Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Breaking it Down

Written by Susannah Wexler
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Growing up in the 1980s, I thought I knew a thing or two about breaking. Despite the fact that I lived in suburban New Jersey, and had never seen Wild Style or The Rock Steady Crew, I was aware that breaking, and other forms of hip-hop,  permeated American culture. While in elementary school, my friends and I tried our hardest to break-dance on Astroturf porches. The year was 1986, and we wanted to keep a beat. As the boom box played, we attempted to spin on our heads and roll out of handstands. Our bodies slithered on the ground like snakes. I was six years old and break dancing, I thought was easy.

Growing up in the 1980s, I thought I knew a thing or two about breaking. Despite the fact that I lived in suburban New Jersey, and had never seen Wild Style or The Rock Steady Crew, I was aware that breaking, and other forms of hip-hop, permeated American culture. While in elementary school, my friends and I tried our hardest to break-dance on Astroturf porches. The year was 1986, and we wanted to keep a beat. As the boom box played, we attempted to spin on our heads and roll out of handstands. Our bodies slithered on the ground like snakes. I was six years old and break dancing, I thought was easy. 

Over the next several years, I began to think otherwise. While Mary Lou Retton and The Nutcracker's Sugar Plum Fairy encouraged my friends and I to throw our bodies around in awe-inspiring ways, there was a clear understanding—by the time I hit puberty—that women did not break. The breakers I saw in Union Square on day trips into the big city were, as far as I can remember, almost entirely male. They stood on their hands and flipped backwards, showcasing strong, clearly masculine, bodies.

Fifteen years later, males still dominate the break dancing scene. For a female, the ability to penetrate this scene requires skill, confidence, and a whole lot of moxie. Fortunately, not every young lady has shied away. Not only have several awesome women entered the break dancing realm, many have managed to use what they’ve learned to create something entirely interesting and new. How incredibly Sadie is that?
 Last summer, a friend of mine told me she saw some ladies breaking in Brooklyn’s McCarren Park. That’s so cool!, I thought. Stuff like this really happens. Later that week, said friend and I decided to head on over, learn some moves, and speak with these fine ladies. One thing led to another, and soon they were introducing me to other women on the scene. These conversations, contacts from friends of friends, along with some good ole Internet research, helped me tap into the movement. The women I spoke with have performed with the Beastie Boys, KRS One, and Lil Jon—among others—but they can still throw down at a park or club almost any night of the week.

MaeHem


MaeHem was born in 1980 in Sofia, Bulgaria. For as long as she can remember, she loved jazz. When she learned in high school that people could, and did, swing dance to it, she started taking lessons and dancing in local clubs. This was the start of her dancing career.

Years later, while at a party in college, she saw people breaking and immediately became hooked. She signed up to take lessons with Benzo, a member of the renowned Toronto crew, Bag of Trix. It was in these classes that she met other women who would later become part of her crew, shebang!. The year was 1999, and despite the fact that break dancing had been around for well over twenty some years, and despite the fact that feminism was well into its third wave, shebang! was the first group of known b-girls. They began touring almost immediately and scored most of their professional gigs between 2002-2004.

Even at this point in time, women are still woefully underrepresented in the breaking scene. “I know a lot of girls,” MaeHem says, “[who] started [breaking] and there [was pressure] from parents and friends to do something else with their lives. If you are a deadbeat as a woman it is less acceptable than being a deadbeat as a guy. … [In order to succeed] women have to work a lot harder in whatever field they are in…and I find that men have a lot more freedom to try a lot of things. …Women have these things where—by thirty I [they] need to be married and have a child.”

At twenty-eight, MaeHem has persevered. She has battled throughout Europe, North America, and Asia; held the Guinness World Record for the Longest BBoy Circle; performed with the Beastie Boys, Nelly Furtado, and DJ Kool Herc, among others; and has been a featured dancer on the Warped Tour and at the Juno Awards.

And that’s not even the half of it. In 2006, she opened Street Dance Academy, Toronto’s first street dance school. Aside from break dancing, Street Dance Academy offers courses in vogue, hip-hop, popping, locking, house, jazz funk, and street ballet. “I decided to start this studio,” she says, “because there was very little access [to street dance in Toronto]. I wanted to have a space where people would find out the real history, and the true foundation [of street dancing].”

