Twin Cities b-boys represent
The confusion began in 2009. At dance events as far away as Atlanta, every Asian male sporting any combination of glasses, beanie, and sweater became a likely target of a strange question: "Are you Minnesota Joe?"
While internet buzz is typically short-lived, the hype surrounding Minnesota Joe only grew. There were international gigs, obsessive fans, and dance-off victories from Orlando to Rome. A 58-second video of the dancer explaining how he keeps his glasses from flying off racked up thousands of hits (Answer: He had the frames heated and bent to hug his ears).
Internet forums lit up with people arguing about whether he was Vietnamese or Hmong. Others were confused about his hometown — they were sure he was from California, but didn't understand why he included "Minnesota" in his name.
Yet soon people were also beginning to hear about Minnesota as a northern Mecca of b-boying. A YouTube video making the rounds showed a dancer from Minnesota throwing moves on a par with world-class b-boys from Asia and Europe, except this kid was 14, and he could do it all on one hand.
In Boston, the buzz surrounding one of the country's highest-profile events didn't concern the two world-class crews facing off, but rather the third crew that came out of nowhere to challenge them in the finals — a group of mostly teenage no-names from Minnesota.
And from Orlando came stories of some Minnesota kid who had held his own against several of the world's foremost dancers in an impromptu showdown in a hotel courtyard — a total of 19 rounds of dance combat in celebration of his 19th birthday.
"I go out of state, and people say to me, 'Minnesota is the new Korea,'" says local b-boy StepChild, referring to the Asian b-boying powerhouse. "I go to visit my friends in Atlanta and D.C. and Miami and they say, 'I want to send my son up there to learn power.'"
As the stories and rumors spread, so did the questions: Where did all these young Minnesota dance prodigies come from? How did they get so good so quickly?
And who was Minnesota Joe?
Joseph Tran just wanted to avoid looking stupid. As a 13-year-old video-game fanatic attending seventh grade at St. Rose School in Roseville, the last thing he needed was to be humiliated in front of his classmates.
"We were outside in the grass, and we were playing soccer, and I slid to tackle somebody or something," Tran recalls of his first dancing experience. "And I fell. I liked watching Kung Fu movies, so I did like half a windmill up because I saw it in a movie. And this girl was like, "Whoa, you breakdance?' And I was like 'Yeeeah.' From then on, I just practiced that same move over and over again."
Tran, 23, is better known to his fans as Minnesota Joe. He often has to correct those who call him "Mn," explaining to them that the letters are a state abbreviation, not his first name. In Europe, they simply call him "Meen-eh-soh-tah."
At 5-foot-3, he doesn't look the type to command a room's attention. During his workshops at the University of Minnesota, he makes off-kilter references to The Office and Twilight. When he laughs hard at jokes, his knees buckle under him as he leans backward. His trademark glasses give him a slight resemblance to the cartoon aardvark Arthur.
It's drizzling outside the Cowles Center on a Tuesday night, and the lights of passing cars flash white and red onto the dance studio's windows. Inside, 20 dancers are practicing their steps and spins, coming precariously close to each other but never colliding.
Joe, clad in a black hoodie, olive-green shorts, and gray Adidas, plods in, greets a few faces, and sets up by a window. Despite the thudding music, he stretches slowly and deliberately. His friends often tease him about his pre- and post-practice drills. Today, it's a deceptively simple-looking kick of his feet into a lotus position. In one fluid motion, he hooks his left foot over his right thigh, his right foot over his left thigh, then unhooks them both.
He does this over and over. Whip whip whip. Whip whip whip.
"Dude's one of the most serious guys about breaking I've ever met," says Jake "Boogie B" Riley. "He wakes up in the morning and he doesn't have to call anyone to practice. Rain or shine, he puts on his backpack and sneakers and goes."
Joe sets up his ever-present JVC camera to record his sets so he can review his moves later. It's a habit he hasn't broken since he was 13.
When he finally begins to move, people as far away as the opposite side of the studio stop dancing to watch.
