John Molina's résumé sparkles.
Over his career as a breakdancer—a b-boy, according to scene parlance—he's won about everything a West Coast kid could hope to. He's a two-time champion in Canada. He's won close to a dozen b-boy battles in California and Washington, including one-on-one, three-on-three and group battles. He won a handful of others during his two years in Portland. He has a knack for what he calls "power-style" moves—reverse spins; windmills and suspended, one-handed, upside-down, feet-flailing moves called "1990s." He is, by all accounts, one of the best b-boy dancers the Northwest has to offer.
It's too bad he can't make a living dancing. "No, man, not really," says Molina, 22, who works at a supplement shop called Custom Smoothie in Seattle, where he recently relocated to. At most events Molina battles at, he and his crew can walk away with somewhere north of $1,000 for a first-place finish—not a ton of cash split two or three ways. "Let me put it this way: Because I'm decent, I can sort of survive off of dancing," he says. "But just barely."
Local promoter and dancer Huy Pham knows the story all too well. After years of touring the country, shaking hands and having conversations with some of the most prominent names in the business, he very quickly realized that even the most transcendent figures in the b-boy world are still some degree of broke. "They're not living off their craft," Pham says. "If some of them are, they're not living the way they should be living."
Pham has a plan to change all of that.
Thanks to a new wave of interest in breakdancing spawned by eye-candy television shows like So You Think You Can Dance and America's Best Dance Crew, Pham sees an opportunity. Some of the most successful hip-hop dance groups on those shows are also some of the biggest names in the b-boy world, including California b-boy legends Jabbawockeez and Las Vegas' Super Cr3w.
In those crossover success stories, Pham sees the potential for regional b-boy crews to capture the public's attention as well. The goal now, he says, is to help fuse the sometimes culturally opposed worlds of breakdancing and choreographed dance with the hope of tapping into some of the opportunities and revenue streams the shows' success has created.
Pham's beta testing begins this weekend, at his annual Foundation b-boy battle. For the first time in the event's 10-year history, and indeed one of the first times at any national b-boy battle, die-hard b-boys will be joined by choreographed "hip-hop" or "urban" dancers, including local heavyweight dance companies Unseen and Moveo, which features members of Blazers halftime entertainers the Portland Trail Breakers. It is an experiment—one that, if successful, could mean far more for Pham and the Portland b-boy scene.
In many ways, having hip-hop choreo dancers perform and battle alongside the more freestyle-oriented b-boys makes sense, especially now. Although inviting choreographed dancers to a b-boy battle is a bit like inviting R&B singers to a rap battle, there may be no better time to do so. To continue with the metaphor, R&B simply has the higher profile right now. And Pham believes that's exactly what the b-boy scene needs.
Breaking needs actual fans, Pham says, "real, genuine fans who care about what we do who aren't participators." But because of both the culture and the Zen nature of breakdancing, the only people who attend typical b-boy battles are other b-boys—perpetuating the enclosed nature of the scene. Portland has played host to a slew of b-boy battles over the past 10 years, from Foundation to PSU's throwback jam So Fresh So Clean to Juice Jam, but they have been attended almost exclusively by the local crews and those who want to see them perform.
At this year's Foundation, a different crowd is almost guaranteed. At hip-hop choreography events, performers are, in large part, professional or semi-professional dancers. Rose Sem and her company at Groove Nation studio in Vancouver, for example, typically perform alongside jazz and tap dancers and sometimes blend "urban" dance with other forms during their performances. There's very little street element to it—there's no reputation to protect. Its events are so akin to recitals, it's completely normal for dancers to invite anyone and everyone who might be interested in coming—friends, family, you name it.
"It'll be good exposure for everybody, because it draws a different crowd," says Molina, who also makes ends meet dancing as part of a Seattle hip-hop band. "We're all artists, and we can all feed off each other."
But the structure of the event is only part of Pham's experiment. For those who don't attend Foundation but still want to see a dude do 30 head spins in a row, Pham will livestream the entire event for free on the Foundation website. If the Foundation livestream is a success—a few thousand hits would do the trick—it could spell much larger things for Pham's envisioned business model.
In Pham's mind, a well-viewed livestream means there is an audience out in the ether searching for a common home: a one-stop shop where street dance performers and fans can connect with an ever-expanding world of underground videos, photos, blogs and so on.
While there are some avenues for this already in the splintered, chiefly regional world of b-boying, no one person or company has made an effort to capitalize on the burgeoning culture this way. If the Foundation livestream can attract fans of both b-boying and hip-hop choreography, as Pham expects it might, it could usher in opportunities the very vast majority of b-boys have only dreamed about. Advertisers. Sponsors. And, moreover, crossover fans who go looking for hip-hop choreography and find the b-boy culture that inspired it.
Pham says the Portland-based b-boy and urban-dance hub he envisions would also help end the disconnect between dancers, fans and merchants. Right now, Pham says, b-boys aren't buying dancer-created clothing and equipment built for dancing, unlike, for example, skateboarders. "[B-boys] are buying Nike, they're buying Reebok, they're buying Adidas. They're buying existing brands that don't give a shit about them," Pham says.
