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Sweat, sacrifice and moments of grace with Vegas dance crew Battle Born

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Jafokes, an original Battle Born b-boy, defying gravity. The crew has made noise all over the world, but we’re lucky enough to see them at jams right here in Vegas, among a tight community of battle-tested crews. Their dance walks the line between sport and art, and it’s time America paid attention.
Photo: Christopher DeVargas

A juicy funk beat pounds the speakers, all wah-wah guitar as dancers pace and lock eyes across the circle, daring each other to throw down first. The exact instant the drum kicks, so does Ruphio. His feet sweep the air almost fast enough to blur, but every movement is crisp, controlled, so in the groove that you wonder if strings connect his joints to some divine puppeteer. As suddenly as it started his toprock turns to a strut and a cocky stare needling into the other crew. Lined up behind him, Ruphio’s boys point and whoop as he spins and freezes like breaking is as easy as breathing. Say what you will about Battle Born; they know how to make an entrance.

It’s the first heat of the stateside qualifier for the UK B-Boy Championships, and LA crew BGSK is dispatched by Battle Born, a standout group of b-boys calling Vegas home.

They’re in good company at this competition inside the Hard Rock Cafe on the Strip, with fellow hometown heavies Full Force and Knucklehead Zoo and other solid crews from Vegas, California, Washington and Colorado. They aren’t vying for cash or contracts. The winner gets a trip to England for a shot at an elite international title. Losers get squat.

At this level everyone is good (as the emcee says, “no fillers”). That’s why it often comes down to one tiny slip, something average spectators might not notice but that the crews can’t let each other forget. Their dance is rooted in the street, in beats taking kids away from poverty and boredom and beefs being squashed on the concrete. There were no fancy events back then, just the “cypher.” To this day, it’s any spontaneous circle where you show what you’re made of. ATN, one of the founders of Battle Born, explains: “You just battle till someone gives up, or till you destroy somebody and the winner’s obvious.”

Battle Born

One by one the contenders fall, leaving Battle Born and Seattle’s Massive Monkees to slug through the final’s 15-minute marathon of nasty solos and routines. DJ Element whips out the perfect Dave Chappelle sound bite to sum it: “Mm, mm, bitch!” And the judges agree: It’s a tie. Then the 4-minute tiebreaker is also ruled a tie. “Pick one person to rep for the crew,” the emcee says. “Throw him out like a little hand grenade and hope he blows up.”

To the soulful hook of Madcon’s “Beggin,’” a well-known b-boy named Thesis takes the floor for Massive Monkees. Jasoul answers for Battle Born with everything he’s got left. Fatigued and sweat-soaked after six hours of spine-bending performance, he makes it look easy, ending with arms crossed over one knee like he just decided to chill and smell the roses. This time, two of the three judges give it to Thesis.

The guys in Battle Born don’t say much. They grab their stuff, wipe sweat from their faces. One of their monster soloists, Roland Bluntz, stops just long enough to say that after so much work it sucks to walk away with nothing. But they can’t dwell on the loss. The crew has exactly two weeks before they’ll fly 6,000 miles to Seoul, South Korea, to take on some of the best at one of the most hyped dance events on the planet: the R16 World B-Boy Masters Championship.

Battle Born Dance Crew

ATN has no furniture in his living room. Just a wood floor, a boom box crackling with old-school hip-hop and bodies spinning on heads, hands, backs and shoulders. Dance parties in my world mostly involve hammed-up attempts at the running man, so this display makes me feel like I should write these guys a check. Many of them have lent their skills to legit Strip productions, from Jabbawockeez to Love to Toni Braxton’s Flamingo show. But this practice isn’t about work. It’s about R16, an opportunity for Battle Born to make noise on a stage that, for them, is so much bigger.

Seven years of sweat and sacrifice led up to this. They’ve passed up paying gigs and semesters of school to train for big competitions. They’ve missed time with their kids, wives and girlfriends to practice five or six days a week. Their young bodies are full of scar tissue and “weird calluses.”

“I’m not really injured,” Jasoul says when I ask what he’s nursing, “just sprains everywhere, like my wrists, collarbone. My ankle’s getting better. … The work we put in is like professional athletes. We gotta rehab; we gotta stretch; we gotta ice bath; we get our bodies worked on.”

But unlike the pros in other “outsider” sports from skateboarding to UFC, there’s no real money for b-boys to make—at least not in this country. In pockets of Europe and Asia, top b-boys get fat sponsorships and government subsidies and are treated like celebrities. Meanwhile, in the place where the art form was created, most scrape by and are known almost exclusively within their own community. Winning R16 would mean $25,000 to split among the eight guys who’ll speak for the crew, though it would barely make a dent in what they’ve spent making a name for Battle Born.