For all those aspiring b-girls out there, MaeHem suggests developing a style that is uniquely feminine. “People think that you have to embody this kind of thuggishness,” she says. “The biggest challenge for me was to find a voice…the movement itself isn’t gender specific…but because the people who started breaking were male, that’s the image people have.” Through passion and dedication, MaeHem has been able to re-define what it means to be a breaker….and she has been able to do so with skill and creativity.

Svea Schneider


Svea Schneider can be found breaking at small underground clubs, in Central and Fort Greene Parks and on the Coney Island boardwalk. “There is a difference,” she says, “between the studio hip-hop scene and the underground scene, because you have the studio dancers, [who] are great at choreography—they know how to pick up choreography quickly…but I wanted to do something else. I wanted to go out into the clubs and freestyle. I wanted to go into the center of the circle and throw down.”

At 5’4” and 110 pounds, Svea can move and groove with the best of them. Born in Germany, Svea is classically trained in modern, jazz, and ballet. She began breaking in 2002 when she moved to New York City. “When I grew up in Germany, I was always fascinated with America and New York…I was very fascinated with the whole hip-hop scene. …When I was young I would collect every little bit I could find about New York in magazines and everything I could find about hip-hop. I grew up in a small city, and we didn’t have that.”

After spending a year at Iwanson School of Contemporary Dance in Munich, Germany, Svea moved to New York City where she attended the Broadway Dance Center, the Peridance Center, the Danspace Project, and the Ailey School (founded by Alvin Ailey). While practicing in the studio for forty to fifty hours a week, Svea made sure she also had time to go out every night and engage in the underground scene. “Sometimes you just dance for yourself,” she says. “Then you dance with another dancer, exchanging your energy and soul on the dance floor; other times you enter the circle and have friendly ‘dance offs’ or battles, but it’s always loving and peaceful (at least nine out of ten times).”

Since she started breaking, Svea has been featured on MTV TRL with Lil Jon and the East Side Boyz, in Moby’s “Oh Yeah” video and as a dancer on ABC’s “The View.” She has also danced with Decadancetheatre, an all female hip-hop company. And this is only a snippet of her resume. (Look out for her in the next Chris Cornell and Timbaland video!)

Like many awesome Sadie gals, Svea is at a point in her career where she is able to create something uniquely her own. “Now I am able to combine all my dance styles that I like,” she says. “Because in the beginning, I was only exposed to ballet, and jazz, and contemporary. And then I had this whole big section of my life, where for about a year and a half to two years, I was only focusing on hip-hop and all these styles. And now in my life I am able to merge all of these styles into something that’s just me. And I love it.”

Ephrat Asherie

Ephrat Asherie began breaking when she was in college. Born in Israel in 1981, she moved to Bologna, Italy when she was ten months old and to New York when she was six. As a child, Ephrat spent much of her time chasing her four older brothers. She played soccer and, when she was about ten, her mother enrolled her in ballet classes. As she grew older, soccer faded out of her life, and she began devoting more and more time to dance.

The summer after her sophomore year in college, she attended the American Dance Festival and while there, watched a performance of Rennie Harris Puremovement’s Rome and Jewels, a hip-hop version of Romeo and Juliet. While watching this, she knew this was something she had to do. It was not, however, until she saw some b-boys breaking in front of a market in Italy that she really set her mind to it. “When I told them that I really wanted to break,” she says. “they were surprised that I didn’t already know how. They thought that everyone from New York, the birthplace of hip-hop, would automatically know how to break!” When she returned to New York, she began studying with legendry instructor Break Easy. “Breaking was a burst of freedom for me. After years of ballet, which I loved, but felt that I was never quite right for, I felt that in breaking I didn’t have to be any certain way. I loved the music. I loved being on the floor. I loved the whole swagger of it.”

After breaking for six years, Ephrat ditched her role as a spectator and earned herself a spot as a performer in Rennie Harris Puremovement’s Rome and Jewels. This past spring, she performed in Bill Irwin’s The Happiness Lecture, as well as with Buddha Stretch, the creator of many hip-hop dances. She is also part of the all-female breaking crew, Fox Force Five, and the house dance collective, MAWU.

In the clips I’ve seen of her dance, she exhibits skill, confidence, professionalism, and joy. “Breaking is not easy by any means,” she says. “You hurt yourself sometimes. You get really sweaty all the time. It’s not always cute, but there is nothing like it’s innate rawness and how you feel when you get really open.”

