his sparsely decorated Elk Grove apartment, playing video games with longtime B-boy friends Matthew Flores and Mahtie Bush.
“It was a wake up call,” says Isby of that first international competition. In addition to the disastrous loss, Isby discovered that hip-hop dancing—also known in popular culture as “B-boying,” or break dancing—is more popular overseas than here.
Invented by urban New York City-area youth in the ’70s, these days, B-boying lacks the appeal it once had among America’s teens in its ’80s heyday. Despite recent popular shows such as Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance, and MTV’s America’s Best Dance Crew, hip-hop dance remains more popular in Europe, Asia and South America where professional B-boys and B-girls perform more aggressive, innovative and acrobatic moves.
It’s a distinction that made the loss in France all the more telling.
“[Losing in Europe] let me know what the level was outside the United States, how crazy it is overseas,” Isby says. “It pushed me, because, I was like, ‘I want to beat one of these people.’”
Moreover, Isby says, he didn’t want a reputation as another unoriginal American dancer. Determined, he set out to create a more diverse routine to impress judges and continued the routine: Practice, perform. Practice, perform.
The dedication paid off. In 2006, he and Flexible Flav won the Chelles Battle Pro. It was around this time, too, that Isby struck up a friendship with a member of that rival French crew, a certain Pockemon crew member named B-Boy Lilou.
It’s a long way from the West Coast to France.
As an infant, Isby’s parents moved him and his two older sisters from Southern California to flee what they saw as bad influences—ones that had his father and two uncles involved in certain law-breaking activities before Isby’s birth.
They relocated to South Sacramento, moving into a Meadowview neighborhood where Isby says he lived his life as an “in between,” surrounded by people with money and those who were “dirt poor.”
Here, they weren’t immune to trouble, either. Gangs routinely roamed Isby’s neighborhood. But, he says now, the experience taught him key lessons at a very early age.
“As long as you keep to yourself and stay positive, positivity will come toward you,” he says. “If you’re negative, negativity will come into your life.”
Isby concentrated on being a good student at Luther Burbank High School, and eventually something positive found its way into his life, arriving in the form of hip-hop dance.
He was 15 years old when a group of local B-boys performed an exhibition at his school, sparking an interest in the largely apathetic teen.
Watching them dance, he remembers now, was the first thing that ever “spoke” to him. That year, he joined his first crew, Orbit Documents, led by Bush. The two, along with Flores, became close friends, dancing wherever they could: in garages, empty lobbies on college campuses and underneath staircases. Hip-hop culture “infected” him and his crew. And it kept them out of trouble—sort of.
Every day, after practicing for up to four hours with his crew, Isby came home and practiced for a few more hours. Eventually, his parents told him to stop. All those moves were exacting a toll on their house as he tore up carpet, broke pictures and ruined the living-room sofa.
“No more dancing in the house, son,” they’d say. “You’re done.”
But he couldn’t stop.
Dance was more than movement for Isby, it was an outlet. Once, he recalls, there was a heated argument with his sister Aneesha.
Instead of continuing the fight, Isby finally stepped away and channeled his anger into what he knew best.
“I don’t even want to think about this, I just want to dance,” he told her. “And then I did a [backflip] the first time, easy. Afterwards, every time I had stress in my life, in any way, shape or form, I would dance, because I knew it would make me stronger.”
The occasional fight notwithstanding, Isby says he remains close with his family and appreciates the support they offer.
“I don’t think I tell him often enough that I’m astounded at what he’s capable of and how proud of him I am,” says Isby’s sister Kameelah. “Whatever he wants to do, he’s going to do. As long as he works hard like he does and sets a goal, he’s going to obtain it.”
Sometimes the path to success, however, is frustratingly twisted.
The first time Isby quit a job was in 2002 after a house fire. Then, he left his job as a Wells Fargo banker to spend time helping his father rebuild the garage.
The change in job status led to a new opportunity. With more time to practice, he and Flores eventually gained employment when the Sacramento Kings hired Flexible Flav to dance at the basketball team’s home games off and on from 2003 to 2009.
Still, it wasn’t quite enough money, so Isby took the Golden 1 Credit Union job—the one he’d eventually quit in 2004.
Finally, in 2008, Isby quit his job for the third and final time—this one at Schools Financial Credit Union. After winning so many competitions, he decided, it was time to pursue his dream in earnest.
This time, the gambit paid off. One of the turning points in his dance career happened that October, at the U.K. B-Boy Championships.
There, what could have initially been seen as a setback, proved fruitful. Disqualified from the one-on-one battle for showing up late, Isby says the misstep turned into a moment of “fate,” that offered him a second chance to prove he could be a full-time professional B-boy.
The next day, members of Russian B-boy crew Top9 approached Isby. They’d heard about his disqualification and asked him to join their team as a guest. One of their dancers couldn’t make it, and they needed someone to fill in.
Isby took them up on the offer; not only did he and Top9 win the U.K. B-Boy Championship team competition, he also nabbed the Chief Rocka Award, given to the judges’ favorite dancer among all the crews.
Bush remembers the moment as a huge event in the international B-boy community.
“[There was] a whole buzz on the Internet,” he says. “Everyone wanted to know what the hell that was all about.”
Isby found the attention motivating.
