Feet sizzle and fly like minced onions on a hot pan. Limbs wind into a knot, then spring loose. Fulminant levitation—transformation of momentum into moving sculpture—acrobatic play. When someone falls, it’s kidneys to concrete. Toprocks, footwork, power moves, threading, freezes: infinitely variable elements that throw bodies down to the ground and up to the sky at heartstopping speed, driven only by a human engine.
Breaking began in the Black and Latinx communities of the Bronx in the 1970s as a street dance of resistance, resilience, community, and territory. In parks, in clubs, at parties, and in battles, the art form developed, then exploded worldwide on television and in the movies in the 1980s—seemed to vanish—then reemerged in the aughts on shows like So You Think You Can Dance and America’s Best Dance Crew. After debuting in the Buenos Aires Youth Olympic Games in 2018, breaking joins surfing, skateboarding, and sport climbing as an Olympic sport in Paris in 2024.
Despite a tumultuous rise and fall in the mainstream, breaking has continued underground from year to year, passed on through VHS, DVD, the Internet, classes, and the old-fashioned way: person-to-person, in practice. In Chicago, open practices—currently regularly held at the Clarendon Park Fieldhouse in Uptown and the Firehouse Community Arts Center in Lawndale, as well as in a photography studio in Blue Island, the 1213 Art Center in Englewood, and at a daycare in Cicero—are where dancers refine their art and build community. In these spaces, everyone is a teacher, and everyone is a student—and the community that forms reaches far beyond the block, the neighborhood, the city, and even the country. Below are stories of some Chicagoans who have held and transformed the practice in our town.
Angelina “Miss Sweetfeet” Rich-Usher, began open practice at Clarendon Park
I grew up watching people break. I used to go to lowrider shows—people drop their cars low to the ground, trick them out, airbrush them. Usually DJs spin, they have a floor, and people will be dancing. I saw some guys dancing and thought, “I want to learn how to do that!” I started trying to mimic them, but they dismissed me as some girl.
One of my friends, Kid Jungle, said, “I’ll teach you.” So he would teach me little things, and I would go home, practice, and bring it back: “Got it, teach me more!” It was a hunger. He began borrowing space from Kuumba Lynx out of Clarendon Park. He would teach me and a few other ladies there. He teaches a lot, especially kids, so eventually I took over.
I started an all-female practice at Clarendon in 2010. I wanted a safe space where women would feel more empowered. Back in the day there weren’t many girls. When I was practicing, I don’t think there were any. I used to go to Alternatives. It was intimidating to walk into a room full of men. I’m here to practice, but sometimes they don’t take you seriously. You really have to prove yourself. And as a woman, your body’s built differently. Sometimes it’s easier to learn from another woman. When women see me, they think, “If she can dance, then I can dance.”
I had to give up the practice in 2015 because of family issues, but I didn’t want it to end because it was a safe space. I told Metro [Melissa “Metro” Metro] to sign up. It’s nice seeing other women do their thing. “Each one teach one.” That’s my favorite quote.
Sengvilay “Kid Jungle” Aphay, teacher
I was born in Vientiane, Laos. We were refugees after the Vietnam War. I grew up in Rockford in a strict Asian household. My dad was all about study, study, study. He had my life mapped out for me already. He wanted me to join the Air Force, even took me to a recruiter. He didn’t let us go out much.
I saw breaking on TV and taught myself how to do some footwork and toprocks, and in high school, I met some guys who were into breaking, too. We started hanging out and practicing. A lot of people gravitate towards breaking and hip-hop culture because it isn’t about where you came from, just how good you are. A lot of us took on breaking because we were missing something from our lives, and breaking gave us that outlet. I was shy and awkward, and breaking gave me confidence, it gave me my own personality.
I’ve always taught here and there, tips at practice, things like that. I have a friend, Bravemonk, we used to hang out every day. Some days he’d teach class at a high school, and I’d go with him. I started seeing how he was putting his class together. He showed me how to put together a curriculum, which elevated and manifested me into doing my own.