Candy Bloise


Candy Bloise was born in Salcedo, Dominican Republic, moved to New York City when she was two, and began breaking when she was fifteen. “I was attracted to breaking,” she says, “because I loved the music. I love to dance, and it was a challenge because I was a female in a male dominated dance, and I’m always up for a challenge.” Her first battle was Battle of the Boroughs. After “The Mexican” was dropped, she knew she was in love. “It’s [breaking is] filled with ego and competition,” she says laughing. “But it’s also so much fun.”

Candy has danced with KRS One, battled in a b-girl competition in Sweden, and been featured in Teen People. Her mentors, and dancers who inspire her include Rockafella, Ken Swift, Kom3, and Furious Styles Crew. In addition, she admires b-girls Beta and Kamel. “As dancers they are all amazing and embody everything I feel a b-boy or b-girl should have,” she says. “They are one with the music. They have also created their own style and flavor and inspired many around the world. When I watch them dance it’s inspiration[al], and I just want to go out and dance as well.”

According to Candy, the breaking scene, “used to be so much more intense. …Everyone was down to battle when I first started. Now a lot of people are older and friendlier, and it seems that the battle mentality has changed because people are afraid to hurt feelings maybe.” She imagines that, in ten years, even more women will break, and the level of b-boying/b-girling will be phenomenal.

Like many other b-girls, Candy’s attitude is positive, confident, and, well, inspirational. “There are always those people who may not like you for whatever reason….but I try not to focus on that kind of energy,” she says. She also notes that, “You dance for no one but YOURSELF…The minute you focus on pleasing anyone else or comparing yourself to anyone else, it becomes frustrating. No one can be you and you can’t be anyone. We’re all individuals, and at the end of the day this dance is about just that.” Ah, and so is life.

Brianna Moore

Brianna Moore’s first exposure to hip-hop was in the early ‘80s. She was about three or four years old and was watching a late night newscast. All of a sudden, in the middle of the program, Michael Jackson’s Beat It video came on. “And I remember,” she says, “trying to imitate it.” Brianna has listened to hip-hop as long as she has listened to the radio and learned to dance at parties. Growing up in downtown DC, however, Brianna could not find any places to take dance lessons. “I think that it was just a bad economic situation,” she says. “I mean downtown DC was deserted, like where the businesses were…and I think that it must be that way in a lot of places in DC…”

When Brianna arrived in New York, to attend NYU at the age of nineteen, a b-boy friend of hers took her to a practice in Union Square. This was the first time she saw girls breaking. “It wasn’t a conscious thing,” she says. “But seeing these girls battle made me think that I [could] do it…I don’t like being a spectator…” She took hip-hop dance classes at Broadway Dance Center, but after a few years, moved into breaking because, among other things, it offered more freedom and was, literally, free. Last summer, she practiced at McCarren Park in Brooklyn and last winter she practiced at the Bushwick Community Center with Break Easy where there is a suggested donation of one dollar to attend a practice session.

Brianna has participated in the b-girl battle at All Nation, and spoken about breaking at the Tribeca Film Festival. When asked about her breaking, she explains, “I think that my style is kind of beat-oriented. …I like to make an impact and be really strong with the music and make the music make me look better.”

In addition to dancing, Brianna has an MA in Educational Psychology from NYU and is currently pursuing a PhD in Measurement, Evaluation, and Statistics at Columbia. “Growing up in DC,” she says, “I was in the minority. I was different from a lot of people around me, at least physically. …And even in my neighborhood, I was one of the only people to graduate high school on my block, and then I went on to get my PhD. …I’ve just had this driving force throughout my life to be the best that I can be and improve myself as best as I can.” Breaking provides her this opportunity. “It’s like there is this uphill incline,” she says. “Like, you’re never going to be the best, and I think that that is one thing that appeals to me, that you can always do your best and you can always do better.”

Brianna’s successes come with a sense of humbleness, and a willingness to take risks. When she is nervous, she reminds herself “that it is a human thing to be nervous, and worry about messing up and…about failing…and everybody feels that way, but there are just a couple of people that will go through with it anyway, and I want to be one of those people who goes out there. …Because you don’t know unless you try and you don’t know unless you go out there…and if you mess up in a battle—and I’ve messed up in a battle—you realize that that is the worse that can happen and you are still [OK].”
Maybe if more women take heed of this advice, Webster's Dictionary will change its definition of b-girl from, "a woman who entertains bar patrons and encourages them to spend freely" to "a female who engages in the pursuit of hip-hop culture or adopts its styles”—which is essentially its definition for b-boy.

Photos (from top to bottom) by Paul Giamou, by  Roque Rodriguez c/o Candy Bloise, by Holly Hosman

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