State of the Art

What I liked best about Breakin’ Convention 2015

Ukweli Roach (center) was tormented by demons in BirdGang’s contribution to Breakin’ Convention.
Ukweli Roach (center) was tormented by demons in BirdGang’s contribution to Breakin’ Convention. Courtesy of Blumenthal Performing Arts

You might expect a 61-year-old white guy from the farmlands of New Jersey to be the least likely audience member for an event such as last weekend’s Breakin’ Convention. To my own surprise, I had a great time at the first day of that wild celebration. (I skipped the second for a wedding.)

To my greater surprise, the crowd was one of the two most diverse I’ve seen at a Charlotte arts event this year. (The other was at a concert by the Four Tops and the Temptations. Nobody gets a wider audience than Motown.)

I saw teenagers and older students and young couples and middle-aged folks and boomers more ancient than I. Black people, white people, Asian and Latino people. People in jackets and ties and people in faded jeans. People with earrings and nose rings and lip studs and no ornaments at all. People who could drop and give me 20 – headspins, that is – and people who looked like a crane couldn’t lift them if they went to the mat with the mildest hip-hop move.

In other words, people who looked like Charlotte.

That was one of Tom Gabbard’s goals in bringing the convention here for the first of three years, and the Blumenthal president must have been beaming Friday. Though the graffiti section over at Goodyear hadn’t caught on by the time I walked over to Knight Theater for the evening show, the plaza around the theater pulsed with life.

A line had gathered outside the one food truck pulled up by the outdoor music tent. (Note for next year: We need a minimum of three food trucks, especially if people are meant to eat during the 45-minute intermission.) A DJ was finally getting people out on the mat to let loose with a few moves; earlier, shyness had impeded all but the bravest.

And the show inside the Knight reflected the audience: mixed-race crews from the Netherlands and England, a Latino dancer from Miami, a black woman from France, kids of both genders and multiple races from Charlotte and Cornelius dance studios.

I had gotten an anonymous phone message the day my advance story ran in The Observer, and the caller sarcastically thanked me for trying to advance the message of “peace, love and unity.” (I had quoted Jonzi D, the Londoner who created Breakin’ Convention in his home town.) The caller semi-coherently explained that hip-hop wasn’t a valuable culture – I assume he associated it exclusively with rap videos – but claimed he wished the organizers well.

Yet what I saw went miles beyond the booty-shaking, gold-toothed stereotypes. BirdGang told a narrative about a man kept from pursuing romance by alcoholism and other demons. Antoinette Gomis combined hip-hop, modern and African dance to tell a story of self-realization set to Nina Simone’s music. The Ruggeds, world-champion B-boys from the Netherlands, did a long sequence that wouldn’t have been out of place in “Stomp.”

And the crowd – the whiteblackAsianLatino youngandhipoldandcreaky crowd – ate it all up.

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