We're staring down, not quite believing what we're seeing, at an athletic young man — known to the cognizanti as a b-boy — spinning on his head like a child's toy, a whirling top with arms, legs and torso.
A group of his friends are gathered in a loose circle around him, urging him on to ever greater, more elaborate, gyrations. Bass-heavy music, perhaps something by James Brown, whose 1969 song "Get On The Good Foot" inspired a lot of it, thumps out of a boom box.
We're witnessing the birth of the break dance, right?
Wrong. The spectacular power moves we're seeing are a somewhat recent innovation — introduced by the legendary break dancers "Rock Steady Crew" in the late '70s and early '80s — in what is actually a rather ancient art form with roots extending far wider and deeper than circa-1960s Bronx and Brooklyn street people.
Though some experts trace the lineage of the break dance back to the Brazilian Frevo, a Russian folk-dance-influenced form of martial-arts dance/march, it seems more likely that breakin', while it did originate in Brazil approximately 500 years ago, was invented by African slaves rather than native Brazilians or their Portuguese rulers.
Their dance, still popular today, became known as the Capoeira, and is as far as we know, the first nationally and internationally recognized dance to combine upright fighting and shadow-boxing moves with groundwork.
Mentally fast forward through the centuries, travel northward some thousands of miles, and check out the "uprockers" on the streets of Brooklyn, N.Y. in 1967. Though the Uprock (a.k.a. Rocking), which features, among many other movements, burns (aggressive hand thrusts) and jerks (martial-arts-inspired body motions) is not a break dance as we envision it now, it is the true soul-beat precursor of the Toprock, which took Uprock routines, added transition moves sometimes known as the six-step, and finished with groundwork.
Today's break dancing began to come of age in 1969 and 1970 when disc jockey, record producer and visionary Afrika Bambaataa convinced the members of the Bronx street gang of which he was then the warlord to challenge rival gangs to battle with macho dance routines in lieu of guns and knives.
As the '70s evolved, more emphasis was placed on groundwork involving stylized leg movements (so-called Floor Rock or Down Rock) and moves were added and deleted as tastes in funk, soul and early hip hop music evolved. Still, the basic form of both rocking and breakdance "cutting" contests remained the same until the "Rock Steady Crew" and the "Electronic Boogaloo Lockers" (later renamed the "Electric Boogaloos") literally hit the streets of New York with the spectacular hand-gliding, back-spinning, windmilling, and head-spinning ground moves that have since become synonymous with the word breakdance.
The dance gained in worldwide popularity during the '80s and '90s with break-dance moves being incorporated into movies and musical theater productions and European and Asian aficionados adding their own exuberant spins and whirls to the mix.