Last December director Steve Walker was looking for actors who could break-dance for Factory Chicago’s production of Poppin’ and Lockdown, a viciously plastic tribute to early-80s rapsploitation flicks, when he saw Derrick Nelson and Danny Belrose bust a few moves in Defiant Theatre’s Sci-Fi Action Movie in Space Prison. He grabbed them to play rival dance captains; 33-year-old Nelson, cast as head villain, was psyched at first to make a full-on break-dancing comeback. But his starch lasted only as long as his back and knees. “After the first rehearsal, I was regretting it,” he says. “The mind is like, oh, you can still bust that move–and the body is like, ohhhhh, no I can’t! I pulled my groin!”

Belrose, who plays Turbo, the hero, is shorter and smaller than Nelson and at 26 still seems to float above the stage as he dances. Backstage, though, he downs shots of grape juice–he’s diabetic, and there are few pauses in the play’s 90 minutes of action. “In the last scene, I can barely get my lines out,” he says.

Adam Joyce, who plays Turbo’s sidekick, Mr. Freeze, took up break dancing as a nine-year-old in Rogers Park. His moves look sharp and easy, but three days before opening night he was hiding Ace elastics under his sweatbands and bandannas. “I fucked up my ankle for this show, for sure. I fucked up my back, fucked up my neck, my wrists are starting to go tonight–that’s just ’cause I’m 27. I was over the hill when I was 10.”

Break dancing, for those who were in a womb or on a commune, is an acrobatic, stylized, improvisatory form of solo dance invented by disco-era clubbers to entertain themselves during percussion breaks in and between songs. In the late 70s dancers spread from the clubs to the street, put down sheets of linoleum or cardboard to dance on, and passed the hat to passersby. By the mid 80s break dancing had become a mainstream fad, brought out by cartoony films like Wild Style (1982) and 1984’s Breakin’, from which many characters’ names in Poppin’ and Lockdown are brazenly yanked.

Factory Chicago is beginning its eleventh year of squeezing productions of original scripts from tiny budgets. Last spring Matt O’Neill’s Captain Raspberry became a minor cult classic, and the company’s July remount of the 1995 hit White Trash Wedding and a Funeral (written by Mike Beyer and Bill Havle) consistently sold out; Walker says people were still trying to make reservations after the show was closed. They sent two shows to New York in 2001: The Vinyl Shop played the Fringe Festival, and The Death and Life of Barb Budonovich went up at PSNBC, an NBC-owned theater that produces original scripts.

This show, their 50th, was first produced by Factory West, the company’s new branch in LA. It’s funnier than a synopsis of its thin plot suggests: three dance crews, one good, one evil, and one mentally handicapped, battle for the chance to be repped by bagel-snarfing promoter Lou Jewison. Two Factory Chicago veterans who helped found Factory West cowrote it: Kirk Pynchon grew up loving break-dancing films, cheese and all, and Mike Meredith hated them so much he agreed to work on a parody out of spite.

It’s set in 1984, the crest of the trend. Nelson, who grew up “in every neighborhood in Chicago where an interracial family could live in the 70s,” spent his free time that year break-dancing in clubs like the Rainbo roller rink on Clark. When he was 15 he left for a “lily-white” boarding school in New England. “There isn’t much breakin’ in prep school,” he says, “so I broke off with my crew–and when I came back [to visit], they were doing full-out helicopters, head spins, ’cause they were still breaking every day.” By the time he graduated, the club scene in Chicago was dominated by house music; just a small patch on the side of the Rainbo dance floor was still set aside for break dancing. While Nelson moved on to house dancing, he says some breakers went back underground, to the east coast, or to Europe, where the fad continued.

Nelson’s acting credits include A Christmas Carol at the Goodman, and he also has a job tending bar during the day. “But once in a while if I need some extra money, I’ll put down the cardboard in front of the Dominick’s. Then I’ll go to Starbucks.” He’s kidding–he never made money dancing. But Belrose, whose resume lists ER, MTV, and a Jeff citation, says he has a friend from Evanston who made 18 grand one year as a teenager “breakin’ at bar mitzvahs!”

Belrose, whose (white) character converts to Islam in prison and changes his name to Turbo X, says the grind of the show’s schedule has led Factory Chicago breakers to limit their more dangerous moves. “Real break-dancers only break about once a week and take the rest off to heal. We’ll have to do this almost every night,” between shows and ongoing rehearsals. “If I break my ankle up tonight, I’ve got to go right back on tomorrow.”

“No, real break-dancers break every day,” says Brian Jackson, a nonactor who plays his own alter ego, DJ Boogie Down Bronx, in the show. But he concedes they don’t go all out every time. “[The play’s] supposed to be fake. It’s a joke. But it would be nice to get some real breakers in here–they’d make fun of these guys.”

“Ah, we’ll make an actor out of you before these six weeks are up,” retorts Chas Vrba, who plays a retarded break-dancer (in a Patty Duke wig) and a prison bitch (with a bow on his head).

Belrose was the only Chicago dancer Walker allowed to watch the Factory West production on tape; he was afraid the rest of the cast would get spooked. That show was heavy on joint-smashing acrobatics–most famously the head spin that got street dancers TV play in the 80s–while the Chicago production relies on poppin’ and lockin’: rhythmic, transitionless strings of slick poses and gestures. Belrose says he was indeed a bit intimidated by the athleticism of the LA company, which spiked its cast with a pair of teenage breakers. “When I saw the tape, I was like, ehhh….During the scene change a kid would come out and spin on his head the entire time.” But there was a trade-off: the teens had no acting experience, so some of the line delivery wasn’t always up to the script’s wit.

Walker says he wanted to make sure the dialogue worked, so he looked for trained actors who happened to have enough break-dancing skill to make for a good-looking production. Then he coached them to use poppin’ and lockin’ flourishes to punctuate their trash-talking lines; the characters flap their hands in each other’s faces, miming threats of comeuppance.

“C’mon,” says Walker, “so expert break-dancers might quibble with their moves. Is it plausible that these guys are the best break-dancers in New York circa 1984? No. Do they think they are? Yeah. Therein lies the comedy.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yvette Marie Dostani.