June 5, 2015

CNF By James Lawless: B-Boys In Milan, Italy

James Lawless, a north American English teacher, is a former co-editor of an underground college newspaper, a history graduate from a foreign university and a published author. He's currently living near Milan Italy.

By James Lawless


  Breakers in Italy, like breakers all over the world, don't want to be called break dancers. "That's a media term; we're B-boys!," A breaker told me in the street near Duomo Square in Milan.

  A B-boy performance is made up of four consecutive stages, the first of which is Toprock: a choreographed dance in upright position; the initial display of a dancer's ability, revealing style.

  This is followed by Downrock: the dancer makes moves with feet and hands touching the stage/street demonstrating foot speed and control.

  Power Moves are often acrobatic moves employing extraordinary spinning, whirling and flipping feats that sometimes finish in a stop position called a Freeze. A B-boy must be able to execute these four stages in his showcase.

  Nearly all B-boys have Tag Names, like my friend Twice.

  The most prolific B-boy crew in Milan Italy is Natural Force. Twice, a long-legged 40 year old Milanese was its founder in the 1990s. During that period Twice traveled to New York, where he met and danced to the music of the father of Hip Hop, DJ Kool Herc in Bronx New York. Twice explained to me that, "Breaking is something extraordinary and special; that's why it's called breaking. The movements are a fusion between the Brazilian martial art of Capoeira and Kung Fu. Even though Capoeira originated in Brazil, it's movements are African. In much the same way Breaking was born in the Bronx by Afro-Americans."

  "That's where DJ Kool Herc comes in?"

  "That's right. DJ Kool Herc was the first DJ in the 1970s to silence the instrumental part of a record, emphasizing the bass and the drums and then cut out even the bass, so just the percussion is heard and felt. Breakers love that sound vibration. That's called the break or the break beat, and the people who dance to this music became known as Break-boys and Break-girls."

  I first met Twice on a sunny summer afternoon performing with his crew, Natural Force, in a Milanese plaza. The air had a heavy humid scent; sweat dripped down our faces. He invited me backstage, on the street, behind the crew. The break bit music, pointed toward the backs of the dancers into the crowd, vibrated my lips. Four dancers did a top rock number, withdrew, and one dancer at a time did Downrock, also called Footwork, followed by Power Moves, acrobatics and Freeze moves. Freezes often end a performance; they're Hip Hop art forms reminding of graffiti art work.

  The B-boys did their numbers in turn, and when they drifted backstage out of breath I asked them questions and took notes of their answers. This is how I started learning about Breaking. Twice was my most avid teacher; recommending me Internet sites and movies to watch. Through Twice and other B-boys, I began picking up on the meaning and the feeling of B-boying and Hip Hop Culture.

  Twice was adjusting the music, a bit out of breath after his top rock performance. "I mainly do Toprock these days and leave the acrobatics to the younger guys," he told me. Not long after that I saw him spinning on his head. Twice is modest, fraternal, friendly, and tough on himself. He has all the major B-boy qualities.

  Twice and the other B-boys gave me the names of their moves to be later researched on the Internet. I must learn more about Hip-Hop culture. How could I have ignored it so long? 

Toprock downrock power move and freeze
with the B-boys light as a breeze

They've taken me in
on their backstage street
they break for the crowd
Toprock their feet

then they come back
all out of breath
pacing up and
down like Macbeth

What's that called?
I ask enthralled
Toprock he says
almost appalled
he returns to the stage
put his hands on the ground
spinning around to a break bit sound
Hey man what's that?
I do bleat

Downrock he says and
goes back to the street
spinning again
without his feet

I watched him spin
got into the groove
later I learned
they're called power moves

I wrote it all and
when he stopped on his head
he was upside-down
and couldn't be dead
he did it all with
exceptional ease
all of the moves
right up to the freeze.


~PART 2~

B-boy Johnny from Peru. In front of him from left to right is B-boys Blacko (Morocco 27 years old), Davian (Itay), Tuna (Italy), Saul (Spain), K-One (Thailand)
   In the beginning of winter I found another B-boy crew where Natural Force used to be located along Corso Vittorio Emanuele ll in down town Milan. They were a mixed crew and let me hang out backstage like Natural Force did. I watched performance after performance. I took notes.
  It's exhilarating watching them perform. I'm almost addicted. No, I am addicted, which makes me realize how obsessed they are!

  It's of the utmost importance to cultivate the audience. A breaker opens to the crowd:  "If this show isn't a success, it's your fault. If you like our act, you clap. If you don't like it, you clap. We're breaking our bones for your enjoyment! Now let's hear it!"

  The audience claps, and one of the crew members says, "Johnny's not satisfied!".

  "I told you, It's your fault if this doesn't work. Now I want you to clap hard, yell, scream, slap the person next to you. Make us happy!"

   My smile leaks out; I begin to chuckle, rejoicing this present moment on a backstage street with a B-boy crew.

  My mind cranks... How must I proceed with this project? I got it! I'll be the B-boy's street teacher. I have a good method for English learning by using Internet links to public domain English sites with self correcting exercises. The B-boys need English for their raps, to work the crowd, to communicate with foreign B-boys. Maybe I can create a job for myself, trading English lessons for a B-boy education. I'm now on my way to being a B-boy, and my new name, my tag, is Teach.

  A voice inside says, it's all in one's head. If this act doesn't work, if this show isn't a success, it's your fault. So clap those hands, yell, scream, slap the person next to you. Make yourself happy!