In 2011 alone the crew took three major titles in the U.S. and broke the “curse” as the first Americans in a dozen years to reach Battle of the Year’s final circle (they came second only to France’s Vagabonds, who’ve won the event three times in the past decade). Their May victory as R16 North American Continental Champions will pit them against dancers from Japan, Russia, France, Finland, Australia, Kazakhstan and other b-boy enclaves in the world final. And August brings a chance to qualify for the 2013 Battle of the Year. Big events are what build reputation, but that’s not why they dance. Watching them practice in baggy sweats with no audience, I see love and catharsis. A way of relating.

“We break to express how we are. Some days I could be mad; some days I could be funky. I express who I am and what b-boying is to me. Everyone has a different way of singing,” says the crew’s youngest member, 20-year-old Marcus Nunez. His solo elements (miraculously pulled off in stiff Levi’s) could be notes in a song. But when practice turns to battling, it becomes a conversation.

Brothers Geom and ATN are guiding creative voices in Battle Born. We'll go ahead and call it a tie on their badass crew tattoos.

ATN talks a lot about the vocabulary of breaking. Outside his life as a b-boy, he’s Etienne Carreira, a classically trained dancer making a living as a performer and choreographer. The same goes for his little brother Guillaume, aka Geom. They studied jazz, ballet and modern at Las Vegas Academy before getting down with a dance that doesn’t require pointed toes. Geom was hooked from his first chair freeze at age 18. Now 30, his style is explosively athletic, full of wild flips and razor-sharp freezes. He looks dead serious most of the time, and especially when he’s breaking. (Hence his nickname: “the Grouch.”) ATN didn’t hit the scene until he was 22, and in 10 years he’s become known for the stunning flow and intricacy of his footwork, a foundational element of breaking that many consider “b-boy intelligence.” The brothers founded the crew with five other friends (Roland, Nonski, Jafokes, Yoshi and Machez, a rare b-girl) in 2006 because, as ATN says, they needed something.

“It was just kinda one of those things, like we were a crew before we were officially Battle Born,” Geom says, adding that leaving other crews was tough but natural, considering they were already spending most of their time together.

As he talks, Youssef El Toufali (a friend from Belgium who performs in a Cirque show) spins on his head and doesn’t stop for what feels like five minutes. In fact, he holds the world record for headspins: 137 in 60 seconds. (Geom says this is why a lot of b-boys have bald spots.) You’d think Battle Born would recruit guys like this strictly for their power, à la the NFL Draft. “Our crew’s more on a family vibe,” Geom says. “It’s not like we’ll pick somebody up ’cause they’re good, like, ‘Oh, you got hella moves, you’re in.’ It doesn’t work like that over here.” These guys are as close as brothers, so joining the crew is about spending time and sharing a vision. They don’t covet moves. That’s not what b-boying is about.

“Moves are moves. It’s what you put in between them. It’s what kind of connection you have to the music that’s being played at the time,” ATN says. “This is one of the reasons I feel like breaking isn’t so mainstream just yet. It’s because it’s not a sport; it’s an art.”

Right after winning the North American qualifier for R16. Stoked.

Right after winning the North American qualifier for R16. Stoked.

Hours go by in a blink as the artists work. I see gritted teeth and twitching muscle as they crank their bodies into crazy positions and make gravity their bitch. Jasoul (Jason Guerpo, 27) is a Swiss army knife, nailing everything from smooth toprock to sick footwork to power moves that create actual wind. With five years in the Battle Born family, he’s become a leader alongside the brothers and Roland (Barnum is his real last name). Roland’s style has to be seen to be believed. He bends and pulls parts of his body through other parts of his body in ways that should snap bones. At 32, he’s been breaking for more than two decades and actually pioneered this contorted, spider-like “transfer” style.

“He’s an OG, world known,” says Jasoul, invoking the “original gangster” title earned by b-boys who’ve been around and impacted the culture. He tells me about a crew from Morocco they met while competing in France. “They were like, ‘Battle Born? Roland, yo!’ I was like, ‘You know Roland?’ ... He gave me that look like, ‘Of course I know Roland.’ That’s reward right there. If you’re being watched, you’re influencing somebody with your style, leaving your mark on the game.”

Ruphio (Paul Thomas, 26) may not be immortalized for his sparkling white high tops, but they make his killer musicality pop. He leaves the floor, and A.I. (Mark Hernandez, 28) shows why his buddies call him “the Hammer”—the arm he favors during big moves is comically over-developed. When he’s not on his head or balled up and swiveling off his shoulders like radioactive popcorn, he’s doing airflares that turn his legs into a propeller.

Marcus and Clavio (Alex Delgado, 22) are the resident “stamina beasts.” They dance in impossible sync during group routines, even though Marcus’ individual style ranges from jazz splits to one-armed jackhammers, while Clavio brings the technical precision of a professional salsero to his footwork.

