New generation of Utahns finds power and pride through ‘breaking’ and hip-hop culture

Created by Black and Latino youths in the 1970s on NYC streets, break dancing has its own history in Utah — and is now an Olympic sport.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Katie Hall is photographed breaking at the HERC Hip Hop Education Center in Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 15, 2021.

In a graffitied dance studio with neon lights, spray-painted murals and words scrawled on the walls, kids are learning moves with names like The Smurf, The Bart Simpson and The Steve Martin, all references to the 1980s — when break dancing, or “breaking,” as it’s called, was still relatively new.

On this Friday night in February, six kids ranging from 6 to 12 years old are gathered at The HERC — The Hip Hop Education and Resource Center in South Salt Lake — for their weekly Kid Crew class.

Some are quiet and shy when the teacher, Marc Cameron, aka Big Chocolate, asks them a question. But when they start dancing, they are bold in their body movements and quick footwork.

Wearing street-style attire with Adidas sneakers, sweatpants and beanies, the kids show their individuality through their clothes as well as through their dance moves.

Tonight they are learning how to keep a bounce going while incorporating other elements of breaking.

“The bounce is your foundation, so I’m still using my bounce here and add in another move called the Cabbage Patch, named after the Cabbage Patch Kids,” Cameron said. “So what happens is the arms are going to go around like we’re stirring a big pot, in a big, big circle.”

(Photo courtesy of Chris Cano) Marc Cameron, left, teaches a break dancing class at The HERC in South Salt Lake in February.

Moving their arms across their body to the sound of hip-hop remixes like “Flava in Ya Ear,” while still bouncing with their knees, the kids move from side to side. Some end up lying on the floor, practicing the move with their arms in front of them. Others get into the bouncing. Many of the moves are fast and low to the ground, requiring both coordination and strength.

Cameron is teaching them the basic dance moves and language created by those who invented the style. Together, the steps convey confidence and skill, but every kid expresses his or her own message.

“Just like in vocabulary, when you learn new words you can make a sentence. Same with hip-hop. You communicate through dancing, without saying a word,” said Cameron. “Once you get the foundation right, you can play around with it and make it your own.”

The traditions they’re learning stretch back to the 1970s, when Black and Latino dancers on the streets of New York City were hip-hop’s pioneers. Popular movies like “Flashdance” and “Breakin’” had carried the style to Utah by the early 1980s, when kids were breaking in high school hallways and meeting up to dance at the mall.

The HERC grew out of an effort by Joshua Perkins, aka Text, and others to revitalize Utah’s hip-hop community. And the style may see a new surge of dancers with breaking now an officially designated sport in the Olympic Summer Games, its debut slated for 2024 in Paris.

Niko Daniel, 12, from the Kid Crew class, has been breaking for three years and says he’s going to compete in the Olympics someday. He first saw breaking in a movie and just had to learn how to do it. He says he wants people to know about the culture and how it makes people happy, makes them feel more alive. ”I like that there’s different styles of it and it’s not all just one thing.”

He punches his arms out wide, brings them back to his chest and leans in with bent knees, bouncing and rocking, forward and back, side to side, to the rhythm of the music. His body gestures seem to say, “I am the best at this move and I’ll prove it.”

One of the goals of this class is to offer kids an alternative to traditional sports or forms of art, especially if they don’t feel like they identify with them.

“hip-hop culture is really great. It does change lives,” said Perkins, co-founder and executive director of 1520 Arts, a nonprofit organization in South Salt Lake that owns The HERC and focuses on hip-hop training and education for youths and adults. “The same way that arts and sports and culture programs and anything else has this really positive impact on kids, where it gives them something to do.”

Perkins has been breaking for the last 20 years. In 2009, he founded The Bboy Federation, which became 1520 Arts. Some people may view certain aspects of hip-hop, such as the graffiti and the music, in a negative way, he acknowledges. But that can happen any time someone sees a culture from the outside, he added — which is why he likes to share the history of hip-hop and how it helps so many, and to invite people in.

”Come to a battle, come to a class,” he suggests.

Utah’s first hip-hop scene

Many of the young kids Maria Garciaz oversaw as a probation officer in the 1980s had committed minor offenses, and she met with them once a week to keep them on track with school and out of the court system.

When they came to her Salt Lake Valley office, they would be listening to hip-hop, “twitching and spinning,” and would want to show her these new dance moves they were learning, she said.

“I would notice the passion in their voice and their eyes and how excited they would get about dancing and the energy. And I’m like, wow, I could take that energy and do something with it and turn it into something positive,” she said. “And then you see how that would translate over to school and maybe getting them out of the court system.”

She recruited kids to teach breaking and found spaces where they could dance, like in parks or gyms, and brought in other kids.

Kids that were from “opposite side of the tracks or affiliated with different gangs,” she said, “would leave their colors at the door, because what they had in common was the dancing and that was the common bond.”

They would often practice up to three and four hours a day, seven days a week. Not only is breaking physically rigorous, it requires creativity to come up with new dance moves and styles, often taking years of practice to achieve just one power move.

