Culture | Last night a b-boy saved my life

A look into Montreal’s breakdancing underground

No way in hell could anyone top the quintuple backspin Lost Child just pulled. No breakdancer in Montreal would even dare to try. Power-moves that sick tend to break vertebrae, orphan children, and widowed wives. But Lost Child was confident that night, in a way he hadn’t felt since that staph infection nearly ate his leg. No one expected him to come back after that one, but he’d prove them all wrong.

All he needed to do was beat Krypto – the almighty Krypto – and for all intents and purposes he just did. Only question was: why wasn’t Krypto fazed? He just stood there, emotionless, just waiting his turn, as though Lost Child hadn’t already killed it.

And when his time came, Krypto slid across the dancefloor on his head, his arms extended, his feet suspended in the air – spinning the entire time, feet to face with his opponent. The judges couldn’t believe their eyes, but there it was: Krypto’s legendary HeadSplide.

Lost Child flinched. He’d caught every second of it, and the memories would never fade. They were etched into his retinas: that perfect round, that sequence of pops and locks so pure, Christ himself couldn’t do much better. The look on his face – it was one of deep, metaphysical pain. It was the stuff Karate Kid sequels are made of.

Yet it all happened verbatim, on October 24, at Who’s Hungry – the Montreal breakdancing community’s yearly dance-off.

Leaping out of the woodwork and straight into our faces, these two-dozen-or-so b-boys spared no one. Leaving, we attendees were shocked, and felt different from when we came. The more ambitious amongst us vowed to take hip-hop dance classes; others felt content clutching their heads, yelling out expletives in gratitude.

It’s not that any of us failed to anticipate dancing, but this event so gracefully straddled the line between competition and celebration, between dualistic show-offing and friendly reunion…It was something I’d never seen.

And perhaps I can peg the reason why: weirdly isolated and solipsistic, their community seems happy just cycling 1974 through 1996, forever. In B.Sci. terms, they’re stuck in the past, although here, it might not be a bad thing. Still, that makes tracking them down a lot tougher. Excepting forum posts and YouTube, their Internet presence is virtually nonexistent.

But frustrating as that is, it certainly makes what little we catch of them briskly mercurial, not to mention endearingly local. Try as I might, it’s hard to brush their isolation off as self-protection – some ill-guided attempt to shield young b-boys from the corrupting influence of tight, dance-inhibiting jeans.

In all likelihood, they wouldn’t sweat us if we came. Their breakdancing culture is too perfectly self-contained: the extensive jargon (popping as different from locking; locking as different from whacking); the killer fashions (Dickies chinos, tailored headwear, and sweet kicks); the hilarious b-boy naming conventions (Krypto, Megatron, Scramblelock, Dingo…Raoul).

As a native Montrealer looking for something real, the experience hit me like a freight train. A great time, sure – the laughs were a-plenty, the oh-shit moments by the truckload, and the drama was there for those who could handle it – but Who’s Hungry held a lot more weight than that.

For one, it ripped me clean off of American youth culture. That terrible beast, too narrowly focused on the edge, exclusively on the hottest shit – the Lee Douglas remix, the Nom de Guerre sweater, the DJs at Coda. For such an exhaustive search, ours is weirdly aimless; the new constantly supplants the old as we progressively lose sight of the difference. In a word: empty.

But the b-boys’ culture is static, and that affords them the possibility to concentrate on things that matter: namely, the mastery of movement. Of course, there’s some consumerism here too – the Fubu ain’t cheap – but the fashions aren’t updated, which means that once a b-boy has his basics covered, all he has to do is dance.

It’s a refreshing environment, one that won’t pat a kid on the back until he’s achieved something. And if we could just get over ourselves for a moment, stop thrifting, and start high-fiving over actual accomplishments, maybe it’s one we could share.

To paraphrase Illmatic’s opening moments: there ain’t nothin’ out here for us. Or maybe there is – namely, Who’s Hungry.