How Cincinnati’s re-emerging breakdancing scene transcends barriers of culture, race | Arts & Culture
Story and photos by Perry Simpson
More than a decade has passed since race riots shook Cincinnati, yet despite ongoing efforts to improve race relations, racism and segregation remain sensitive topics in the city. However, one local forum of art and expression, breakdancing, continues to transcend issues of race and culture.
“I’ve been [breakdancing] here for 12 years,” says Bobby Rebholz, an art instructor at the University of Cincinnati’s School of Design, Art, Architecture and Planning (DAAP). “One thing I do know is there never was a race issue or economic issue while dancing here.”
Some breakers even view the dance as a spiritual transaction between cultures and peoples.
“You can have a conversation, an exchange, through breaking,” says Jaron Joiner, an international professional bboy performer, instructor and choreographer from Cincinnati. “You learn a lot about a person from their dance. If somebody grew up with a lot of Latin influence or something, you see that.”
Joiner tells stories of times outside of breaking when his presence as a black man caused tension. “I’ve been in situations where people were uncomfortable with me being there. I could feel it,” he says.
“The minute I start breaking with that passion and intensity, people would come over like, ‘Wow!’ They’re not even breakers!” he says. “The more you enjoy the dance and share, the more people you touch.”
Breakers from as near as Indianapolis and as far as Japan come to competitions or jams in the Cincinnati area with the common, underlying goal of sharing their dance.
The typical breaking competition is housed in a church, studio, dance club or gymnasium. Indeed, even during a jam, the venue would be unassuming if not for rumbling hip-hop and house beats pouring from doors wide open to the elements, regardless of season.
Bboys and bgirls stroll the streets near the venue, searching for food or just checking out an area that is often unfamiliar to them. Inside, vendors promote and sell their wares. Groups of international or cross-country friends collide in a reunion of hugs, handshakes and Facebook photo ops, and jostling circles of dance.
“If you dance like you’re sharing it, it attracts different kinds of people,” Joiner says. “They don’t even have to be breakers. A smile is universal, transcends the dance. When you dance you can make people smile.”
While breaking has many positive aspects, it does have issues. Perhaps the most prohibitive is that bboys in Cincinnati tend to stay in the same circles. “Cliques,” Joiner says.
“There’s too many crews here,” says Des Odoms of Murda Rock Crew. “Everybody is separated. The UC bboys practice with the UC bboys. The Mason bboys practice with the Mason bboys. Our scene is too small for that.”
The recent trend of TV shows and movies about dancing has helped spur a comeback for breaking, locally and nationally, that rivals its upsurge in the ‘80s.
“Our students are from Turpin High School in Anderson,” says Adam Tauch, a breaking instructor at Locomotion on the Levee, a dance studio at Newport on the Levee. “Every Monday they come down to learn. They’ve started a club at school too.”
Michael Emerson, 17, of Milford High School may have said it best: “I got to meet all kinds of people from all kinds of places, races, languages, philosophies, monetary statuses. We all might live in different places and talk different and look different, but we are all bboys and bgirls, and that is what brings us together like no other group.”
Perry Simpson is a journalism student at the University of Cincinnati and on the staff of the department's New Media Bureau.