With Pham's hub, streetwear brands such as Zoo York and Pro-Keds would meet consumers around the country in one central location online. Not only could a growing dance community help support legitimate streetwear companies, but the companies could in turn find the dancers who draw the most online attention through videos and forums and support them through sponsorships. Everyone makes money, and the community begins to grow.
Martin Navarrete, director of marketing for Pro-Keds, says the company has been approached before by b-boy crews looking for sponsorships. And while the company has yet to move in that direction, anything that might help it maintain a connection with a culture it has historically been a part of is welcome—including websites that help it connect with dancers.
"It's still very relevant, for sure," Navarrete says of the b-boy scene, which he's been close to since his time at iconic hip-hop brand Adidas. "I think anything that brings you closer to what is happening on the street is always relevant."
In explaining his plan, Pham often references the world of skateboarding, and for good reason. The subculture sport has, over the past two-plus decades, grown from an underground hobby to a massive commercial enterprise. According to a May 2009 report by industry blog Shop Eat Surf, skateboarding is now a $4.8 billion annual market, with more than 77 percent of skateboarders turning to the speciality market for their clothes and shoes. Pham looks at streetwear companies and imagines a similar fate—if only they had a convenient place to meet potential consumers.
It's an inspired vision, for sure, but one fraught with obstacles.
Breakdancing's low profile has created two seemingly irreconcilable situations: a firm adherence to a "breaking and only breaking" ethic, and a real need to push the culture into the mainstream so maybe these guys can, for once, get paid.
Foundation, for example, has always been put on by b-boys, exclusively for b-boys. That wasn't necessarily by design, but at the time, who else would they invite? Even earlier this decade, the gap between breaking and any kind of synchronized dance was massive. In the collective eyes of the b-boy scene, the only thing breaking and the rising trend of "hip-hop" or "urban" dance had in common was that they were both performed by humans. Nothing more.
In a way, the dances themselves set the two groups apart. Where hip-hop choreography is exactly that—a series of well-rehearsed, choreographed dance moves—breaking is organic and dynamic. Sure, b-boys train to learn their different moves, but those moves are meant to be performed in bursts of spontaneous, music-fueled motion. Even with the promise of potential income bringing the two groups together, some in the b-boy scene still view hip-hop choreo dancers as somehow less legitimate.
"Hip-hop choreo is very commercial, and a lot of these guys want to preserve the essence of what it means to be a b-boy," Pham says. "It's a huge balancing act."
As much as the success of America's Best Dance Crew has bridged the gap, Foundation still won't be the place where b-boys and hip-hop dancers can collaborate. That's by design. During the two-day battle, the b-boys (including Do Knock from Super Cr3w) and the hip-hop choreo dancers will perform in completely separate rooms at the Bossanova Ballroom, mainly at the behest of the b-boys, who have little interest in dancing to hip-hop choreo DJs.
"B-boys don't give a shit about anybody but b-boys," Pham says. "And that's where I think there's a huge fault in that community, and why they haven't really grown in the way they needed to grow, because they don't share in the mutual respect other dancers have for them."
But Pham hopes that the high level of talent at the event can still win some cross-over fans, on both sides of the divide.
"There's going to be a ton of [b-boys] looking out the windows from the mezzanine, laughing at the guys doing hip-hop choreo. But there are going to be people they can't laugh at, because those people are actually dope," he says.
Some in Portland's surprisingly large hip hop choreo scene expect the same.
AMERICA'S BEST BAR CREW: Eddie Nunez of the Portland City Rockers crew dances at the Goodfoot. IMAGE: vivianjohnson.com
Josh Burns, who runs the Portland-based dance company Unseen Urban Arts, has never brought his company to a b-boy-style competition before. The 10-dancer company is by all accounts the best hip-hop choreo crew Portland has to offer, but even they often dance to more pop-friendly artists, such as Jay-Z and The Postal Service, rather than the pure DJ-inspired breaks b-boys prefer. But Burns' crew performed a one-off show at Pham's Ashes-2-Ashes b-boy competition in Eugene this past year, and while he was apprehensive about exposing his dancers to what could have been a brutal b-boy reception, the show went off without a hitch.
"They went nuts for us, cheering and screaming," Burns says. "There's been this gap and this rift between the b-boy world and the dancer choreography world. But now, due to the mass popularity [of ABDC and other television shows], there's a lot more openness."
Will Pham's plan work? Well, it has a chance. The best b-boy crews in the business have now learned how to flip their success in the world of hip-hop choreography into significant and sustainable income. There's every reason to believe crews like the Jabbawockeez and Super Cr3w could do for smaller b-boy crews what Tony Hawk did for a generation of skateboarders who, prior to his pop culture transcendence, had little hope of making money from their craft.
Foundation will be the test. If it succeeds, Pham says, it will add credence to a business model and a vision he says could make all the difference for struggling dancers.
"We are the forefront of the dance community," Pham says. "There's a bigger potential for growth. I've always thought about that: How do we make this bigger, better? Homegrown only gets us so far. I want it to be as big as possible."
Foundation takes place at the Bossanova Ballroom, 722 E Burnside St., bossanovaballroom.com. 6-10 pm Friday-Saturday, March 26-27. $20 per day, $30 for two-day pass. Tickets at brownpapertickets.com. Info at foundationpdx.com.