It all started with a vision: to highlight a style of dance that originated in the streets of New York during the early 1970s.
Breakdancing evolved as music was transitioning from disco to hip hop, pioneered by the Black and Puerto Rican communities in New York City and spreading quickly across the country and the world. The athletic style was inspired in part by the wild antics of James Brown and in part by the martial arts skills in the movies of Bruce Lee.
Anthony San began building his breaking skills in 2006 at a summer camp in Pella, Iowa. A camp counselor who offered a workshop encouraged San to take his natural talent further.
“He was like, ‘You’re really good at doing very difficult movements and poses.’ And I was like, OK. I don’t know if it’s for me,” San explained.
It wasn’t until senior year of high school two years later that San turned towards dancing, after deciding he was done trying to get into sports. San and his cousin came to this realization while trying to mimic the style of JabbaWockeez, the first season winners of America’s Best Dance Crew. He started attending competitions throughout Iowa.
From there, he noticed that nowhere in Iowa had the same opportunities as large cities like Milwaukee or Chicago. He also realized there was a lack of original breakers in the surrounding areas.
“That’s what made me continue: because someone’s got to keep it going,” San said. “Doesn’t matter if they’re the best or not. But I feel like I have a passion and drive to keep it going.”
Once San began taking his dancing more seriously, training more and also teaching, he became a familiar face in the Des Moines dance scene.
Since 2008, San has grown the breaking scene in Des Moines with the goal of giving Des Moines dancers the same opportunities as dancers in more populous cities — to travel, compete or perform.
“I’ve worked with a lot of kids. And a lot of them don’t have a positive outlet to go to,” San said.
He caught the eye of one of his student’s parents about four years ago. Tammra Swartwood shared his vision of putting Des Moines on the map for a growing community in a growing sport. Swartwood could see the positive changes in her son since he started breaking, and she wanted to extend that opportunity to everyone.
The two worked together to launch Des Moines Breakerz LLC, which opened earlier this year. The dance school serves breakers of all ages across the Des Moines metro. San serves as head instructor and Swartwood is the general manager.
The school has grown quickly, with about 150 kids training in their summer program that spans nine locations, including libraries and parks and rec department facilities. The core performance group is made up of 25 adults. Students have taken their skills far and near to showcase their talent on many stages.
“If it wasn’t for this man, Des Moines wouldn’t even have a scene right now,” Swartwood said of San. “And that’s a bold statement.”
San credits Swartwood for the opportunities that the Breakerz have had so far including performances, connections, trips and battles, or cyphers.
This month, Breakerz student and intern Skyler Fongdara, who dances as Homie Sky, will compete at the Breaking for Gold USA National Championships, Aug. 12-14, in Philadelphia.
Des Moines Breakerz sent Fongdara to a qualifying event in Minneapolis, Minnesota in April and again to Arizona in May. BFGUSA held six opens around the nation featuring one-on-one battles; breakers competed to win top youth, teen, men and women.
The placement for nationals was based on a point system, so the more opens you attend, the more points you can earn. Fongdara is among 13 dancers competing for three bracket slots in the teen category. He has been training nonstop, studying and learning from his mentors with the Breakerz.
“He needs to build up his endurance,” Swartwood said. “And to do that he’s got to put the work in.”
“Especially now is when I really need to exceed my limits,” he said, including expanding his breaking knowledge and vocabulary. He’s also careful to mark moments of fun and accomplishment.
“If you’re only remembering the bad experiences, you’re not going to keep pursuing,” San said.
Fongdara found his calling at a young age dancing with family members.
“I got introduced to break dance by my older cousin, who was a student [of San’s] before I was,” Fongdara said. That cousin was part of a crew from Des Moines Breakerz that performed at the White House.
Fongdara looks forward to learning more styles, becoming a stronger all-styles dancer. He’s interested in KPop, hip hop and choreography.
“I just want to be versatile,” Fongdara said. “Just in any aspect, because then I’ll just want to combine all of it into one style. I can be different, be unique, stand out. I just want to be really unique to where I can make a name for myself.”
He even hopes that other people will try out his personal style once he has worldwide exposure.
“You don’t see a lot of people do some moves that I put in. Because sometimes I’ll just do a move and pull something from a different type of category of dance within a move. I think it’s what makes me unique as a dancer. Because compared to other breakers, they don’t have that,” Fongdara said.
San and Swartwood say Fongdara excels at transitioning from one move to another very well with a lot of fluid floor movement.
“He definitely has a flow thread transition,” San said. “He’s very diverse compared to a lot of the students I worked with.”
And training isn’t the only way Fongdara expands his knowledge. Swartwood often catches him studying watching “hours upon hours” of dance videos.
“That’s putting in the hours, that’s still doing something instead of just sitting on your butt, wishing I could do this better,” San said of his student. “From a year ago till now, there’s been tremendous growth. … You can see the hunger as well.”
Fongdara knows he has some personal adjustments to make to ensure he is putting his best foot forward. But his main focus is boosting his confidence.
“One of the best breakers or b-boys in the world [Boston’s Alexander Raimon Diaz, El Nino — a member of Floor Lords and Squadron crew], he told me that I lack confidence within myself. So, I’m definitely trying to lose myself — give myself confidence and just hopefully see a different outcome,” Fongdara said.
The Breakerz have made sure to build a family through their breaking classes. Their community ensures that everyone becomes the best dancer they can be by providing a means to get to bigger dance events, taking care of each other in every aspect and providing the teachers that can help them achieve success.
San is hoping to lay a foundation for his students so that when San moves on, the street dance scene in Des Moines will not only still exist but also grow. In the near future, Des Moines Breakerz are planning to open their own physical location so that they can have a centralized place for classes to continue developing Olympic-caliber dancers.
In addition to Des Moines Breakerz, Fongdara is also a part of an after school program, the North Icebreakers. And just as San hoped, he appreciates breaking as an outlet.
“I’d definitely say I built up more [of a] passion about it, knowing that I have somebody who cares about dancing, and just dance in general, as much as I do,” Fongdara said of his mentors. “It’s helped me build a lot of relationships throughout this. And if I didn’t have it, I would probably be living a whole different life. So, I’m definitely really happy that I chose this route in life,” Fongdara said.
Courtney Guein is a Little Village staff writer. After interviewing the Breakerz, she was invited to join them for a performance at the Dew Tour on July 30, and more in the future.