Alongside ATN, Geom and Roland, originals Jafokes (Chris Harrison, 28) and Machez (Chez Vicente, 32) are still active in the crew. The newest member is Dereleek (Derrick Leong, 27), a b-boy with an established name from his time with California’s Fallen Kings. His style includes a trick where he flies onto the tip of an elbow, legs splayed toward the ceiling, and freezes like he’s on pause. He left his crew in the Bay Area to put his talent to work on the Strip, where he met ATN and Geom dancing in the Jabbawockeez show about a year ago. But he admits that Battle Born has so much momentum right now because of a willingness to give up such jobs and pretty much everything else to invest in battles like R16 that may not earn them a dime.

Ruphio, making it look easy.

“What I think is most important about Battle Born is that these guys don’t give up, and they will work hard ... just grind all day to earn this title or earn any title,” Dereleek says. “It’s a big factor, and it’s obviously what makes a regular person a great person—dedication.”

It’s also what separates b-boys from break dancers. Skills aside, to even attempt to be original you have to learn your history and do a lot of research. That doesn’t mean a couple hours on YouTube. Roland says you better dig up old VHS tapes, like the Style Elements footage that turned his conception of b-boying from “windmills, headspins and dressing in Adidas shoes” to “crazy, bugged-out stuff I didn’t know was okay to do in breaking.” ATN says you need to go straight to the source, some OG who was there, and ask the right questions.

“It’s hard to be original nowadays, but the point is you have to try. It’s the effort. ... I didn’t originate a single move that I do. But my footwork patterns are original. I make rhythms with my footwork that are original to me,” he says. “It’s like Kung Fu in a sense. Like you don’t do a style that wasn’t taught to you, that wasn’t passed down. There’s honor behind it. It’s not up for grabs. ... The analogy is, if you put a screen in front of yourself dancing, and all you see is a silhouette, will people know who you are?”

If they see someone else’s creativity straight copied in your silhouette, you’re a “biter.” It’s not the only thing you’ll get criticized for on the floor. If you fall out of a move too fast or lose a shoe, there’s no mercy from the other crew, who’ll point and make jokes in a show for the judges. “Anything you can do to belittle or make your opponent look like less of a man, that’s the goal,” Jasoul says. “The person to watch from our crew is Roland. This dude is quick-witted, and he comes up with the funniest stuff on the spot to clown people on. It gets in their heads.”

Roland’s wits were in full effect at the UK B-Boy Championships qualifier, especially during the battle with Knucklehead Zoo. The crews looked like they wanted to kill each other, but the post-battle hugs looked just as genuine. “Us and Knucklehead Zoo, we’re like cousin crews. Those guys are really good friends of ours, and one or two of us have gone out of the country with them and repped their crew, and vice versa,” says ATN. “We’re all from Vegas, and you know how that is, like brothers; like you can fight each other all the time when you’re at home, but if somebody else messes with you, it’s on. … I would have their back, and I know they would have mine.”

Considered OG, an "original gangster" thanks to his pioneering style, Roland has been breaking since he was 9.

Respect is huge in this arena. You have to earn it every time you battle, and giving it is just as important. There appears to be a lot of mutual admiration or at least acknowledgement across this b-boy community. But one-upmanship is a major component of the game, going back to its roots. Bboyfoundation.com’s timeline lists the “Golden Age” as 1973 to 1980, tied to innovators like Ken Swift and Crazy Legs. Back then, Roland says, the gangster part of OG wasn’t a figure of speech, to the point where toprock sometimes happened with knives in hand. “People battled so hard, so cleverly, so much more intense. … There’s this lost art, on top of originality, and it’s the sh*t talking.”

Roland considers the posturing and ruthless clowning (minus the knives) part of his style and says his critics are missing the point. “They’re like, ‘Dude, do it on the floor.’ It is! … We’re battling! This is not from f*ckin’ Mrs. Annie’s Ballet Dance Studio where this was bred from, yo. This is from a garage that I was walking by in eastside San Jose, dirty as hell, doing it in slippers. ... I will never disrespect you. This is about our moves. Just don’t do anything personal and don’t take it personal.”

Roland took plenty of heat proving himself as a b-boy. Moving from the Philippines to the Bay Area at a young age and falling in with some bad kids, he struggled to find himself. He started breaking at 9, but it wasn’t until he saw that Style Elements tape seven years later that it clicked. He realized he didn’t have to dance like everyone else.

“I got hated on. People talked so much sh*t about my style. I just kept telling people, trust me; I don’t give a sh*t what you say. This is what I do. This is what I can do.” Roland says he’s always looked at what he does as creatively fighting limitations. His back, neck and arms aren’t actually flexible, but his hips, legs and knees are. He jokes that he can throw “one weird, floppy-looking airflare” next to A.I.’s 20. He just plays so much to his strengths that you don’t see weaknesses. Having earned respect for what he’s brought to the dance, Roland says he gets worked up thinking about the journey. “It’s almost a long sentence I’ve been saying for so long, and people are finally hearing it out. ... There are so many dope avenues and intricate styles in what we do. It all depends how you get there.”

