On Tuesday nights the rubber floors at the New Ballet Ensemble (NBE) dance studio are rolled up and carefully stored beneath the bars, safe from the scuff of flashing sneaker soles. Trickling in alone or in pairs, young Memphians start stretching and joking. Some sit at a table comparing graffiti styles in homemade books. Soon a CD is popped in, and suddenly the room explodes in movement.
For the past six months, an informal breakdancing session has taken place every Tuesday at the NBE's Midtown dance studio on Central. The attendance varies, usually somewhere between 10 and 12. The dancers are from all parts of Memphis and range in age from 18 to 27.
"Man, you can't just go out there and breakdance. You have to learn the fundamentals. You have to learn what it means to dance on the break!" scolds Andres Replin, aka B-boy Phobic. A Chicago native who has been breaking for 12 years, Andres is one of the more experienced dancers at the session. He now lives in Cordova. "I met up with these True Head cats a couple years ago. It feels great to be able to get down with a whole different style, a Southern thing."
True Heads is a crew organized by Memphians that focuses on using the four elements of hip-hop: breaking, rapping, DJing, and graffiti. J.D. Gray and Brandon Marshall are breakers from that crew. "Hip-hop is about uplifting the community, about using the four elements for the greater good. It's not that garbage you hear on the radio about killing fools," says Gray.
The breaking session actually grew out of a dispute between True Heads and the New Ballet Ensemble, a conflict that has since grown into a mutually beneficial partnership.
Marshall, aka B-boy Nosey, recounts the way he first met the dancers of NBE. "One of our friends, Adam Smith, aka Kodak, was having a show with John Lee at the Brooks. That was the beginning of last summer. We saw on the flyer it said 'professional hip-hop dance.'"
The performance upset Nosey and his friends. "It was a bunch of choreographed You Got Served-style moves to an Usher song," Nosey remembers. "This is our lives. I mean, we don't have anything else, so when someone disrespects us or doesn't give an accurate portrayal of what we do. We take it to heart. We take it personal."
The crew began to heckle the performers. "Everyone was staring at us like we were a bunch of hoodlums," Nosey says. "Afterward, I went up to the guy who supposedly choreographed the whole thing. His name was Max, and I asked him, 'Are you a b-boy?' 'Yeah I'm a b-boy,' he said. So I said, 'All right, let's battle right now.' He was like 'nah nah,' but I just started breaking in the lobby. I taunted him and so he tried some stuff, but we just smoked him."
The dancers were then approached by Katie Smythe, director of the New Ballet Ensemble. The dispute remained heated, but Nosey went later that week to see Smythe at the studio. "I came to the studio to talk to her. I said, 'How would you like it if we took 10 strippers and thugs, put them in tights, and called it ballet?' She seemed to see my point, and she invited us up here."
At the time, Nosey was practicing at a small church in Lakeland with only three other dancers. "Once we came here, word started to spread, and there have been as many as 30 people at the sessions -- just a lot of dancing and peace, which is what hip-hop should be about. In return for using the studio, we have done some choreography for [Smythe] as well as performing."
The breakers performed with NBE last Christmas in their presentation of the Nut-Remix, and Nosey will be dancing with them again.
The breakdancing session has become a regular occurrence. While breakers like Nosey and Phobic have years of experience, the scene on Central is far from intimidating. There are breakers of all levels practicing and learning from one another. DJs and graffiti writers are encouraged to come, and some folks are just there to watch the dancers and artists at work.