Toprock downrock power move and freeze
With the B-boys light as a breeze


I'm with the B-boys
in Milan's winter snap
couldn't be warmer
with a girl on my lap
they teach me their moves

open their lives
bounce off walls
and give me no jive

I can't complain
with a life like this
You might even say
I'm living in bliss
so shake off that frost
in front of your eyes
and listen to something
that'll make ya wise

Toprock - Downrock -
Power move and freeze
do what you want

do what you please 
Throw away your phone
TV and car
and wasting your time
behind life's bars


shed the weight
live with ease
smell the air
chase the breeze
reject the baggage
the heavy things
while the wind awaits
to propel our wings

Toprock downrock power move and freeze
with the B-boys light as a breeze

  I emailed a number of the B-boys English lessons; took them on as students. They didn't do much homework, but they did continue to teach me about Hip Hop Culture. I spent the greater part of the winter hanging out with these breakers...B-boys- street artists, dancing for passion and money on the streets of Milan. I've been trying to learn what makes them tick by observing their timepieces, without taking their watches apart.

  The crew I am with today is very international. They're a mixed crew and go by different crew names, depending on who's dancing. Often they call themselves ON THE ROAD, which was started by B-boys All, Tuna and Davion - Italian men under thirty. Other times they are a mixed crew going under various crew names like SEXY ITALIAN BOYS, STREET FAMILY and INTERNATIONAL B-BOYS. This past autumn the Italian version of Rolling Stone wrote an article on them picturing K-One, a 27 year old Italian Thailander, flipping off a wall in Milan on its cover. Dancers from Natural Force sometimes participate with them, and vice versa. For example, B-boy Blacko 27 years old from Morocco, formally danced with Natural Force before he started dancing with ON THE ROAD.

  I'm on the backstage street with the B-boys in Milan- Corso Vittorio Emanuele ll. It's a cold partially sunny February afternoon. There's a scent of roasted chestnuts from a nearby kiosk. B-boy All is telling B-boy Johnny to work the crowd into a closer circle. Johnny tells him a larger circle of people is better. They disagree. B-boy Davian is admiring the new sneakers B-boy Blacko just gave him. He embraces Blacko, "Thanks Brother; these shoes feel good and fit well...". Blacko smiles.

  B-boy Johnny, an over 30 nimble Peruvian, addresses the crowd: "Two minutes to show time!". He dances salsa by himself attracting more spectators. When the circle of people gets thick he turns on the break bit music vibrating my skin and scattering the pigeons. The B-boys are loosely dressed in light sweat pants and short sleeved shirts on this cold winter day.

  K-One is in perfect athletic form. He puts his hands on the shoulders of B-boy Blacko, who mirrors K-One's stare with magnetic eyes; it's a challenge for a B-boy battle. They face off as they move to the center of the street-stage padded with taped down cardboard and circled by around 100 spectators. The Breaker's faces light up with excitement when they dance. They turn to the audience and begin a Top Rock number. B-boy All joins them followed by B-boy Tuna: two well-formed Italians originally from Naples. Now they are four B-boys, perfectly choreographed. B-boy Davian enters the choreography in perfect time. Three of them pull back for B-boy Saul, a tall agile 20 year old Spaniard, who flips over K-One and Blacko. Then B-boy Johnny performs 4 consecutive back flips and begins some fancy 6-step footwork that transforms into a back spin with tucked legs; he calls this a mushroom. He finishes spinning his upside-down body on one hand and ends his
 performance with a perfect freeze.

 B-boy Saul is back. He runs up a street column vertically and back flips off of it exciting the crowd.

  Blacko takes over on stage doing one-handed jumps with some fancy aerial foot work he calls changes, finishing in an air chair freeze. B-boy Tuna does a toprock with a unique style that leads to footwork, power moves and a freeze, drawing applause. B-boy Davian goes through well executed toprock and downrock moves followed by a head spin and a freeze. B-boy All follows Davian up with tens of air flairs that covert to jumps and a power freeze; the crowd sighs and claps. B-boy Saul lowers the music for a few seconds and announces, "And now for the grand Finale... B-boy K-One from Thailand!"

  K-One sprints toward the circle of spectators, does a flip and stops suddenly face to face with a middle-aged onlooker. He puts out his hand for a shake and when the man tries to shake his hand, K-One runs his fingers through his hair and turns away smiling. He likes to play with the crowd. He darts towards the same column B-boy Saul flipped from a minute earlier, and his flip goes even higher and longer; stupefying the observers. K-One is the best jumper I've witnessed in Milan; I've seen him flip over eight people lying on the ground. Later, when I complimented him, he said, "That's nothing; I can flip over twelve!"

  "How about thirteen?," I asked.

  "Twelve is my limit so far; thirteen would be tough, but not impossible. The trick is to resist the urge to jump long by jumping high. The higher I jump the further I go."

  K-One goes through his performance with quick leg work, spinning dazzling windmills on his back that go from fast to slow. He doesn't stand on his hands; he stands on his fists and drops down hard on one elbow finishing his number with a baby freeze that looks like a body graffiti, overwhelming the crowd. All of the B-boys swagger onto the stage with baseball caps in their hands and say in unison, "People, the show is finished! If you liked it please leave a contribution!" Then Davian yells, " And don't run away like Ninja!"

   I suppose I'm always looking for a thrill. And those B-boys thrill me when I see them gyrate their bodies on their hands in over 20 consecutive flairs or walk up walls and back flip off of them. But it's not only the acrobatics; I also love the Toprock at the beginning of their acts with perfectly choreographed moves. I'd like to learn how to Toprock myself, but for the moment I'm still in the observation stage. I now have a few of the B-boys on as an English students, and possibly in time I can swap my language lessons for dance instruction.

All photographs courtesy of James Lawless, K-One and Natural Force
~James Lawless

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