Chuy Renteria is a b-boy. Sporting a cherry track jacket trimmed in white, caramel hair slicked into a pony-tail, the 24-year-old stands alone in an empty pedestrian mall. At 8:30 p.m. on a football Friday, he begins to stretch, reaching for the brick pavement beneath his Nike sneakers.
Charlie Bui arrives casually, boom-box and laptop at his side. He opens the notebook and cues an iTunes playlist. He double-clicks a track from The Roots’ Phrenology LP, lightly bobbing his head on the one and the three. Loosening joints and muscles, Bui uses not static calisthenics but reaches, pulls and twists his body at near aerobic speeds. A method he preaches to all breakers.
Over the next half-hour more b-boys and b-girls trickle into the open space. With their crew of nearly 15 students assembled, the UI Breakers begin their show. With their eight-count steps, the break dancers draw a small crowd. Bui steps up. Pop, lock, handstand and freeze. The spectators mass 50 strong. As the improvised moves grow more diverse, so do the onlookers. Passersby, children, hipsters, 20-somethings to 40-somethings all take notice.
A b-girl places a small Iowa Hawkeye coffee can on the sidewalk to collect donations for their October 3, I Oughta Wreck Again (I.O.W.A.) jam. The empty tin sits barren and lonely until a woman rises from her bench to drop a couple of bills. Cheers erupt from the spectators and applause from the crew.
Hunched, lined along a brick planter, all 15 breakers study the others’ tricks. Each clank of the can igniting a bit more energy in their steps until all the dancers circle up to approach their audience.
“We’ve got some fliers this young gentleman’s gonna be handing out,” Bui announces. “We’re the UI Breakers, so put your hands out. Put your hands out.” Bui points, “This guy wants one… giv’em two. Giv’em two!”
This underground UI student organization has gone public.
“The UI Breakers is really an Umbrella group,” said Renteria. “It was kind of a last-man-standing thing.”
Encompassing styles nostalgic of Renteria’s former West Liberty, Iowa crew “Distinctive Nobodies” and Bui and Hai Tran’s “The Funktastics,” the UI Breakers has grown from a three-man group to a university sanctioned student organization. And they are quickly raising their profile.The two groups merged in 2006, when Bui and Renteria met through local jams hosted at Public Space One. The b-boys knew two Japanese exchange students who danced with a crew from Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, so they began collaborating.
“The Distinctive Nobodies were more raw,” said Renteria. “The UI Breakers have become more legit…We’re organized.”
But becoming that “legit” student organization had to be done with blind faith in the Iowa City scene’s potential. When the three b-boys applied for university backing (i.e. monetary resources) the breakers didn’t have the required five participants to qualify. Bui had to improvise.
“I recruited my two roommates who I don’t think had ever breaked a day in their lives,” he cocked back with a chuckle.
Renteria, a senior studying dance at The University of Iowa, has been practicing his b-boy skills for 10 years, learning from local dancers. Bui–who had only been dancing a year before arriving at the university–learned in a more mainstream fashion.
“I got a hold of a ‘Learn how to breakdance’ DVD. It was a ridiculous step-by-step instructional thing that was like ‘move right leg outward and point toe,’ ‘balance on left hand,’” Bui stood curving his arms in pretzel fashion. “Oh well, I’m not ashamed to admit it.”
Since their genesis, the UI Breakers have walked a line between overexposure and the underground nature of their art. They’re heavily rooted in hip-hop culture, so Bui and Renteria seem timid to admit their use of social media to self promote. The Breakers feel the internet has blended styles together creating a “Homogony that kills local styles,” Bui shrugs. Nonetheless, he still posts a blog for the Breakers (uibreakers.tumblr.com) profiling their members, posting recorded jams and giving tips to aspiring b-boys.
“Before YouTube.com, people would learn locally,” Bui explained.
“B-boy.org is like collecting Pokémon cards to some of these newbs,” Renteria says in critique of the mainstream site. “Not to hate on anybody, but I remember when Chicago [style] looked like Chicago, West Coast [style] looked like West Coast. It takes the community and local learning out of b-boying.”
They are students of their craft. Referencing the link between dance form, musicality and culture, the UI Breakers cut mixes that align choreography with the beats and motifs of their selection. Crews internationally recognize the Afro-American roots of b-boying have an intercultural appeal. In the documentary The Freshest Kids: A History of the B-Boy, Director Israel interviews many of the “Godfathers” of the hip-hop art. B-boying’s rebellious street origins are direct descendants of early ’70s hip-hop house jams and, before that, the speakeasy explosion of Jazz in the Roaring Twenties. Today, like the freestyle raps that evolved from the South Bronx, b-boying has become improvisational, raw and athletic.
Thanks to commercial success in the 1980s, b-boying has grown to thrive worldwide, even here in Iowa City. Members of the UI Breakers have nurtured curiosity in the community, helping recreate a local scene after the death of Public Space One’s former location — the b-boy’s host venue. Performing at UI Dance Marathon, the UI Breakers not only throw handstands and windmills for a good cause, they “have 1,500 pairs of eyes on us,” Bui grins.
Just before their Ped Mall appearance on September 18, the group received conformation from the UI Athletic Department of a Hawkeye Basketball half-time performance, which should deliver the breakers’ their largest audience to date.
Before that, the UI Breakers are working on their baby: a regional b-boy battle hosted at the IMU second floor ballroom in Iowa City. The I.O.W.A. jam is bringing together crews from Des Moines, Chicago, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Madison and even a team making a trek from Texas.
The UI crew, within its small segment of the b-boy world, is diverse — attracting dancers from all walks of life.
“It’s an art and there is an element of musicality,” said Renteria. “It’s a positive outlet.”
Part-time breaker and UI dance major Katie Robbins, 23, has a fascination and respect for b-boys and b-girls. She recognizes their skills as art.
“People shouldn’t be embarrassed to see the beauty in it. You can’t just say to yourself, ‘I want to be a breaker.’ You also have to be a dancer,” she explained. “Breakers have to be one of the most inclusive groups I’ve ever known. I think that’s why after all this time, I still want to be around these guys.”
Mike Mendenhall is a 24-year-old University of Iowa graduate working for Systems Unlimited and living in Iowa City.