For an hour every week, four-year-old Samantha Guerrero comes to Boyle Heights to dance her heart away.
On a recent Tuesday evening at Boyle Heights Technology Youth Center, Samantha crisscrossed, jumped and spun in a series of steps to an electric beat. She used her arms and upper body to balance as she kicked her legs in the air.
Samantha, who lives in East L.A., is learning to breakdance with the Boyle Heights Breakers, a group of young adults from neighborhoods such as Boyle Heights, Echo Park and Pasadena. Even foreign exchange students from Japan join twice-a-week gatherings to show off their dancing skills.
Breakdancing, originally known as b-boying, has been around since the late 1960s. It is believed to have begun when people on the streets of New York City were involved in street dance battles. Many credit James Brown, a funk singer and dancer from the 70s, as well as Kung Fu films, as early influences on the dance style.
While breakdancing started on the streets, this dance form has become a part of mainstream culture, danced and performed by professionals on popular music videos and commercials.
The Boyle Heights Breakers offer an opportunity for young people to express themselves.
Boyle Heights resident Joel Aquino, 22, has been breakdancing for about five years and is part of the Boyle Heights Breakers. He feels that breakdancing has helped him stay focused and become more responsible.
“Dancing kept me at home,” Aquino says. “I had other friends that got into tagging and all the other gang banging.”
Delia Ramírez, 38, is Samantha Guerrero’s mother. She says she feels good about having her daughter participate in the dance group because she wants her to take advantage of opportunities she never had.
“I was exposed to gangs and drugs,” says Ramírez. “I don’t want her to grow up like that. This keeps her busy and gets her involved with the community.”
In the past, the dancers struggled with finding a place to practice and perform. But not long after the Metro Station opened at Mariachi Plaza in 2009, an informal group of about 10 to 15 dancers began practicing on the open-air stage at the station. The Breakers would set up their own speakers and play their favorite beats, attracting many people as they passed by.
For several years, the Boyle Heights Breakers practiced regularly at Mariachi Plaza. They shared the space with Metro riders, mariachis and skateboarders. But after several encounters with sheriff’s deputies, their practices there came to an end last fall.
According to several members, Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies stopped them from practicing and performing at the plaza and threatened them with fines for violating Metro regulations.
“It felt unjust, because we were using the spot right. A stage is meant to be used,” said Christopher Prossnitz, 27, program director at Musician Corps, a non-profit music advocacy organization, who began practicing with the Boyle Heights Breakers last August.
Metro officials say that no complaints have been filed and there are no reports of citations issued to breakdancers. But sheriff’s deputies say the group may have been asked to leave because their activities violated sections of Metro’s Code of Conduct, including safety, noise and loitering regulations.
The crew struggled to find a new place to practice. Prossnitz helped them find a home by bringing the Breakers into Musician Corps’ regular programming.
A New Home
The group now practices on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. at the Boyle Heights Technology Youth Center at 4th and Gless streets.
While the group is happy to have a place to practice, the space is different than it was used to. Its practice room at the Tech Center has more space than the stage at Mariachi Plaza, and the floor is smoother, which are pluses. But the Breakers don’t have the opportunity to show their dancing skills to the public, as breaking was originally intended.
“It was better [at the plaza] because it was a free space to dance,” says Aquino, who liked that there were “people passing by and watching us dance.”
Practicing indoors has some advantages. For instance, Samantha has the opportunity to learn about dancing in a safe, indoor environment–something that is very important to her mother.
Since the Breakers became part of Musician Corps, they’ve also had an opportunity to conduct workshops and perform at various places around the city.
Prossnitz says that regardless of the location, breakdancing offers a variety of benefits to youth.
“There’s a lot of gang activity in Boyle Heights, so it’s an alternative,” he says. “It really boosts their confidence and gives them a sense of community and belonging.”
Although Musician Corps will be ending its funded programming in June, Prossnitz says the group hopes that the practice sessions can continue.