Gabriel Dionisio reveals how he made power moves through the power of a movement to keep the b-boy movement's birthplace from becoming its early grave in the mid-'80s.BY Calvin Son, with editing and revisions by Gabriel Dionisio
Photo Credits to B Fresh, Lady K, Beth Darton, Mark Baptise, and Jeff Oppenheimer
POSTED ON December 2nd, 2008
It's an item on nearly every b-boy and b-girl's to-do list: visit New York to soak in the history and culture of the place where b-boying was born.
But in 1991, when b-boy visionaries Storm and Swift Rock made their pilgrimage from Germany with their crew Battle Squad, they made a surprising discovery:
there was only one active b-boy still representing in the streets and in the clubs in all of New York.
Full Circle Productions
Momentum for the culture had died out as dancers and hip-hoppers moved on to the party dances that became the center of the hip-hop dance movement. By the mid-'80s, many saw b-boying as an outdated and laughable fad.
The story goes that the b-boy exposed the crew to New York powermove styles and techniques, showed them the moves as well as the movement, and especially mentored Storm - the American b-boy's way of paying homage to his influences. The group inadvertently ended up re-inspiring the same b-boys who had been their own inspirations, and the b-boy scene was rejuvenated.
Today, people still don't know much about that b-boy in New York who held his ground despite the jeers of naysayers.
He still prefers to stay in the shadows, away from the spotlight of the big events, the Internet, and the drama of the b-boy community at large.
It's a ninja mentality evident even in how he battles, dresses, and thinks. He doesn't reveal much about himself other than occasional sound bites or interviews. He has an entire arsenal of moves that only comes out in extreme battle circumstances. His clothing and accessories rarely bear clues as to his name or his crew.
His stealthiness seems to contrast the fact that he once painfully stuck out like a sore thumb. But perhaps it was that silent determination that enabled him to persist through a time when b-boying almost died in the same city where it was born.
"Maybe that was my role to be played in this whole play," Kwikstep is saying. His voice is marred by the pops and static of poor cell phone reception. His words are occasionally overpowered by what sounds like the rumbling and screeching of a crowded subway car.
"It was an amazingly lonely road to walk in the mid-'80s in Pumas, Puma and T.I. suits, Nike Cortez and Adidas - with people laughing at me like I was a comedic anomaly," he continues. "And I'd say, 'Nah, this is like a tradition.' This whole shit could stop tomorrow and I'll still be the same dude practicing in the park … Even the cops who saw me dancing would say to me, 'You're the one dude who never, ever stops - I can't believe you're still doing that!'"
His name is Gabriel Joseph Torres Dionisio, and he was born in 1968 in New York City.
His story reads like the b-boy version of "I Am Legend."
He speaks with urgency, as if there's only so much time for the people to hear his message before it evaporates into the city's busy streets. His responses to basic questions are complex, shifting in time, tone and subject. His diction is filled with allusions to movies, music, pop culture, New York clubs and hip-hop pioneers. His voice is both weighed by years of struggle and lifted by an intense passion for dance.
Elements of mystery and mythology mingle in the details, but this story begins with a young boy who became fascinated by Frosty Freeze's one-shot drill into a bridge on TV as well as the movements of The Lockers, The Electric Boogaloos, and The Floor Masters (who later became the New York City Breakers) - a boy who would, in turn, help the resurgence of b-boying across the world.
The year was 1975. Words like "Vietnam War" and "Watergate scandal" were filling the headlines, but a young Dionisio was more caught up in words like "Soul Train" and "Shields and Yarnell."
Inspired, he began with the robot, and hungry for more, he began his journey into hip-hop dance through New York electric boogie, popping, and gliding.
By 1981, he had made his way to b-boying by way of his friends and other dancers at the parks, community centers, and roller rinks. Eventually, he made his way to clubs like the Roxy, the Roseland Ballroom, and the Fun House.
"I was observing and dabbling in all kind of circles," he says. "The neighborhoods and clubs I went to had so much to offer; you didn't even need go to a school to learn. I guess I just wanted to be a part of all of it. I was very lucky. I started in '81. The guys that taught me started in the '70s. I got the best of both worlds."
The best of both worlds, that is, as well as the worst period between both.
By 1986, it was difficult to find b-boys in the Manhattan clubs or in the streets. The culture was vanishing even at clubs like the Roseland Ballroom - one of b-boying's last strongholds. The mere appearance of b-boys throwing down in a cypher spurred people to spit and throw ice on the dance floor - and the b-boys themselves.