“I felt like if I can win in this country, in London, [and] with a group I didn’t know of, [and] never trained with, I can win anywhere, and this is something I’m here to do.”
The competitive international B-boying scene is much different than what you see on TV and films in the United States.
Because events span the globe, international fans congregate online to follow closely with the scene. Like fans of action sports such as surfing or skateboarding, the dance community spends hours watching YouTube videos, analyzing clips and commenting on websites.
“You constantly have to stay up with what’s new, and change up everything that you’re doing,” Isby says. “[But] in the commercial world, it’s not like that. The media only really understands head-spins and the windmill.”
Isby describes his battle style as a combination of B-Boy K-Mel, a dancer who makes a point to embarrass others at competitions, and B-Boy Ibrahim, known for powerful acrobatics and stamina.
He also regularly “burns” his rivals—a move that involves flipping over other B-boys, using lewd gestures and his signature, jumping up high and sticking his butt in their face.
Because of his aggressive style and recent dominance of international competition, Isby is also, of course, the target of such burns—but hardly to the extent of his rivals.
“Morris has burned far more B-boys than he has been burned [by] himself,” noted B-Boy J in a post on the forum at www.bboyworld.com. “Morris is obviously doing something right.”
Although he’s always on the move—dancing and burning challengers on the dance floor—Isby says he sees his opponents as just a group of close friends. Indeed, ever since beating Isby at the Chelles Battle Pro in 2005, France’s Lilou become one of Isby’s closest friends.
“When we battle, it’s supposed to be [that our] friendship is out the window,” Isby says. “I’m out there hanging out with my friends from another country. We have to battle, but aside from the battling, we eat, talk and find out what’s going on in [each others’] lives.”
But even when going toe to toe against a friend, these dancers’ job is to impress the judges. After all, there’s money and pride at stake. So it wasn’t all too surprising when at their latest battle in November, Lilou burned Isby, tossing a shoe at his opponent.
“[It was notable] especially because [Lilou’s] Muslim, and he knows throwing a shoe is the most disrespectful thing you can possibly do in his culture,” Bush explains.
That followed a separate burn earlier in 2009—just one week after Isby beat Lilou in a different battle and learned about the boundaries between friendship and competition.
“I wanted to beat him, but I wanted to be a good sport [because] I just won one week before it,” Isby says. “I was thinking, ‘I’ll coast, because I just won’ and he took advantage of it. That’s where I did a backflip and he slid under me, and I lost all composure. I realized regardless of what happened last week … I can never think like this.”
Even at the relatively young age of 27, Isby now finds himself one of the older competitive B-boys on the scene today. As he gets older, Isby feels his stamina decreasing, and even though he still wins dozens of events each year, he can barely pay all his bills, surviving only off of prize money from competitions.
So after quitting so many jobs to pursue his dreams, he’s back on the job hunt for a good backup plan.
He’s not discouraged, however.
There are all those wins, after all. And, it helps that he’s met his idols. When he runs into old-school B-boys such as Storm, Crazy Legs, K-1 and Kid Swift at a competition, he asks them for advice, hoping they can guide him toward a better life after B-boying. Crazy Legs now teaches dance, choreography and does community outreach. Storm wrote a book, acted in and produced films and television shows, and he now choreographs hip-hop dance in theater productions.
Isby’s “plan B” involves starting a restaurant or owning a food franchise with Flores, who just earned a culinary degree. In the business venture, Isby says he will tap into his passion for eating out, and his background in business, which includes courses taken at Cosumnes River College.
He plans to retire from dancing at 30; for now, his immediate goal is to win the biggest competitions. There’s another goal as well. Isby keeps a list of his 86 wins, spanning competitions that are domestic and international, big and small. If he can earn 100 wins, he will do what no other B-boy has ever accomplished.
This year, Isby also plans to spend more time dancing with and promoting some of the other local talent in his crew Fallen Kings, which broke off from Flexible Flav in 2009.
Chai Saetern and Kareem Gwinn are two of the local crew’s members to watch out for in international competition, Isby says.
Another prominent Sacramento dancer, Dominic Sandoval starred in and won the third season of America’s Best Dance Crew as part of the Quest Crew. Sandoval currently judges for the show, and that TV presence, Isby says, makes him more “official” in the eyes of the media.
“He gets more validation from his country because of what he’s done on those TV shows,” Isby says. “He gets recognized within his own country. He’s gone from being one style of dancer to an all-around dancer, and he’s blossomed into his own person.”
Like Sandoval, Isby says he wants to increase his face time in Hollywood, earning fame and respect from television work. The job pays better, requires less physical demands, and he plans to pursue his on-screen dreams further after retiring from competition.
As such, he’s slowly gaining national notice. There was a brief cameo in the 2011 film Step Up 3—a role that raised Isby’s local visibility, earning him opportunities to judge dancing events here.
In December, Isby completed filming a larger supporting role in the upcoming film Battle of the Year starring Chris Brown, due out later this year.
But he’s still searching for that big breakout role that will make him a star in the United States. Perhaps it will come in America’s Best Dance Crew’s next season, for which he’s currently in the process of auditioning.
If he gets the chance to compete on the show, Isby says, it’ll bring him one step closer to the stardom that came easily overseas but still eludes him here.
“I want to be famous in my own country, and not in everybody else’s country,” he says.
“I live here. I want to be recognized for the dancer I am.”