My class became an all-women’s class—it wasn’t designed to be, I opened it to everybody. I was teaching out of Bravemonk’s apartment at the time, and over time it moved to the Clarendon Park Fieldhouse. Eventually I gave it to Angelina and she carried it on from there. It’s nice when you come in as a woman and see where there are more women involved. It’s a male-dominated dance; it can get intimidating. It was more competitive then; everybody was concerned about getting their own reputation up. I had a different goal. I had children young and needed to create some stability. I was more interested in building a program than competing.
I did karate for a while at Enso Karate downtown. They go to karate tournaments and developed a nice community. I thought, “This is something we need for breaking.” Most times at schools, kids would do a recital. There was no transition from studio to breaking battles. I wanted to do something only for kids and for everybody in the city teaching kids, something they could work towards, a bridge to kids in other studios and even other states. [From 2014 to 2018] that became the Breaking Dojos Battle.
I’ve been teaching at Latin Street Dance Academy for ten years. The goal of breaking is for dancers to find themselves. You just have to know never to give up, and your skills will eventually shine. One of my biggest classes was 22 toddlers. Parents love seeing their kids come in and leaving happy, tired, sweating. They get a workout.
Melissa “Metro” Metro, hosts open practice at Clarendon Park with Jason “Jay-Spin” Poleon
What they called hip-hop growing up in Chicago was studio dance, choreography. I started breaking in Philly. I was a jazz dance major in college, and Moncell Durden was my teacher. He brought me to clubs and got me into the hip-hop scene. I met Jay [then a dancer with Illstyle & Peace Productions] at a house music party. We hung out for a year, then started dating. I was like, “I can’t be your girlfriend and not know how to 6-step freeze.”
Jay and I took over the Clarendon practice right after we got married. CJ [Williams] had practices at Alternatives Tuesdays and Thursdays. Angie had practices at Clarendon Park on Mondays and Wednesdays. Angie took me in. She said, “I’m hosting female-friendly practices.” She would kick guys out—she’d say, “If you’re not here to share with us, you can’t stay.” There’s never that many bgirls. Sometimes girls will get catty, but Angie was never that way. She was like, “We can’t be battling each other—it’s hard enough with the guys. If your homie gets better than you, it’s going to make you better.” Angie set the vibe for everything. I started breaking with Angie Monday/Wednesday, Jay was practicing with CJ Tuesday/Thursday.
After Alternatives shut down practices, Kuumba Lynx brought CJ and Justin to Clarendon. For a while, it was Monday/Wednesday girls, Tuesday/Thursday guys. I would go on Thursdays, but a lot of girls were not comfortable. Then we lost Wednesday nights to yoga. I was just starting to break—I was like, “I need to learn this!” I basically took over practice so I would have a place to practice.
We were the only ones hosting open practice when we took over. And when I took over from Angie, I said, “We’re all gonna be cool or don’t come. We have a big space; whoever wants to come can come.”
It’s just a space. People need a space to do what they do. We’re coming together as a community to work together.
CJ “Blak Atak” Williams, hosted open practice at Alternatives, Inc. 2002-2012
I started breaking in 1998. I used to do gymnastics, and one of my coaches would show me moves as warm-up skills or messing around on downtime. I always loved it. In high school, I met peers who were more down with hip-hop culture, and I submerged myself—all I did was breakdance and do graffiti. I met my mentor Saul “Spinmaster” Portillo. He and another guy, Raul Gonzalez, really showed me the Chicago breaking scene, the crews, the bboys. They showed me how to breakdance in Chicago, and I never stopped!
When I was 19, I created an after-school program with Justin Grey and Jesse Livingston called Connect Force at Alternatives on Sheridan and Lawrence. From 2002 to 2012, we taught hip-hop arts to youth and helped them with their homework. The last two hours were an open practice.