"The dance got played out commercially by the time it was my time to burn," Dionisio says. "Nobody wanted to see it anymore. People stood on the floor so we wouldn't be able to dance."
But it was too late for him - he had already caught the bug. By the time he was 19, he had already toured around China on a 12-city trip - an experience that Dionisio says was one of the most significant highlights of his b-boy career.
"It moved me because I went to perform in a stadium in front of 15,000 people," he says. "And I was dancing, and I did the show, and I did another solo to do the encore. I went down, and I was dancing and did headspins, and the crowd - the noise was deafening.
"Then I got up," Dionisio continues. "The basketball court stadium was huge. All of a sudden, I saw nothing but Asian faces in front of me. They had broken the barriers and flooded the stadium. There were Asian faces hugging me, kissing me, and picking me up. And I thought, 'If one little shy kid from Queens and Brooklyn can do this without speaking a word and enlighten and communicate through dance - I can do this the rest of my life.'"
So he adapted.
While still staying true to the b-boy spirit, Dionisio frequented the clubs and dance circles where other dance styles were taking over the floors. With the same voracious appetite for dance that he had as a child, he integrated dance styles like the cabbage patch, the wop, the Fila, freestyle dancing, and house dancing, taking his time to give proper attention to each style.
Like the streets, Dionisio had learned that dancing in the club had its own distinct culture and flavor.
"I learned breaking in the streets. But when you go to break in the club, now it's a different venue," he says. "It's not a community center or block party. You're actually going to entertain. You are the entertainment. If you were good, you built a rep in the club, and people knew your name for your skills in the cypher. The music [in the clubs] was engineered to bring you through a trip - even if you didn't do drugs, it brought the best out in you. Music producers like Mantronix messed with your mind. The way his music was mathematically put together and engineered actually made you go into a trance."
Dancing to songs like T La Rock's "It's Yours," Mantronix's "Big Band B-Boy," and John "Jellybean" Benitez's re-edit of "Key West" at the Fun House, Dionisio honed his ability to blend and transcend eras of dance - a talent he still uses today.
Dionisio's aim to change with the times without forgetting his roots was visible even in his powermoves. Rather than simply doing powermoves themselves, he focused on the power of the moves. Even while spinning, he'd glide, speed up, and slow down by tensing and relaxing different parts of his body.
Such control and flow allowed for combos in which he'd go from footwork to windmills to tracks to backspins to handless headspins to donuts (also known as magnetic glides, invented by Kid Freeze of Dynamic) into a freeze - all without missing a beat.
"B-boying is now being done at events under bright lights," he says. "A lot of b-boys don't know what it's like to dance in a club where the lights and sounds are engineered to get you open and escape from your problems. Even the names of the clubs let you know you were escaping - you went from your house to the Fun House. If you grew up in the club, you can't help but dance on beat. You actually spun in rhythm to the 808 beats, cymbals, bass lines, Roland synthesizers, and the words.
"And when we weren't breaking, we wanted to dance with a female," Dionisio continues. "A lot of b-boys can't dance with a female - they just know how to stand around hugging the wall. I wasn't with that. I was learning other dance styles, like the Webo, Lofting, and uprocking."
There was a lot to learn in the company of iconic dancers and crews like Stretch, Peekaboo, Voodoo Ray, Link, and the I.O.U. dancers, from whom he learned about the hip-hop party and freestyle dances. He was also able to sharpen his skills in choreography, locking, and popping as an original member of Rhythm Technicians, which was founded by Mr. Wiggles and Lock-A-Tron-John.
But between 1986 and 1991, Dionisio was never able to shake off the painful awareness that he felt alone because breaking was dying in New York.
Other b-boys still existed and danced, but none were actively and visibly making the rounds and participating in the streets with the hitters and in the Manhattan club scene - at venues like Club 1018, Red Zone, The Sound Factory, The Palladium, Nell's, Mars, and the Octagon - where Dionisio held it down.
Describing those challenging times, Dionisio's voice seems both rife with frustration and filled with pride of having made it through it all.
"I never said, 'I didn't see you there' - I would never say that," he says. "There were many reasons why you would stop [b-boying]. The whole scene was demolished. I have a special attachment to this dance. Hittin' - dancing in the streets for money with Float Committee, The Breeze Team, United Street Artists and The Transformers - is how I ate. How I paid rent. I had an abusive relationship in my family, and this kept me sane."
