It’s 1976. I am seven years old. My cousin is home from Vietnam and is talking with my brother about something called Mayaguez while my brother is trying to learn the riffs of “Love Rollercoaster.” On the news people are talking about how New York City is burning. I’m not interested. New York is a long way away, and I have a game of kickball calling me.
I live at 317 S. Main Street which, despite what noobs think, is definitely the Central District. Sometimes it’s unpleasant, like today. I am walking back from Leschi with two friends, one male and one female. From some distance, someone I cannot see throws a rock. It’s about four ounces and has a sharp, triangular shape. The edge of it splits open my skull. I wince and shout once, but I do not cry. I look around quickly, but no one is there. Robin puts her arm around me in that most feminine way and asks me if I’m all right. “I’m fine,” I say. I cover up the blood with my hand and keep walking.
When I finally get home, my mom screams at me. She rushes me to the hospital, where they put seventeen stitches in my head. I don’t cry then, either.
I’m walking around on the stage at On the Boards as the b-boys warm up for their battle. At least, that’s how it looks. Dani Tirrell is walking around with a clipboard like a judge, WD4D is spinning some downtempo with breakbeats, and the Dogg Pound Crew are gettin’ stupid with some peeps.
I bump into Fever One by accident, whom I haven’t seen in a long time, but I just apologize and go on about my business. He is younger than me, but he’s for real. I have always admired him and still do, even though my main man was Captain Crunch of Emerald Street Boys. Fever is the elder on the floor here, which is like a gathering of hip-hop generations at the moment.
I spy Amy O’Neal in conversation with a couple of female modern dancers. I’d go up to her and give her some love, but she’s busy and all that. It occurs to me that if we were dancing together or we were at a jam, I’d do it anyway but something about this setting is different. Have to be careful with touch in public, especially around so many middle-class white folks. Black dude, white chick = probably something strange. She catches my eye anyway, and I smile and give her the Amandla! fist. Then I have a sudden insight: that same fist was used by the Black Power and the feminist movements. The Wikipedia entry says that the symbol conveys “opposing forces.”
I sit down and let my mind drift back.
It’s 1977. New York is black. Not black as in “Chocolate City,” but as in blackout. Bankruptcy, burnings, blackouts–that’s my image of New York every time someone mentions it. That’s what I get for being an eight-year-old news watcher. Friends and family are calling me “Encyclopedia Willey.” Swell.
My folks are officially divorced. I’m shuttling back and forth on weekends between Beacon Hill and the Central District. There’s a lot of unspoken anger in my family, especially in my sister who is eight years older than I. Her girlfriend suggests to her that she should take up martial arts, in particular taekwondo, a hard, aggressive and definitely not feminine art.
My dad works swing shifts at the steel mill and is never home. I have to entertain and take care of myself. So I begin to study judo with my friends Thomas and Leonardo. I’m particularly interested in sacrifices, kansetsu-waza bone locks and even though sensei forbids it, the scissors throw. It’s the first time I ever hear about Keiko Fukuda, the highest decorated female judoka ever, and watch the 4’11” woman toss people three times her weight. For a supposedly “soft” style, it’s pretty awesome. That’s what I want to be like when I grow up.
There are five girls and two boys in my family. My sister breaks boards and beats people into submission with hard kicks and palm strikes. I would never strike another person, and prefer simply to use people’s own aggression against them. This seems to me perfectly natural. She prefers hardness. I prefer softness. But we both know that each contains the other, just like the Tao contains both yin and yang.
The lights are down now and competition has begun. Just Be is servin’ it up, putting the bottoms of his feet in people’s faces and showing them his crotch as he slides into a chair freeze. Doing that in my largely Asian neighborhood would get your ass kicked in a hurry, but of course that’s the point here: to provoke. If you get your opponent pissed off enough, he’ll probably drop his guard and then he’s done. That’s the hard style. Just Be just keeps on with his next moves like he knows what’s up and wraps it all up with a slick suicide as he walks away like it was nothing.
I was a decent breakdancer in my youth, but I never particularly liked competition, which made me a very poor b-boy. Being a b-boy is all about competition, either fists or flares or phallic flashes. That’s what it means to be “hard.” Hard. Soft. As with so much of hip-hop, sexual metaphor infuses everything in b-boying.