Still, Roland says some dancers go into the circle thinking they should always win. “Egos get big. I’ve been through that ego step. I learned how to lose, I think. And our crew’s doing the same thing right now; we’re learning how to lose,” he says, reflecting on the UK B-Boy Championships and the insights that came out of it for Korea. Without Roland, who couldn’t get his passport together in time, or ATN, who’s been out with a badly torn meniscus for months, Roland has no doubt the crew could dominate R16. They don’t expect to always win, but they believe wholeheartedly in what they do on the floor.

The judges at the R16 qualifier, reacting to a nasty solo.

The judges at the R16 qualifier, reacting to a nasty solo.

Strategy is essential for R16. Switching time zones means you’re already at a physical disadvantage. Then there’s the unique scoring system, O.U.R. (“Objective, Unified, Real-time”). To advance, you must win at least three of five categories—foundation, originality, dynamics, execution and battle tactics—each element scored by a single judge. The web-based program was devised by a Canadian b-boy named Dyzee more than a decade ago, with the goal of using strict criteria to minimize bias (aka “smallitics”) and create consistency and equality in competitions, not to mention legitimizing breaking as a professional sport.

“You’re really asking dancers to be all-around. You need to have your originality, your execution, things that you should have already, but the system itself makes you focus on it a bit more than you should,” says Flexum, aka Gordy Lopez, a b-boy with Knuckleheads Cali who judged Battle Born at the UK B-Boy event and will go with them to R16 to rep in Roland’s place. Flexum admits O.U.R. makes it hard to just feel the music, not to mention judge a round in the moment. “I’ve actually judged on the thing, and as much as I felt like the other team was winning, the point system said the opposite team was winning. So it kind of took away from my own feeling, my gut feeling.”

On top of O.U.R.’s technical demands, the American crews and others in the field of 19 have to contend with those coming from parts of the world that glorify b-boys. Geom says R16’s million-dollar jam is funded by the South Korean government. He adds that in some countries, b-boys get paid to be the best at what they do, while Battle Born’s members work as show dancers, servers, bar backs.

“That’s the huge difference here. ... Breaking is their job.”

R16: Battle Born vs. Slavic United - from YouTube.com

Battle Born went hard against Slavic United in R16’s July 13 quarterfinal. Jafokes threw such a fierce round his arms and legs might as well have been bullets. Ruphio became one, flying from the arms of his crewmates during a routine. Toward the end, Marcus clowned the Russian crew with a Cossack dance and pantomimed putting a gun to his head and pulling the trigger before slamming to the floor. Even on a computer screen, it’s a thrill to watch the raw flavor coming from both sides.

In the end, Battle Born took two of five categories, battle and foundation, and tied for execution. But Slavic United had more points overall. Watching from the sidelines, ATN says it could have gone either way, though he saw Slavic United violate O.U.R.’s no-interference rule three times. He asked Dyzee himself for a review, but the outcome stood.

ATN believes Dyzee’s heart is in the right place, but he doesn’t support the O.U.R. system or its goal of adoption across the competitive b-boy circuit. He thinks it has too many loopholes and compromises something essential about battling.

“Our dance is not black and white, there’s a huge gray area. ... It’s about creating moments,” ATN says. “If technically this person was superior, but his opponent comes in and just takes that moment, how do you judge that? It’s not something that can be written out and kept tabs on and fully explained.” Geom adds: “You can’t put points on the way something feels.”

Sometimes, the b-boy life is about thankless losses. It can take your pride on a bad day and make you cry with happiness on a good one. The best days, though, are the ones where you feel yourself coming through the movement.

In ATN’s living room, we cheer on his 4-year-old son Robes, a prodigy who will probably be better than all of his “uncles” before he can drive. You can see his father in his feet and his real uncle in the way he hurls his legs skyward. Geom gives his nephew pointers, then urges him off the floor when it looks like he might keep going all night. His daughter, Roland’s sons, the loved ones who matter to the other guys in the crew—they’re one big family. They cook for each other, babysit, cover bills when someone’s short and share a lot of laughs (even the Grouch). That’s how you get down with Battle Born.

“We got our own vibe and our own thing going on, and we don’t typically let outsiders in,” Geom says. “It’s just about becoming friends and seeing if you mesh well with us, plus the dancing and all that.”

I’m sure “and all that” isn’t code, but I like to think Geom was simplifying something Jasoul said, given that they have the same understanding of the dance but express it in their own powerful ways.

“A good moment in a jam for me is when I do something that I don’t even remember what I did, but I felt the energy and I felt the crowd react,” Jasoul said. “And basically, I created a moment that will never happen again.”

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