After swinging his arms into elaborate karate stances, Joe manages to fling his feet into the air from several unlikely positions, as if there's a fan below him propelling him upward. He ends with a series of "threads," weaving in and out of openings created by his limbs. Dissatisfied, he trots off to study the routine on his camera.
Joe has a full arsenal of such signature moves, and his fans know them by heart. There's the flying lotus, where he flings himself from his hands, locking his feet into the aforementioned lotus position while completing a full barrel roll in midair. There are the flyboys, during which he extends his arms like Superman while rolling his body in tiny circles like he's landed on a treadmill from hell. Then there's the clusterfuck, when he balances on his side while tying his limbs into an elaborate knot.
These moves are Joe's babies, each with its own inspiration, story, and birthplace. He remembers facing much older Minnesota b-boys in heated — sometimes physical — confrontations at First Avenue.
By the time he turned 16, Joe was skipping high school to fly solo to Florida to train with b-boy legends Stripes and Kevo. The same year, he reluctantly agreed to be a last-minute replacement in the exhibition battle in Chicago that gave him his name.
"We have Joe from Minnesota," The DJ announced. "We have Minnesota Joe."
Minnesota b-boy battles are kind of like Slug sightings — almost everyone has a story, whether it was a run-in at First Avenue or Soundset or some chance encounter.
The dance made its way here from New York, where it was born in the 1970s from Clive "Kool Herc" Campbell's parties in the Bronx. The dancers, mostly disenfranchised black and Latino youths, came to be known as break boys — later shortened to b-boys — because they danced to the drum breaks Herc lengthened by cutting between two copies of the same record.
About a decade later, Brooklyn's Travis "Travitron" Lee created a similar phenomenon in the Twin Cities. Along with a blooming community of MCs, DJs, and graffiti writers, there were b-boys representing crews including the International Body Breakers and the Minneapolis B-Boy Association. Many local music heavyweights cut their hip-hop teeth as b-boys, including Slug of Atmosphere, Siddiq of Rhymesayers, and the late Eyedea.
Then the dancing all but stopped, and it was easy to see what was to blame.
"The drugs," says Charles Thorstad, better known as StepChild, a 36-year-old b-boy and leader of the Universal Zulu Nation Omega Zulu chapter. "Drugs were being pushed in the area. That put a big cap on b-boying."
By the time b-boy instructor and performer Jason "J-Sun" Noer made his way back to the Twin Cities from California in 1993, another wave of b-boying had begun with a group called the Battlecats.
J-Sun and the Battlecats made a name for themselves with a close alliance with the Rhymesayers camp. They tested their skills against other local crews including Buddha Crew, Zero Gravity, and the Groove Nuts.
The crews battled their way across the Midwest. Local hero Damien "Daylight" Day even battled his way through Europe as the first Minnesota b-boy to represent internationally.
By the late '90s, however, the number of active b-boys in these crews had thinned.
"From my generation, there are only four of us," says StepChild. "My generation — most generations — just die out. They graduate, get married, and have kids."
But soon a new generation would rise to take Minnesota b-boying to new heights.
Boogie B is on the verge of losing the battle to one of his best friends. He's trying his hardest to focus.
But his girlfriend is gesturing frantically from the sidelines. Boogie looks away, shrugs, then finally sighs and runs to the corner. He delivers her purse and jogs back to the battle, not missing a beat as he watches for a chance to take his friend Jesse Jess out.
Such is the life of Jake Riley of Brooklyn Park. Standing 6-foot-1, he's easy to spot at the small battle at Patrick's Cabaret. Not only does he tower over most of his competitors, but he's one of the few Caucasian b-boys who's been invited to compete.
Later, his girlfriend says that Boogie has been teaching her about the "golden age" of hip hop. They attended Summer Set together to see Talib Kweli and the artist formerly known as Mos Def, but were turned off by the swarms of drunk audience members who hadn't done the research to recognize the artists onstage.
It sounds about right for Boogie, a guy wearing a mock-neck sweater along with cutoff jeans, black Reeboks, and kneepads. Boogie and Jesse "Jesse Jess" Ho, both 20, are members of an elite group of Minnesota b-boys. They've both been dancing for seven years, after seeing b-boys at the same party. Asked how often they think about breaking, they both begin by describing how their first thoughts every morning revolve around a) where they'll practice and b) what they'll practice.