Ghetto styles pride themselves on being hard, But they also contain softness. It’s just that we have to pretend they don’t. Idol of poor kids everywhere, Bruce Lee’s style seems super-masculine, as hard as diamond. Yet it’s based on Wing Chun, developed by a female for the female body and requires fundamental softness around the central axis. Muhammad Ali, known for his aggressive, hard-punching style, won his most famous fight, the Rumble in the Jungle, with the “soft” tactic of the rope-a-dope.
I think about this as I watch Free’s footwork. Here it’s not the Rumble in the Jungle. It’s the Thrilla in Manila. Floating like a butterfly, his moves flutter, softly, but eventually they erupt first into his unique six-step, then into flare and swipe. Every move screams power.
I’m in fifth grade now. We’ve moved to Skyway. In a way, it looks pretty much like Beacon Hill, at least on my block. Lots of working class folks of all ethnicities. Lots of brown folks. Lots of Japanese Americans, including the really beautiful Nancy Shimizu, on whom I have a dreadful schoolboy crush. I know her parents would object to us for sure; mine wouldn’t care. You are who you are, and you love who you love, Mom would say. Yeah. But I hold it in anyway.
There’s a weird division in this neighborhood, not obvious to the outsider. If your house is within the Seattle city limits you go to Rainier View or Emerson, which are both rather diverse. If your house is across the border, you go to Lakeridge which, suffice to say, is not.
The city limits runs straight through our property. The yard is in the city. The house is in unincorporated Skyway. So I go to Lakeridge. And in so doing I am one of the three African Americans in the entire pod. It’s very hard on me, especially since I’m testing in the 99th percentile on all my California and Iowa exams. The white teachers and white administrators have no idea what to do with me. On the other hand, all the black students treat me like I’m some sort of fucking freak just because I know some things about stuff. I can’t win.
It’s then I learn that you can’t be intelligent around black folks without being called “soft” at best, or worst, “queer.” I get called both a lot. That most of my friends are female and I show no real interest in sex education ghetto style with them means I hear it even more often. It’s funny: I never heard that shit in my own family, or on Beacon Hill. I wonder what changed.
That summer I travel to New York on a Greyhound. What I see there–and hear–changes me too.
Men around other men are supposed to be fighters. Men around women are supposed to be lovers. Men by themselves–no one knows.
That’s an unspoken truth in Amy O’Neal’s production here. It’s also an unspoken truth that breakdancing as dance is solidly masculine. It is largely for men, by men, between men. By contrast, modern dance is dominated by the feminine voice, so dance lovers are trained to expect presentations of the feminine in a very particular way. I expect the people sitting half-confused in the seats at On the Boards are half-confused precisely because they don’t understand this.
This gender difference also distinguishes men’s and women’s sports. In basketball or soccer, for instance, the women’s game is much more technical than the men’s, relying on passing, set pieces, and cooperation. By contrast, men’s soccer is fast, filled with lots of hard physical contact, and imbued with a certain value of selfishness.
Breakdancing comes from sport–boxing, capoeira, gymnastics, and wushu most obviously. And like male athletes, b-boys have to be strong, fast, and selfish. They pride themselves on their power moves. Physical strength means prowess, and prowess is identity, worshipped by b-boys just as surely as courtiers worshipped honor.
And yet, here are eight b-boys taking orders from a slight-looking white girl, and exploring The Feminine with a capital T and F. I can only imagine how deeply nervous they are beneath it all. Can they explore The Feminine without becoming feminine themselves? Or will it change them for good? Only they will know for sure.
It’s late 1979. Over the past couple years, I’ve learned a lot about Japan and Japanese Americans through my judo training, and I’ve learned to appreciate things I wouldn’t have otherwise. I have also acquired a taste for Japanese television that I simply cannot satisfy in the middle of bumfuck Skyway. The good thing about my crush on Nancy Shimizu is that my training has introduced me to a bit of her culture, and gives me some common ground with her.
So during show and tell week just before Christmas break, she brings in a Japanese record of Uchū Senkan Yamato (better known as Star Blazers to us gringos) which I immediately record off her, thus beginning my life-long war on stupid copyright laws.
And me? I bring in a 12-inch of something called “Rapper’s Delight.”
I’d just been to the East Coast and I’d heard people doing this thing called rapping. I was fascinated by its urbanity, its humor, its wordplay. I forgot about it when I got back to Seattle before the school year, but my cousin Thomas somehow got his mitts on a copy of this song down at Music Menu. I’ve unceremoniously jacked it from him for a couple weeks till I see him at Christmas.
