Street performance has proven to be quite common throughout Amsterdam and Europe in general. It seems as though at every turn onto a new “gracht” or “straat” I have found some sort of live performance taking place. But the performance I chose to sit down and really analyze was a breakdancing routine. A trio of a bald muscular black man, an enormous eastern European man, and a thin spaghetti-like black man with a bandanna and dreadlocks performed in that order. The performance occurred in Leidseplein square on a Sunday afternoon. Sitting, enjoying an espresso, the three men had my full caffeine-fueled attention. I could see them clearing a space within the wide sidewalk, much as a painter might prepare his canvas. Stretching out the area and creating a blank space to splatter, smear, or dance out their human expression, the men were ready to perform. They looked at each other with a clear sense of communication. Between the three, I was led to believe they had months or years of collaborative experience together.
Before I critique their performance with any shred of knowledge about the art form, I had to do some research to develop an understanding and to employ the proper terminology. Originating in the early 1970’s among Puerto Rican and Black youths in New York City, this form of street dance took off internationally as its appeal had spread through various communicative mediums. Over the years many different styles have emerged as unique interpretations have been made of the art form. Across these styles, there are four main types of move. Of course these moves can take on limitless variations, but for the most part we have four. Breakdancers typically begin with the toprock steps, our first form. This consists of the strings of steps that primarily come before or in between any more complicated moves. I can’t help but describe it to myself as an urban whirl, a flurry of the legs that serves to generate momentum. Next, we have the downrock, which essentially incorporates dropping the hands down to the floor to create a more complicated, illusory dynamic. Where two limbs show movement, four limbs show intricacy. Third we have the power moves, where the dancer shifts all his weight to his upper body, leaving his legs suspended. It generally creates a gravity-defying sensation amongst the viewers. Lastly, we have the freeze. Exactly as it sounds, this form is complete stillness of the body in a rather physically demanding, or contorted pose. With a general understanding of the methods involved in the art form, I was able to shed a new light on the performance.
The bald black man started off the performance in typical fashion. Once in the perpetual groove of the toprock steps, he then dropped to his hands and his feet in a very fluid motion. The black man continued a variation of these movements up to the execution of a power move. He would weave in and out of downrock and power moves until he built up enough momentum and excitement to perform a freeze. He dangled his legs like a crumbling pillar as his right arm held his body suspended with his left arm stretched out to the world as if to say “voila!” I certainly did look and I was astounded. This dancer exhibited a “power” style that is marked by strong steps sprinkled with freezes and difficult maneuvers. That being said, there are many different styles that each have their own cultural beginnings that emphasize different aspects of the dance. Now, I have seen my fair share of corny street dance movies, but I have never really spent the time or energy to give this type of performance the focused attention it deserves in a live setting.
The next man to leave his impression on the canvas was the European man. With a strong build, he executed many of the same moves with some variations. He, like the dancer before, emphasized his power moves, and seemed to channel less creative vision to his toprock and downrock steps. They came off as mere warm-ups for his power moves and freezes, which are the moves that “wow” the novice audience. That is to say they are powerfully stimulating in the way they elicit an adrenaline based response from the viewer. Upon this realization I couldn’t help but relate it to the marketability of modern electronic dance music (EDM culture). The business has become a cash cow for drawing in a largely novice audience that seeks that “wow” factor however devoid of artistic merit it is. By this I mean excessive bass, outrageous light shows, and pyrotechnics. In a way, excessive use of power moves and freezes can be interpreted along the same vein. While I do not intend to label their performance as “meritless,” this concept had me thinking how I could approach this performance if I was well versed in the art form. Would I perceive their talent differently? I was certainly impressed. Surely they picked up breakdancing for the love of it. But did the chance of street profit inhibit their artistic vision? Executing the power moves will be more likely to earn you a few euros in the cup than a string of subtle, soulful toprock and downrock moves that would leave a genuine, and artistically valid “wow” impression on a seasoned breakdance critic.
The black man with long dreads took the final role in the trio’s performance. While I sat there I felt myself seeming less impressed with the performance, but upon further thought I realized it just contained less adrenaline inducement and sheer unrefined excitement that the others had. This man’s performance was more fluid, more experienced, and more passionate. It seemed as though he was dancing out his understanding of the world and this city. His soul was there and I could see it streaking and swirling across the pavement like brushstrokes. It was elegant and refined, seemingly out of place on the street (an interesting perception to have of a street dance). If I could pluck him from the concrete and place him on a large stage it would seem to be a more fitting context. That in itself is a beautiful thing. I was lost in his intent and it was hypnotizing… far more so than the two previous dancers.
The more I think about contingency, the more I begin to understand how deep the avenues of artistic mediums are. You can seek to understand who, what, where, or why, but only if you put in the time to become familiar and invested. Passion carries the listener into an artistic medium (or several) and it helps build an understanding that serves as a whole new lens into perspectives on a certain art form and an artist’s mind. These breakdancers, in a short six minutes on their concrete stage, shed some light on this burgeoning concept in my mind. It was a performance fit for the city streets, as the aesthetics and movement of the art form ooze the feeling of cramped space and the desire to escape confinement through dance. Creative juices incite this desire to blossom into a fluid whirlwind to defy gravity and escape the concrete that confines us from above and below.