Tough Break

It's a hard-knock life for Cleveland B-Boys.

Big Trouble
Brothers in hip-hop: Munoz (right) and B-Rock. - Walter  Novak
Brothers in hip-hop: Munoz (right) and B-Rock.
Being a break-dancer in 21st-century Cleveland is sort of like being a purple zebra at the zoo: People think you're either really cool or really weird.

You're cool to a coterie of club kids who know that Wu-Tang Clan isn't a breakfast drink. Everybody else mistakes you for a Michael Jackson groupie who missed the bus 15 years ago. Stuck in time waiting for a table at Applebee's, they haven't gotten the phone call from New York telling them that the funky-fresh dance is popular again.

When they finally do hear the news, they futilely try to squeeze themselves into a mothballed pair of parachute pants, in the hopes of executing a feeble moonwalk in the general direction of the refrigerator.

Ugh. So old school. All that boogaloo, that finger popping and locking, might work fine for washed-up blue-hairs. But B-Boys of the second generation spend most of their time on the floor. Famous for contorting themselves into pretzel shapes, they're a cross between Olympic gymnasts on the pummel horse and the spider lady at the circus.

In Cleveland, the new stuff is so off-the-hook that Neft Ali Munoz couldn't find anybody to teach it to him. A streetwise kid growing up on Clark Avenue, he had to learn street dancing from videotapes. Nobody he knew could break; they mostly spent their weekends locked up in church.

"I pretty much encouraged myself," he says. "I was spinning on my back in a cardboard, in front of my house. Me and my brother, we had this mattress that we found, we were doing back flips on."

A 1998 hip-hop conference at the Rock Hall pushed him to get better. A B-Boy from Miami who was performing there singled out Munoz from the crowd, getting in his personal space as a way of challenging him to a break-dance battle. The muscle-bound teen wasn't prepared.

"He made me feel awkward," recalls Munoz, who considered the incident a major affront to his masculinity. "He just kinda came out on me, and I couldn't do anything to get him back. I had to stay taken."

Even if he had wanted to forget the whole thing, his buddies had gotten it on video. Whenever he felt like slacking off, he'd just pop in the tape. "I look back at that video now, and I go, 'Damn, I wish I was good back then, so I could just get that guy.' I'm still looking for him. I'll get him."

After two years of hard work, Munoz started snagging attention for his signature moves: the "2000," a rotating, one-handed handstand, and the "one-handed turtle," a spin that looks like nothing found in nature. His big break came when he was "discovered" by Rock Hall staffers at a rave party. A high-school dropout who'd flunked the ninth grade three times, he was soon performing in their hip-hop education program. He and his crew, Ground F/X, now perform for groups of Cleveland middle-schoolers several times a week.

The school kids treat the B-Boys like pop stars, giggling when they get close to them, bashfully reaching out and trying to touch their jackets or shirt collars when their backs are turned.

Such heartwarming scenes are a far cry from B-Boy club battles. Rich in testosterone, these showdowns of strength and flava, or style, usually take place after midnight, when a collective chemical buzz is well under way.

Stoked by an encroaching crowd, the B-Boys go head-to-elbow in 30-second cameos. They strut around, shooting insults and imaginary bows and arrows at each other. If they're particularly proud of a move, they'll freeze it for a few moments, so it's sure to be etched on the judges' psyche.

The object is not just to outmaneuver your rival, but also to make him look small. The winner goes home with a $100 prize -- an insignificant sum compared to the bragging rights that go along with it.

Locally, Munoz and his crew are beyond compare, driving to Pittsburgh and Columbus to do battle. Nationally, no one's ever heard of them, but not for want of trying. They're perpetually videotaping themselves dancing at clubs, then mass e-mailing the footage as little web-cam movies.

Sometimes, they even bring along a photographer whom they can push around. "OK, now!" Munoz will command, freezing into his most intricate loop-de-loop. "Take a picture of me now!"

If Ground F/X were less cocky and more funky, they might go places, says Dre Live, an old-school B-Boy who's the self-appointed grandpa of Cleveland break- dancing. "For the Cleveland scene, especially, I adore those guys the most," he says.

Dre is self-taught, too. He started popping and flexing in high school, in 1983, and got really good at it. But, just as he started making a name for himself, break- dancing went out of style.

From around 1988 to 1995, he was embarrassed to break-dance. Doing the centipede in public meant instant social death, so he took up football in his spare time.

That was the darkest time of his life. He'd hang around the perimeter of house parties, pretending he wasn't jonesing to bust a move. Some popular songs even had natural breaks in them, but it was a time when men weren't supposed to dance -- they were supposed to lean against the wall, arms folded, and look tough.

"I knew my friends would rape me if I pulled some moves," the 31-year-old recalls. The ensuing melodrama, he says, would have been like "a Lifetime story," as in the cable channel known for its made-for-TV tearjerkers.

When break-dancing began its second wave in the mid-1990s, Dre went from a dejected has-been to a gleeful one. He could dance again, though the power moves the kids were doing were practically landing a senior citizen like him in hip-replacement surgery.

"I was getting tired as hell, trying to keep up," he says. "So I decided to spend more time on the 'text' -- the footwork and flava of the dance. I'm the king of old-school and flava."

Like the Six Million Dollar Man, Dre says, he's rebuilt himself. If the club kids try to dis him, he jumps in the circle and shows 'em how to get down.

Who knows? When he really gets old, maybe he can rebuild himself again. With his moves, he would make a kick-ass polka dancer.

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