As Rex Atienza prepares to settle on a bench in the courtyard of Redwood Raks to talk before one of his free breakdancing classes, he asks if his crew, the Humboldt Rockers, might join him. Atienza wants them with him since it's the Rockers we're talking about. This opening gesture speaks volumes about the soft-spoken Atienza, known as Reckless Rex when he breakdances, and his relationship with the B-Boy breakdance crew he leads.
"B-Boys make a life for themselves out of dancing," he says. "B-Boys are role models. We gain personal self-confidence, good structure and discipline. We say, 'Let's do this as a team.'"
This is exhibition dancing, hip hop-style, known variously as B-Boying, breakdancing or just breaking.
Attend just about any Humboldt dance showcase and you'll sees scores of young women dancing, but hardly any young men. An exception was a moment in Shoshanna's Arabian Nights Nutcracker last winter when a rush of males filled the stage to perform an Egyptian martial arts dance form replete with sticks. That awesome shift in the energy came from the Humboldt Rockers.
"Breakdancing is masculine and aggressive," explains the shaggy, laid back 35-year-old Atienza, who started the Humboldt Rockers in 2004. "It's a warrior dance with roots in martial arts."
Compact and frenetic Rockers co-founder Brian Smith, age 30, aka B Smash, agrees: "There's a male stereotype associated with their style of dancing," he says. "Girls think breakdancers need upper body strength," in particular for breakdancing's signature one-armed handstands and spins on the ground, known as "power moves." "Girls are initially intimidated -- until they take a class."
Atienza adds, "This style of dancing works with your strengths. We maximize your abilities and talents to create your own style."
A big draw for boys are the battles, competitions at studios and youth clubs where crews go head-to-head in a dance-off in the middle of a circle of onlookers. Solo and ensemble routines are judged on two main elements, artistry and technicality, with musicality, choreography, synchronicity and clean execution as components.
The elements of breakdancing include "top rock" -- any standing up part of the dance, usually a string of steps -- footwork, hands and feet movement on the ground, the aforementioned power moves, spins and flips, and "freeze poses" -- any kind of pose that is held.
The Rockers see themselves as part of a tradition, one that originated in the Bronx in the late '70s. "We are hip hop's original -- before it went mainstream," says Atienza, listing the four elements of classic hip hop culture: "DJ-ing, the B-Boys and B-Girls -- they're the dancers -- graffiti art and MCing -- rapping."
B-Boying is "rocking the beat -- reflecting what the music is doing,"says Smith.
"We spontaneously create moves and get aggressive energy out and amaze ourselves," adds Atienza. "It happens so fast -- everyone saw it, fed off it and helped create it."
The Rockers dance to old school hip hop artists like Erik B and Rakim, A Tribe Called Quest, KRS-1 and Afrika Bambaataa, along with modern breakbeats by Fusik, Breakestra and The Budos Band. (A breakbeat is a sample of drum sections from soul and funk songs typically used as the rhythm track for a hip hop or rap song.) But the Rockers also go right to the source and break to funk by James Brown. B-Boying can trace its roots to the funky acrobatic, high-stepping style of the Godfather of Soul, who was in turn influenced by African dance. Other stylistic touchstones include Asian martial arts, Capoeira, tap dance, salsa, Afro-Cuban and Native American dances, and gymnastics.
A military brat, Atienza started breakdancing in Okinawa, Japan, when he was 7. His family moved a lot, and breaking was a grounding influence."When I was growing up there was no one like me to keep me out of drugs and gangs," he says.
That's one reason he's offering free classes in the summer. "I want to be that guy" for these kids, he says.
The kids include his own son Erik, who's 17 and known as Kid Reckless. Erik says breaking "opens doors to different aspects of art in dance -- individuals stand out when they become a part of this and make a positive image of themselves and gain abilities."
His dad concurs. "Hip Hop is our culture," he says. "We live it. ... We get to express ourselves physically in a positive way. I can't speak in front of 10,000 people. But I can dance in front of 10,000 people."
The Humboldt Rockers class has a workshop atmosphere. Kids spread out in clusters, trying out footwork and moves the older guys demonstrate. A group gathers around mats, testing power moves. Atienza goes head over heels, then says, like a challenge, "How long can you hold your freeze?"
Lanky Daniel Anderson, whose B-Boy name is Rubber Dan, leads boys in dolphin dives that have them rolling on the floor like a wave.
Twelve-year-old Sophia Belton, the only girl on the crew, comes over to talk. "When I was 5, my uncle took me to a breakdance battle," she says. "I started taking classes and it really stuck. Rex is such a good teacher. He's so interested in what you do. ... I'm the only girl breakdancer I know. Most girls are into girly dance" -- meaning ballet. "Too pink."
The class culminates in a circle of kids and Rockers moving to the beat, with everyone getting a chance to solo in the center and Smith high-fiving each as he or she rejoins the group.
Atienza teaches breakdancing in local schools, from elementary to high school to HSU. And everyone's invited to the free summer sessions, 5-7 p.m. on Sundays at Redwood Raks World Dance Studio, Eighth and L streets, Arcata. Info: Contact Rex at (707) 832-3307 or firstname.lastname@example.org.