Revival of breaking brings a blast of new energy to Baltimore

It's 10 o'clock on a Tuesday night on Baltimore's North Avenue, one building away from the Maryland Avenue bridge — not your typical party time or place.

But there's a bustle on the Joe Squared patio, and it doesn't just come from late diners scarfing down pizza and risotto.

An eclectic group of fun-seekers — bar-hoppers and artists and students — are schmoozing and flirting and greeting fellow regulars for the weekly dance party known as "Dig."

Created by DJ and rock-soul-funk musician Landis Expandis, Dig has become a big draw for breakdancers — or, as they call themselves, b-boys and b-girls, or breakers. Inside, a lone breaker practices a super-athletic move in front of a mirror. He could be inventing the no-handed push-up.

Most nights at Dig, breakers and other dancers who are part of hip-hop culture, like "poppers" and "lockers," make up 20 percent of the crowd. Tonight there will be 75 people; sometimes the number hits 100.

Bringing street dance in from the sidewalk, they add tang and excitement to a bohemian pocket of Station North. Infected by their exuberance and creativity, people of all ages, sizes, sexes and ethnicities break out in bouts of happy feet. As long as they have rhythm, they fit in.

As the regulars mingle outside, another popular DJ, Napscape, is spinning music for the early crowd, including a young crew that calls itself Pure Energy. The 250-pound Sumo has taught dance; the b-girl who calls herself Top Roxx steps on the floor with feisty confidence. It turns out the tall, slender acrobat gyrating on the floor is another crew member, Gemini.

Their fourth member, Sheki, is just breaking into breaking — she started b-girling only a few months ago, when Sumo conducted a clinic in West Baltimore. Breaking has always been passed down from teacher to student.

The Internet and social media have sent b-boys spinning around the world. Over the past decade and a half, breaking has become a universal phenomenon. The 2008 documentary "Planet B-Boy" plays like an exhilarating Olympics-highlights movie.

Now breaking has come back to Baltimore, on campuses, in community centers, and at bars and clubs.

Joe Edwardsen, the owner of Joe Squared, says Dig started "four years or so ago. For the first six months to a year, nobody comes. But it's Tuesday night on North Avenue — nothing else is happening, so we let it roll. Then 25-30 breakdancers start showing up. Then people come in to watch the breakdancing. Now it's consistently one of the busiest nights of any place anywhere in the city."

Dig isn't the only hip-hop game in town. The Get Down's Saturday night dance party, DJ'd by Harry Hotter, followed the same pattern.

Breaker David Flynn says, "It started when me and a roommate went [to The Get Down] a week after it opened. They were advertising that on Saturday night they played 'funks, breaks, house and hip-hop,' so we walked in and talked to the manager [Laura O'Neill]. She said she'd love it if we came and danced. It started as a once-a-month thing, and slowly turned into a once-a-week occurrence."

Flynn hosted a b-boy battle called "The Break Down" at The Get Down in January. It proved so popular that "The Break Down II" will take place July 9.

Stephen Fleg, who puts together "4 Hours of Funk" every month at The Windup Space, partly credits the savvy of the DJs. Fleg says he tries to draw the breaking and popping community in Baltimore to his events: "I play music that I know they're down to dance to. … B-boys like faster funk and drum breaks; poppers like slower, West Coast funk style."

Rap music and breaking started three decades ago. Along with a new, extravagant version of graffiti, they became the basis of hip-hop culture. They boiled up from black and Latino neighborhoods in New York City as a creative response to urban blight — and swiftly flew through all five boroughs and every part of the country.

These bold new forms of music, art, poetry and dance empowered young city-dwellers to express themselves in a kinetic urban style. The driving yet elastic rhythms of rap — and baroque yet dynamic lines of graffiti — found dance equivalents in breaking and popping. Dancers created their own "tags," with sweeping signature movements and gestures as exact as punctuation marks. Boyz and girlz 'n the hood started channeling their competition into dance battles.

Graffiti and rap endured. Breaking flagged in Baltimore — but raced across the globe.

Booda Monk, hip-hop's reigning eminence in Baltimore, believes that breaking nearly disappeared from Mobtown between 1986 and 1996. Monk kept it alive single-handedly — or, rather, with his hands, feet, head and torso, since breaking involves every part of your body.

"I never stopped," Monk says. When he was breaking or popping in clubs, everyone watched, but nobody joined in. "I would run around town telling people breaking was coming back, but they didn't believe me."

They do now.