"The way I look at it is, it's like living life as a samurai," Jesse says. "Every day is a fight to survive. I use this as my work. If there's a test coming up, I'll smoke that test the way I'll smoke the b-boy in front of me. It sounds silly, but I don't even look at myself as a human being anymore. I look at myself as a b-boy."
Though they're only three years younger than Joe, their b-boy journeys are markedly different from the paths of the older b-boys. For starters, they have the advantage of social media. Daniel Zhu, editor for Strife.TV, one of the local b-boy community's definitive video channels, has made it a point to document their accomplishments for a global audience. And there are now a plethora of open practice spots around the city several days per week — a rarity, even in larger cities.
They also began dancing at a time where there was enough of a b-boy generational gap that they could actually get along with and learn from older b-boys like J-Sun and StepChild.
"It's really surprising because the average age of a Minnesota dancer here is like, 19, which is super young," says Zhu, 30. "Most dancers don't peak until their late 20s. For a really young scene to be that competitive and that good is really rare — it really says something about their work ethic."
Though young, they have always been tenacious. They've traveled to every coast to compete, either flying or carting around dancers in Riley's mother's Chrysler Town & Country minivan. They wholeheartedly embrace the African proverb "each one teach one," carrying around notebooks to take notes from elder b-boys. Jesse even quit his job last year at Old Navy so he could attend an event in Florida.
"It was probably the dumbest mistake I've made, but also the smartest decision," he says.
Such travels have resulted in a collection of stories about people they've encountered who literally don't know what Minnesota is.
"Is it a state? What is it? Where is it?" recounts Boogie.
"They think it's the middle of nowhere," adds Joe. "That alone sets us up as the underdog."
It's that underdog mentality, J-Sun says, that pushes the young b-boys to continuously put themselves out there.
"They face the defeat head-on," he says. "When you lose, you lose. You can get upset about it, but a lot of these kids are still battling and that says a lot about Minnesota."
The hard work has paid off in the form of respect from more seasoned b-boy communities in other states.
"Minnesota is one-of-a-kind in the U.S.," says Ft. Lauderdale's David "Mex One" Alvarado, the man behind the influential community center the Bboy Spot as well as the clothing line Biggest & Baddest and the international event Outbreak. "Whether it's Houston, New York, Florida, or the Northeast, they've had scenes that have been solid and ranged back to the early to mid-'90s. We were blessed here. Minnesota, what did they have? The scene, for what it is now, is a product of how breaking has grown since the year 2000, 2001. Every other major scene has been groomed from an early age. The Minnesota scene is self-made."
As is the case with any subculture, b-boying has its own traditions, complete with weird names and rules. One of the stranger ones is "cocking," which is almost as obscene as it sounds.
To properly cock someone, a b-boy holds out his hand, palm up, as if supporting a massive, invisible penis. It's meant as the utmost form of disrespect — literally shoving a dick in someone's face — and it's not an uncommon sight at Minnesota events. Local b-boys have even made shirts with the backs emblazoned with a hand in cocking position.
Popular as the shirts are, their depiction of the Minnesota b-boy scene is wholly inaccurate. Among b-boys, stereotypes exist for almost every major city: Chicago is hot-headed, New York is traditionalist, California cut-throat. Minnesota's young dancers are polite and eager to learn — almost the personification of "Minnesota nice."
While other cities are perpetually plagued by intense rivalries and occasional fights, there is virtually no tension in the Twin Cities. Crews like Optimistic, Looney Tunes, and New Heist regularly practice, battle, and hang out together. Whereas crews in other states often assume outsiders are there for the sole purpose of stealing moves, visitors here are welcomed without any hostility or suspicion. Minnesota events are often referred to as being "fun," sometimes to the point where visiting dancers prefer coming here over attending battles in their own states. Even the crew name "Optimistic" is meant to convey the dancers' emphasis on positivity, on and off the dance floor.
