The University of Iowa

Break dancing around the world

June 15th, 2011

By Karina Schroeder*

They are the second-to-last act at the Bridging Fiesta cultural talent show at the University of Iowa. Most of the performing acts that night are dancers, and this group is no different. But when they come on stage and begin their performance, the intricacy, strength and gravity-defying angles of their moves makes them instantly a popular hit.

The group is the UI Breakers, a relatively new UI organization that break dances its way into performances and competitions in Iowa City and around the Midwest. The breakers’ performances are based as much on improvisation as they are on hard-worked technique and coordination, making the group of around 15 dancers a tight-knit community.

While largely maintaining a presence in the Midwest, the UI Breakers are also part of a global street-dancing network, building relationships and using social media to stay connected with similar movements around the world. They are a subculture extending throughout many and their popularity is only growing.

Hussain Albanay is the Breakers’ closest global connection. A native of Kuwait and four-year break dancing veteran, Albanay enrolled at the University of Iowa due largely to Iowa City’s break dancing scene. Through YouTube videos and the Breakers’ blog, Albanay saw the maturity of the UI Breakers organization, and wanted to be a part of it.

“It seemed like a really nice environment,” Albanay said. “[On their blog] they wrote all the competitions they have, about themselves, and how they train a lot. That interested me.”

The UI Breakers have come a long way since their founding in 2007, and their global outreach is a good indicator of their influence. While developed by three friends looking for more legitimacy and recognition of their dance, the organization has grown into an authoritative force for the Midwest break dancing scene.

Chuy Renteria, a founder of the UI Breakers, began dancing in 1999 when Laotian neighbors brought the dance moves from California to West Liberty, Iowa.

“Everybody was trying break dancing,” he said. “We would practice and try it in my garage.”

Because break dancing requires so much patience, dedication and perseverance, Renteria said most of his friends quit while he kept going. Twelve years later, he continues to practice five or more days a week and compete regularly in competitions.

“It’s a hard thing to do. In order to get really good and have an active role in competitions, you have to be there all the time. We’re always practicing,” Renteria said.

They’re always observing too.

During weeknight practices at the Field House, the Breakers spend as much time observing their teammates’ moves as they are practicing their own. The relaxing atmosphere allows them to help each other through suggestions, encouragement and friendship.

“It’s a never-ending learning process,” said Hai Tran, another founder of the Breakers. “[Breaking] is never going to end for me. Every day is a new adventure, it’s non-stop progress.”

Tran is a member of the UI Breakers, but he competes in competitions, or “jams,” with another group called Boogie Monstarz, located in Kansas City, Missouri. Boogie Monstarz is referred to in the break dancing world as a crew, or a group of elite dancers who come together to participate in competitions.

The UI Breakers is not a crew, so as an organization they do performances around Iowa City to raise money and awareness, and they host jams in Iowa City. In jams, different members of the Breakers compete in different crews, not as a student organization.

“There’s a couple different crews with the Breakers, and the Breakers is like an umbrella,” Renteria said. His crew, based in Iowa City, is known as AOK (All Out Kids).

AOK travels throughout the Midwest and they compete almost every weekend during the semester. Jams aren’t just about competing, Renturia said, it’s a lot about networking too.

“There’s a lot of exchange of tips and ideas,” he said. “There’s not just the competition, there’s people hanging out, talking, building relationships, and that’s a cool aspect of breaking as well.”

“It’s all about connections, because you have to make connections that benefit you,” Tran said.

Since break dancing began to make a comeback in the past decade, break dancing scenes have sprung up just about everywhere. Competitions now span the globe and bring together crews from many different countries. Albanay is not the only Breaker with cross-cultural connections. Several other members have trained and performed in competitions as far away as Japan and Korea.

Tran, who spent time teaching in Korea through Camp Adventure, also had the opportunity to train with one of the world’s leading break dance crews. The experience greatly influenced both his style and progress.

“I trained with them for three months, then I came back and my style was really powerful,” he said. “Training with a crew that’s really good, and talking with them and making connections with them, it helped me improve really fast. [Breaking] is all about helping each other, sharing and connecting.”

Rob Cooney, a UI Breaker who does not currently belong to a crew, said he goes to Japan every summer to train with his best friend. He picks up inspiration from Japan, while his friends and fellow dancers there pick up inspiration from the United States.

Through study abroad, work and travel opportunities, dancers can connect with other dancers around the world. For those without these opportunities, social media fills in the blanks.

“My best friend in Japan calls YouTube ‘textbook for dancers,’” Cooney said. “He is a fantastic mover, but he picks up so much vocabulary from stuff he sees on YouTube. He’s up on all the stuff that’s going on in LA, he can watch stuff in Europe, he gets stuff from all over the world, and he adds that all to his ever-growing vocabulary. And he’s not the minority of people that are doing it.”

Renteria said globalization is occurring everywhere in the street-dancing world.

“Right now with social networking, we’ve lost our regionality,” he said. “It used to be New York would dance like New York, LA would dance like LA, Tokyo would dance like Tokyo. But now there could be a jam in Holland, and the next day it’s up [on YouTube]. You’re able to have these influences you would never have [before].”

Rebekah Kowal, associate dance professor at the University of Iowa, said this range of diverse influences is at the essence of hip-hop and break dancing.

“Hip hop is an art of sampling, it’s a collage, so they steal steps and make them their own,” Kowal said. “This sense of sampling in an international setting, it can be done fairly easily because of how easy it is to go on YouTube and take it.”

Breaking was always a progressive art form, but social media has placed it on an international and globalized stage never before possible. The UI Breakers are taking advantage of this opportunity, and their dedication is only bringing them closer.

As Tran said it so well, “it’s all for the love of the dance.”

*Karina Schroeder graduated from the University of Iowa in May 2011, receiving degrees in Journalism and Mass Communications and Anthropology. She is a freelance writer.