Hip-hop culture traditionally includes four elements: bboying, graffiti art, DJing, and MCing or rapping. We add a fifth element, knowledge of thyself: how you are internalizing what you’re learning and giving back to your community. You can make your money and drift off, but it’s important to give back to your community, those before you, and those after you. It’s important to stay rooted.
There should be way more people breakdancing in Chicago, way more women, way more kids. I’ve been breaking for 23 years. For me, it’s not a fad. I’m still going to go when I’m older, even if I’m not dancing, to show up for and support the community.
Clarendon Park Fieldhouse, 4501 N. Clarendon, information at www.facebook.com/groups/164378466949750
Firehouse Community Center, 2111 S. Hamlin, information at www.facebook.com/groups/355536171867510
Blue Island Breakers, 12945 S. Western, Blue Island, information at www.facebook.com/groups/2440796099466592 and www.instagram.com/blueislandbreakers/
The Breaking Program 4 Year Anniversary/Youth Breaking Battle
Activ8 Dance Company, 295 Golf Mill Center, Niles, April 16, 4:30-8:30 PM, $10 at the door
Writer’s Bench Battle for the Eagle
Illinois Centennial Monument at Kedzie, Milwaukee, and Logan, August 7, 12-8 PM, free
Joseph “Ca$h Flow Joe” Alfano, host of Blue Island Breakers at Forever Photo Studio in Blue Island
My mom was a high school teacher—she put a catalog of community center classes in front of me and said, “You have to pick one.” There was basketweaving, theater—ooh, breakdancing, let’s do this! Seventeen years later, I still talk to that teacher [Christopher Courtney, artistic director of Culture Shock Chicago] almost every day.
For a long time, I was just taking classes once a week. Then Chris linked me to Alternatives, where I started connecting with the greater scene. I started going to open practice and eventually I moved to the city. Whenever I saw people trying to host, I was there to support. When the 1213 opened in Englewood [1213 W. 63rd Street, hosted by Justin Grey], I was at all the events—and they were my motivation. I was like, “I have a space. I should put resources into making a space of my own.”
Blue Island Breakers has been around since October 2019. It is all-inclusive—anybody and everybody can come through. At the end of the day, hip-hop is really about community. There’s not a lot of ways to create a living from breaking. You can teach, or you’re on the Red Bull BC One All Stars traveling the world, and there’s few in between. Some are traveling to compete and maybe win cash, but it’s nothing you can live off of. People have families and bills to pay. It’s tough to be united as a crew when everybody has different backgrounds and struggles.
That was one of my motivations—I never wanted anybody to pay to be at practice, and I’ve been consistent with providing food after practice to make the space more than just dance practice. It’s a space to connect and engage with your community members. I invite my friends—I’m always busy, but you can always catch me at practice. As a host, the satisfaction is helping people. I’ve had plenty of days when my world is crashing and being at practice and being present in the moment, it does me a world of good. That’s my community and my social life.
Danny Modest, breaking dad, host of a pop-up open practice in Cicero
A few classmates were breaking in high school between passing periods, in the hallways, hiding by the auditorium. I would try at home, move furniture around, try in the kitchen. I broke mom’s light fixtures a few times. That was the way to learn back then.
My kids David and Jacob are ten and 11. I introduced them to the art form four years ago. I was their primary teacher at first and taught them fundamentals. In Cicero, we had a rec center in a retired firehouse, and they were offering a breakdancing class! We weren’t used to that back in the day; we would rewind the VHS tapes that we could get our hands on or just try to remember what people did and practice at home.
Marco [Sepulveda], Bboy 2Left, was one of their mentors. Not enough kids were signing up for classes, so they pulled the plug, but he was allowed to go in there and have practice. He said, “As long as you sit here, and we’re not liable for anything, they can practice.” Then the pandemic shut down the firehouse. In those times, we got invites from Chikis and Beest Boy [of the Brickheadz Crew] to start coming through the park, practice by the beach, on the lakefront.
