I dropped in on Ken Swift's regular "breaking fundamentals" class that he has been running at PMT Studios for awhile now. It's always an enlightening experience, learning from one of the original innovators of this unique artform.
Teaching breaking is enormously difficult, which I know from humbling personal experience. The dance demands so much from the new student physically and mentally, much more than any other dance form that I've ever tried. And because it's still fairly raw, there are very few "basics" that can be taught as an entry point for new dancers.
B-boying is a "vernacular" street dance. Which means that it's aesthetic and movements were created not in formal studio or class settings, but in clubs, gymnasiums, house parties, parks and other informal and semi-public spaces. As Ken Swift says, "There are no rules in breaking. You just have to be dope."
Two of the hardest aspects of b-boying to learn and master is improvisation and "character."
To be a true b-boy, you have to be able to improvise on the spot, whatever the DJ happens to be spinning. This involves having a large enough vocabulary of accepted b-boy moves that you can combine and modify them to fit what is happening in the music and what you are feeling. If you only perform the same exact moves and steps every time you dance, you aren't a b-boy, you are just a robot.
"Character" is closely related to improvisation. Almost any dancer of reasonable skill can learn a basic b-boy combo (i.e. two top rocks, knee drop, six step, sweep, baby freeze.) But even these very basic steps, if you ask six b-boys to perform them, they will all add their own unique style to the choreography. You have to be able to add your own "flavor" to even a set pattern of movements that truly makes it your own and distinct from other dancers. And the highest achievement is to create your own move that no one else does.
I can not emphasize enough how hard both of these are to develop as a b-boy.
So teaching improvision and character in a class setting is a daunting task. But Ken Swift has been doing this for longer than most anyone on the planet, so he's learned a few things.
In class on Tuesday, Ken began by teaching us a top rock set to get us started and get us to the floor. Then he gave us a floor set that was pretty basic — right sweep to knee pose, reverse left to to splits, then ending with your right leg over your left knee while balanced on your left arm. ("Basic text," as Ken calls it.)
Then Ken instructed everyone to take a minute and invent their own way of getting out of this position. It shouldn't be too complicated, he warned. And it should be something that is unique to you that you can deliver confidently. Then after a minute, he went down the line and had each of us do the set individually.
It's mad scary watching all these other accomplished b-boys and b-girls do their thing, and then have Ken Swift point to you and say, "Go!" My set I think was pretty good, particularly my top rock and my "praying mantis" exit. And watching others, it was illuminating how many different ways people came up with to get out of the position and transition to an exit. At least one person struggled and froze during her combos, as she got too scared or into her head instead of just feeling the flow of the movements. Ken just waited as she worked it out and then completed her set.
Then Ken taught us a harder set incorporating a top swipe and had us do it again. And again.
These kinds of exercises really put you on the spot, and give you some insights about what it takes to really develop your own improvisionational abilities and to add your own character to the dance. Cause if you are going to be able to survive a battle, enter a cypher, or even just rock a beat at a club, you are going to need those abilities.
And it's character, improvision and musicality that elevate b-boying from just an athletic pursuit to a legitimate artform. As another legendary b-boy once said, "Just because you saw some guy doing a headspin, doesn't make him a b-boy. That just means he's some idiot who learned how to spin on his head."
Ken Swift's class is at 8pm every Tuesday at PMT Studios, 69 West 14th Street, NYC.