Women at the breaking point

Updated: Nov 20 2005, 05:45am hrs
Its a cold, rainy night in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston, but inside Hennigan Elementary Schools cafeteria supple young men and women are breaking a sweat at the open practice session held every Tuesday and Thursday night by the venerable Floor Lords, a break-dancing crew founded in 1981. The long lunch tables are pushed to the side to make way for about a dozen B-boys, as male break dancers are called, who are either twirling their bodies on the floor or watching the action.

As funky beats pulsate in the air, Colleen Sayers, a six-year veteran of the Floor Lords, pulls off her red Saucony sneakers and dons pristine red, black, and white Sauconys. She makes her way past the B-boys to join four other B-girls of varying skill levels on the cafeterias stage. One after another, the women move to the centre of the stage and execute top rock, then perform various combinations of head spins, freezes, windmills or handstands.

The ratio of males to females is about three to one, but that doesnt fluster these B-girls. Theyre usually outnumbered at the multitude of breaking competitions that take place around the world. But things are changing. Ask anyone in these dance circles and theyll mention the influx of B-girls at events.

B-girls are representing the culture in other ways as well. Nike recently showcased the smooth athletic moves of French B-girl Sophia in a European commercial for Nike Women. And this month sees the arrival of We B*Girlz, a coffee-table book that spotlights the phenomenon.

The scene definitely is getting bigger, says Martha Cooper, 62, a longtime chronicler of hip-hop culture who traveled to breaking competitions worldwide to capture the photographs for this book. As to why, my theory is [hip-hop culture] has gone around the world and come back... It took other people to rev up the scene. Although breaking originated in the Bronx, these days there are B-girls and B-boys representing China, South Africa, France, and practically every other country.

B-girls show another side of the women devoted to the culture, says Cooper. They show a feminine hip-hop style, wearing track suits, jeans, sweat pants, tank tops, or T-shirts rather than short shorts and bra tops, and they have a different attitude. Not that being a B-girl is easy. They fight to get the respect of B-boys. Their bodies get beat up while attempting some of the gymnastic moves of breaking. The dance form is neither easy nor feminine-looking, causing many women harbouring dreams of becoming a B-girl to quickly give up.

B-girl Amazon, aka Michelle Rubiera, has been with the Floor Lords since 1996, when she joined with her sister Heidi and friend Yhinny Matos. Over the years shes seen a succession of wannabe B-girls come wearing big earrings, beautiful long nails, and stretchy jeans, but tight. Whats palpable is the sense of dedication these women have to dancing. The We B*Girlz book is like catnip for B-girls, who are used to being on the peripheral of the scene.

As Lino Delgado, cofounder and president of the Floor Lords, flips through We B*Girlz, he points to photos of the women he considers B-girls - Rokafella, Asia One, and Honey Rockwell, who refused to be limited to dance moves once relegated to women.

Delgado says he respects female break dancers, but Rubiera remembers what a struggle it was to get Delgado to make changes to accommodate the women.

Women need to understand that offensive interactions are part of the culture, says Michelle Rubiera, with Floor Lords since 1996. "When you do a move, the guys are watching you," she says. "If you do a move, theyre going to go down, theyre going to battle you. Its not going to be nice, theyre going to battle. Thats what break dancing is all about. Theres a little competition angel on your shoulder saying, Battle, battle, battle."

The New York Times