My wife’s mother was working on a home daycare. The building was up and running, but it would take time to get it going. We needed a spot, so I said, “Would you mind? We’ll clean up!” She said, “As long as this helps my grandkids keep advancing on their craft.” That was incredible. Once I started hosting practice, it was like a thank-you to everyone who helped my kids.
Now I’m going on a ride with them. I haven’t been in the scene for 20 years. Some breakers were just starting then—now they’re just incredible. Hearing their stories, how much they’ve traveled and competed. We were practicing with Bboy Evol [Ernesto Castelo] at Clarendon yesterday—I saw him in his younger stages, we would have house parties, he used to get down—windmills, Supermans. Him giving my kids pointers now is awesome, and his own son is learning.
People said “breaking is dead” in the 80s—it never died. It kept going—it’s going to the Olympics. But it doesn’t have to go to the Olympics to be cool. Breakdancing will always be cool. The person who does it is always cool. I’m glad my kids are doing it. I hope people in my family always do it, maybe my kids’ kids or nephews and nieces.
Sergio “Beest Boy” Rodríguez, Brickheadz crewmember, co-organizer of “Stand with Ukraine” with Brickheadz and Project Logan
I grew up on the south side of Chicago. I started breaking when I was 13 at the University of Hiphop, a community center on 64 th and Kedzie. What really got me in was graffiti, because they used to teach all the elements, graffiti, rap, DJ, breaking. I saw breaking there and decided to pick it up. I was inspired by the people around it. There were a lot of gangbangers in my neighborhood. Breaking was an outlet to stay away from negativity. Having those people around shifted me away from that—you can still be cool and not have to do the bad stuff.
My teachers were experienced dancers and have been around the world. They carried me under their wing. I stuck with them; they’re my crew now, Brickheadz. My friend Shorty Brick was already in Brickheadz—I saw a video of them winning a competition, and I was like, yo, they’re amazing! The first battle I went to was a Bonnie and Clyde competition. It was really cool to see women doing it, men doing it, man, it’s possible to do it! This was in 2003.
Currently I work for a nonprofit called Opportunities for All, but I’ve been working with the community for years. I started as a youth apprentice for After School Matters when I was 17, then I started teaching at studios, and that’s what got me into teaching at schools. One of my mentors connected me with a nonprofit. Kids inspire me a lot, their creativity—as you get older you lose that. I push them, they love that—I wish I’d had that when I was a kid. When I started breaking, the first year, I would just sit and watch everybody. I’ve always been shy, but breaking teaches you to break out of that shell, you just gotta stick around with the right people and lose that fear. It’s tapping into yourself and learning to be comfortable with who you are—from there, you’re free.
I went to Ukraine last September to visit a friend. Bboy Ram1n [Ramins Akhundov, originally from Kyiv] was coming to Chicago a lot to work. We linked up at a competition, we clicked, we started hanging out and practicing together. We got really tight, we started traveling to competitions, we became a pretty good team together. I said, “Yo, I want to visit you one day—I want to meet your family.” He invited me out, and I won a competition there—then we went to Denmark to do a two on two. Ramin has been living here for a while. Most of his family is over there fighting. We felt it was our responsibility to do something for him. The best thing we could do is throw an event and fundraise. The hip-hop community is really tight—we’re all about helping each other.
Brickheadz started because one of our crewmembers reached out to someone from a different crew on the south side—it was a north-side, south-side connection. It started getting bigger and bigger, and we started picking people up from different countries. Now we have members from Ukraine, Puerto Rico, Mexico. We had a crewmember from Texas—GpSlick, Gabriel Rosario—he was with us for quite a while and joined the Marines. Now he’s stationed in Japan. He’s been asking us to come visit him.
We want to do more community-oriented things. We want to open a studio, a gym, where we can continue to teach kids because we feel the city needs it. Breaking is in the Olympics now—we can start a place where we can train these kids. We have all the people, we just need the right place.