Monk went to Dig shortly after it started. He spread the word that it was breaker-friendly. Now everybody joins in the dance, whether they can break or pop or simply groove and grind. (Monk will host a competition at 9 p.m. July 7 called "Revolve: House, Funk, & a Whole Lotta Breaks" at Club Orpheus.)

Inspired by Monk, Baltimore's most tenacious breakers came together as the Deadly Venoms Crew in the mid-1990s. Flynn, a member of DVC and the Invisible Sushi Kings, is one of those Baltimore breakers who honor hip-hop's African-American and Latino roots but bring their own fresh inspirations to their dancing. Flynn says "a majority of the b-boys you [now] see are of Asian nationality." He thinks Japanese and Korean b-boys have been "taking it to almost a gymnastic level in terms of technique."

Back at Joe Squared, it's 10:15 p.m., and DJ Landis Expandis — best known as the drummer/vocalist for the All Mighty Senators and founder of the funk group F — settles down at a back table with a box full of CDs.

He's already got one soul train of thought going about what he'll spin during primetime (roughly 11 p.m.-2 a.m.). He gets another train on track in case the good vibes don't roll. Dancers love Expandis because he stays in the music right with them and keys into their fluctuating energy.

"I try to get everyone involved," he says. And he knows his customers. "Look out for the Regulators," he says. "When they show up, something good happens."

An hour later, Regulators Jett Jaguar and Castro — and sometime-Regulator Talbolt Johnson (aka "Bolt 3000") — enter the room. And the "cypher" — the circle that forms around street dancers — quivers like an electric coil.

Jaguar, Castro and Johnson are poppers. Castro explains that poppers are "robotic," but the word doesn't exactly fit the precision and fluidity of their moves. Breakers are slashingly athletic. "Lockers" really are Robby-the-Robot robotic — they freeze into exaggerated poses. But poppers string hundreds of muscle contractions into waves of surging motion. Jaguar never seems contorted — it's as if a kid is doing the "Itsy-Bitsy Spider" routine with his arms and hands while his body is doing the waterspout.

The dancing that goes on at Joe Squared, The Get Down and The Windup Space draws new devotees all the time.

But when breaking hibernated in Baltimore in the 1980s and 1990s, aspiring b-boys had to seek it out on video. Fleg started breaking in 1999, but "feeding the habit was tough. I had to borrow some VHS tapes from my brother's friend [who was a b-boy] and try and copy some of the moves." When he was growing up in Howard County, "most of the time, to find people that break, I had to go to either Baltimore, College Park or D.C."

By the time another Howard County-bred b-boy, DVC's Flynn, got interested in 2003, his high school boasted an actual b-boy club (but his track coach made him give it up), When he re-entered breaking for good in 2007, he started practicing with the Towson University club, then easily found b-boy practices at UMBC and College Park.

Both Flynn and a breaker named Sean Johnson, also known as DJ Blak-Majik, chalk up their early b-boy skills partly to The Atomic Goofball, a well-known Baltimore breaker. He took Johnson to College Park — back then, the rare practice location "where b-boys would gather on a daily or weekly basis. And we all would go to a club called Sky Lounge in Federal Hill every Wednesday."

Now, Johnson says, there are b-boys everywhere. "I can usually go to large clubs, and just by the way certain people react to the music, you can tell if they can break at all. Then all it takes is one person to catch people's attention, and suddenly you have a giant cypher of b-boys, poppers, lockers crawling out of every corner of the venue."

These dancers need room to break and pop. And they won't drink anything but water because they need to have their wits about them. But The Get Down owner Bryan Burkert says you can't monetize their party feeling. "I love the energy these guys bring to the room — they amp everything up." Sometimes they block off the bar space, but Burkett says that's a trade-off he'll take any day.

The way Burkett tells it, the best breakers bring to his party nights the charisma that Travolta's Tony Manero brought to the disco club in "Saturday Night Fever."

"You see a kid like David [Flynn] on the street or at a 7-Eleven, and he's just another guy. But when he walks in here on a Friday or Saturday night, he's a superstar — everyone is watching him, cheering him on."

But when men and women start to couple up and a DJ like Expandis puts them all in a heady groove, a communal spirit surrounds even the most competitive and stellar dancers. Around midnight at Joe Squared, Expandis calls out, "Put a spank in it!" — and before he reaches the last syllable, everyone is slapping the spot that will make the most resounding smack.

Around 1 a.m., he spins a switched-on version of a Hare Krishna chant — and the dancers raise their arms to celebrate the transcendent power of breaking, popping and funk. It's as if, on Tuesday nights, Planet B-Boy orbits around North Avenue.