The Sugarhill Gang has three distinctly different personalities. Big Bank is the loudmouth, all braggadocio about his filthy lucre and his sex life. Wonder Mike is the storyteller, somewhere between Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor. But then there is Master Gee, the “man with the golden voice.” On every record his voice stands out. Where the rest of the crew is rough in the best sense, Master Gee is the epitome of smooth. Smooth–but you’d never call him “soft.” He can rock the mike as well as any of the others in the biz (check his turn on “8th Wonder”) but always holds on to his smoothness. That is his identity. Not “strong” but “smooth.” And somehow, that is acceptable. Somehow in the world of loud signifying, his mellow smoothness brings a harmony to it all.
Hard needs soft. Roughness needs smoothness. The important thing is balance. Can’t dance without balance.
Even the white kids are responding to it. A month later, I won’t be able to escape that damn song.
I’m listening to Gifted Gab’s version of “Backseat Freestyle” and trying not to laugh at the incongruity of it all. This is the moment that convinces me Ms. O’Neal is a genius. Amid all this sweaty macho, the backdrop of a young lady’s voice requisitioning Kendrick Lamar’s lyrics–
All my life I want money and power
Respect my mind or die from lead shower
I pray my dick get big as the Eiffel Tower
So I can fuck the world for seventy-two hours
The absurdity is fabulous. It’s also pointed. Ms. O’Neal knows what she’s doing. She’s enough of a historian to know that women existed in hip-hop culture from the beginning before, somewhere along the line, their voices drowned out in the deafening chorus of this kind of machismo present in Kendrick Lamar’s music and the music of ten thousand others. Her choice of song is perfect context for the exploration of the submerged feminine voice in hip-hop.
It’s Summer of 1984. It’s the worst year of my life. I’ve given up martial arts. Disappointed with the attitudes of fellow b-boys and the tedious turf wars, I’ve stopped breakdancing.
It’s not New York. The community here is diffuse yet still territorial. It’s also filled with egos, and I’m losing interest in ego flexes. It’s too much travel from my suburban hell of Skyway even down to Lateef’s on Rainier, and though I’m known to rock Twilight 22 or the “Wikki-Wikki Song” in my bedroom, I’m more interested in playing jazz on my oboe, occasionally switching to my electric bass. I slowly begin to distance myself from hip-hop.
But I still drop down to the Seattle Center to see the Treacherous Three show. It’s amazing, of course, and though I’m sentimentally attached to the Three–my nickname, after all, is Special K–the real highlight of the show is watching the Emerald Street Boys giving service to the traveling groups. We’re not New York. We’re better. No doubt Seattle has won this battle for the day. I pat myself on the back with a bit of civic satisfaction.
Leaving the Exhibition Hall, I do not know that it’ll be almost ten years before I see another hip-hop show and that this decade will change the culture irrevocably.
I’m watching Michael O’Neal work with just his upper body and his arms. It’s part mime, part pop and lock, part t’ai chi ch’uan. Positive flows into negative, cold into warm, hard into soft. It’s smooth, sinuous. It’s also odd. Breaking is mostly jagged lines. Circles are rare, and graceful curves are rarer. But this is all grace. Yet it’s still very much based on the male body.
It suddenly flashes through my mind that I’m the only regular dance writer in Seattle I know who is a heterosexual black male. Is that why I’m so interested in this exploration on stage? It seems as natural as anything, completely in my element, dealing with things I’ve been concerned with for thirty years. And though to this day most of my friends are female, I realize I’ve been starved for any modern dance to meet me on this level, as a male–or as a “man,” whatever the hell that is.
It’s a positive cliché in contemporary dance to create work about “gender” but breakdancing has never been part of that conversation. Why? Because it’s too masculine? Isn’t the idea of masculinity and femininity as discrete things the very matter under consideration? Femininity is often challenged by women–it’s the foundation of modern dance, from Isadora Duncan’s rages against the corset down to Yvonne Rainer’s rage against “the disguised sexual exhibitionism of most dancing.” But masculinity, challenged by straight men? Rare as a black swan.
It takes some stones for the boys to agree to this at all. Gotta give some propers to them for having the balls to lay themselves out like this. And as I have to write about this piece, I have to honor that courage. I have to lay myself on the line at least as much as they have. I have to provide some context. I have to address being an urban black male. I have to address grace and intelligence being viewed as soft. I have to go after the contradictions. And I’ll probably get called out doing it.
Leaving the theater, I have no idea how I’m going to do it.
Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net