"There's a family aspect in Minnesota," Joe says. "We're really more close-knit that any other scene I've seen."
"We don't say we're from Minneapolis or St. Paul," says Zhu. "We're from Minnesota."
This spirit of collaboration has resulted in distinct Minnesota b-boy styles that can be roughly summed up in two categories. The first is powermoves — large, momentum-driven glides and airborne spins exemplified by dancers like Joe and YouTube sensation B-Boy One. The second is footwork — a quick, precise series of steps in original patterns.
"Footwork is being developed here that people notice all over the world when they watch it," says J-Sun, who helped mentor the younger generation. "And our musicality is part of our Minnesota style. But what will probably define us as a state will be that different b-boys will have their own styles that are established. There's an abstract way that we approach it."
StepChild describes it as a "going off" style, an approach where the dancers pack intensity and emotion into every movement. "It makes it that much more real — focusing their energy on their target," he says.
The younger generation has broken this down into a science. They consider how to go into a move to end up in a position that will confront their opponents while also being at an angle that the judges can fully appreciate. Boogie describes using breathing techniques and practicing his posture to convince opponents that they've lost even before the battle has begun.
It's not just the moves that make the young b-boy scene stand out. While Minnesota rappers are stereotyped as being primarily white, the state's b-boys are overwhelmingly Hmong. When an event promoter used Facebook to poll local b-boys on what food to cater at a battle, the winning answer was almost unanimously pho. When asked to estimate what percentage of any given Minnesota b-boy event is Hmong, answers ranged from 60 to 90 percent.
"I have a friend from college that once estimated to me that 80 percent of Hmong males have at least tried to break," says Christopher Woon, who spent seven years creating the 2011 documentary Among B-Boys, capturing the Hmong b-boy culture across California and Oklahoma. "From what I've seen, breaking is part of the Hmong male experience."
Along with the fact that b-boying is cheap and accessible, J-Sun notes that the dance has historically been one of resistance, fitting the mold for young immigrants looking to form an identity.
At Minnesota's forefront is Randy "B-Boy One" Thao, who represents the Hmong flag along with other young dancers like King Kong and Hueman. Upon hearing his name, b-boys almost unequivocally shake their heads and sigh in disbelief.
At a recent City Pages photoshoot in downtown Minneapolis, Thao threw half a dozen airflares effortlessly — a move so difficult that only a handful of world-class gymnasts have been able to recreate it in competition. Thao is the state's YouTube b-boy celebrity, with tens of thousands of hits across his videos.
Now 18, he's relatively quiet and stands at 5-foot-4. He can't practice as much as he wants to because his schedule is filled with shifts at Famous Footwear and classes at Academy College. It doesn't matter — one gets the sense that Thao's the kind of guy who is preternaturally talented. His crewmates dog him for showing up to practice eating a cheeseburger.
"They say, 'You're gonna get fat,'" he mumbles. "I don't know why I do it. It just happens. I know it's not good, but it's food."
J-Sun says that Minnesota's the only place he could imagine having a b-boy town hall meeting where everyone in attendance is quiet and willing to listen. But like all the other b-boys, he's not entirely sold on the hype that Minnesota is already the next big thing.
Across all three generations of Minnesota b-boys runs the common belief that the progress the scene still needs to make far outweighs the accolades it has already received. Even J-Sun himself refuses to be identified as an elder, the same way that Joe says he still doesn't feel like he's "made it," or even that he's worthy of the name "Minnesota Joe."
Many of the dancers lament the unexpected pressure to live up to the hype. There are already murmurs circulating that the Minnesota scene is overrated.
"We have made headlines in the worldwide breaking community, but we're still growing up," J-Sun says. "We're the next Florida, or we're the next Chicago. We'll be that next spot. We're not the next Korea, but if keep we having enough b-boys and things like that, and people are taking it step by step, it's a possibility for sure."
Back at Patrick's Cabaret, Jesse's intricate footwork and borderline-spastic gesturing have helped win his crew the victory. True to their name, he's ever optimistic about the scene's chances.
"I want it to be more of an attraction than the Mall of America."
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