For example, a windmill is a signature move that takes a lot of practice and strength. The dancer spins on their back while twirling and whipping their legs in the air in a V shape.

“I would see the discipline that it would take just to learn to do one muscle hit … or [if] they had to do a windmill, how many times they would have to do a windmill to perfect it,” said Garciaz. “I think that’s what break dancing brings to young people, is this discipline and focus and a way to deal with conflict.”

In 1983, Garciaz dubbed a fluctuating group of four to 10 young men The Breakdown Crew. They were featured in an ABC4 local news segment and in an 1984 Nissan car commercial, performed with the Utah Opera, and hosted classes and competitions in Utah and in other states.

Tony Saiki, one of Garciaz’ original Breakdown Crew members, remembers performing at the quintessential 1980s Utah hangout: 49th Street Galleria, which later became the Utah Fun Dome, then eventually a charter school that’s now closed.

There and in other malls, kids would show up, “bring cardboard, and just dance and have fun,” said Saiki. “It was a way to really bring in a lot of different people, and a lot of the kids that did terrible at school and [weren’t] looked upon as anything, they became kind of little heroes for the people.”

Hip hop started with a Merry Go Round

In 1973, Jamaican-born DJ Kool Herc threw a dance party at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx that went down in music history.

Now considered the father of hip hop, Herc debuted a technique called the Merry Go Round. He cut between two records during their break sections — quieter interludes, or a shift in a song — in order to keep the music going strong.

This is where the term “breaking” comes from, as dancers, known as “b-boys” and “b-girls,” would break dance during these songs.

Power and pride

Cameron, who is Black, emphasizes that there would be no hip-hop culture today without acknowledging and learning about the roots of that culture in Black American history.

He grew up in England and started dancing at the age of 4 or 5, learning to do the moonwalk — or the backslide, as he calls it — by watching Michael Jackson perform “Billie Jean” in the 1983 Motown 25 award show on NBC.

“One of the biggest conversations we’re having now [in society] is about the idea of misappropriation and not understanding the roots of things,” Cameron said.

While he guest teaches monthly at The HERC, Cameron owns a dance studio in Utah called the Dance Project SLC, where he teaches breaking, jazz and ballet.

Before starting 1520 Arts, Perkins wanted to bring Utah’s hip-hop community together and revive the popularity that break dancing had here in its early days.

”There weren’t as many people practicing. There weren’t as many people competing. And so we said oh, hey, you know, it’d be cool if there were just more people dancing,” said Perkins. “As we grew and then eventually became a nonprofit and have grown larger, the community is very healthy and vibrant.”

1520 Arts provides classes in dance, music and art that are offered at The HERC, named for DJ Kool Herc, known as the father of hip-hop. The nonprofit partners with South Salt Lake to provide after-school programs. And Cameron and Perkins both co-teach a class at Brigham Young University where students can get credit for learning about the history and culture of hip-hop.

“The educational side of what we do is really meant to be functional. We want you to learn more about who we are under the surface so that you can better understand the things that we’re doing,” said Perkins.

Katie Hall teaches graffiti art and dancing at The HERC. She started breaking about five years ago when she was 20, after seeing the movie “Step Up.” She says she’s normally a shy, quiet person, but when she’s in a dance circle or making art, she feels a strong sense of community.

The courses she teaches cover all aspects of hip-hop culture. Whether it’s in her graffiti art lessons or a dance skill-building exercise, she wants people to realize it’s a culture that includes much more than just dancing. With every class she teaches at The HERC, whether in breaking or art, she tries to incorporate larger lessons about life.

“When hip-hop was actually originally made, it was to get people off the streets and stop fighting because there are so many troubles with the gangs that this was a way they could come together and battle it out without gun violence or all these things. The message of hip-hop is one love,” she said.

Aye Chan started breaking at 12 years old and now is a senior in high school at Cottonwood. He took an after-school class from Perkins and says breaking has given him confidence and new friends, and he often clears the dance floor at high school dances. He said that if he sees a crowd and no one is dancing, he has a friend make a circle and he starts breaking, to “break the ice” or “icebreaking” as he calls it, and get people dancing.

“Well, breaking is like, you can escape from reality. You show your feelings in the dance move. It can go as a power move as hard as you want or you can do a freeze move, whatever you want. It’s all your feelings put into the dance move,” said Chan.

At the end of another class this month, all of the Kid Crew students gathered in a circle for the “cypher,” a freestyle break dancing jam where they get to showcase the moves they learned that night.

During the cypher, Ellis Dobson showed off what he calls his “best move.” He spun around, then did a headstand while kicking out his legs before striking a pose. He seemed to pour his whole heart and soul into the move, then ended with a “b-boy stance.” Crossing his arms and tilting his head up, the 6-year-old boy beamed with pride.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dancers breaking at the HERC Hip Hop Education Center in Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 15, 2021.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Josh Perkins breaking at the HERC Hip Hop Education Center in Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 15, 2021.