"I'm affiliated because I held it down," Dionisio continues. "I got scars, emotional and physical. I had chicken pox and I still danced in the streets to pay my rent. With a 102 fever. There's a lot of that shit that was humbling. It was fucked up that the people watching me couldn't see what I was doing was worthwhile to me. I helped to hold it down when most people could care less about breaking."
So when Storm and Swift Rock appeared in Dionisio's territory, he felt that it was his duty to serve as a diplomat of the New York b-boy scene.
He led them around the city, taking them where breakers still hung out and showing them why b-boys danced the way they did and how the dance had evolved.
Dionisio also mentored the German b-boys - especially Storm - by imparting to them moves and history, showing them the methods of his smooth flow and transitions, giving them access to the treasures of his personal journeys, and serving as a bridge to a wealth of b-boy knowledge.
When the duo returned to Germany, they left not only with new moves, but with a new insight into the movements, a new understanding of the culture, a new b-boy fashion sense, and for Storm, even a new name.
As a testament to all that the duo had learned in New York in 1991, Dionisio gave Storm - who formerly went by Swipe Rock - the name "Storm" as a derivation of the name of the comic book character.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
A year later, Dionisio would help found the hip-hop collective Full Circle Productions, where he still works to this day with his wife B-Girl Rokafella. Established as a non-profit organization in 1996, the collective educates and empowers the community through workshops, outreaches, and residencies.
Dionisio says the decision to make the collective a non-profit was a reflection of their desire to make the organization more like a family.
And thus far, that "family" has been featured in theatres, music videos, films, commercials, and live performances at places like the Kennedy Center and the Library of Congress.
The pride in Dionisio's voice is evident when he describes the collective's achievements.
"Everything we've done has been top-notch. We work hard. In underground hip-hop, there is no in-between. Either you're dope or you're not. If you don't have it, go in the lab and practice," he says.
The days of being one of the last visible b-boys are long gone for Dionisio, whose busy days are now filled with workshops, e-mails, training new dancers in the company, and keeping in contact with b-boys and b-girls he's directly taught, including Storm, Kmel, Teknyc, Abstrak, Flipz, Mach 3, Ken Fury, Rocism, Arsin, Rival, Rokafella, Asia 1, Jewels, Incredible Josh, Gumby, Ice, and members of the Speedy Angels crew of Venezuela.
"Not reinventing myself, but re-imagining how I rep is what this is all about," says Dionisio, who currently represents Full Circle Productions of the Bronx, the Fresh Kids of Coney Island, Star Child La Rock of the Bronx, and the Lordz of Finesse of Denver.
Of course, he still trains in his b-boying every day, and his unique experiences with b-boying have made for some interesting perspectives on b-boying as a dance and a culture.
He's still a proponent of learning all forms of b-boying, including powermoves - especially headspins, for which his variations are infamous. He's known for his seemingly endless shapes, speeds, and drills, including an ability to take off his jacket, tie it around his waste, and put it back on - all while spinning - then stop on beat.
"You get more props if you can do everything," he says. "I love to spin. Spinning is fun. It's like flying, and it's how I get high. One thing that will never, ever get played out is headspins. It's one constant thing in b-boying that always catches attention; I mean, damn, you're spinning on your skull plate!"
But b-boying - and as a result, his approach to it - has changed a lot since 1986, for better or for worse.
"I have to be emotionally involved to even want to battle," Dionisio says. "I'm taking on the bully through my dancing. The scene doesn't really call for that anymore."
So, as he's done his entire life, he adapts to the situation to survive. After all, newer stages of b-boy publicity hasn't been unkind to Dionisio; he has been able to do work for Nike, Dr. Pepper, Levi's, the Daily Show, Live with Regis and Kelly, and the film Brown Sugar as well as collaborations with big names like KRS-One, Lords of the Underground, Will Smith, Monie Love, Fabolous, and Missy Elliott.
And as far as b-boy events go, he's contributed to Red Bull BC One, Battle of the Year, and Red Bull Beat Riders. He's also recognized as an original member of the Rhythm Technicians and GhettOriginal, which were groundbreaking for performances in the styles of hip-hop musicals and hip-hop theatre, respectively.
But one can hypothesize that seeing b-boying dying once in 1986 was one time too many, and Dionisio is wary of the media representation of b-boys.
"I probably won't play the role of an MTV star if it compromises my beliefs and integrity in hip-hop," he says. "That takes a certain kind of void in a person. MTV has voids that it needs to fill with worker drones and puppets; there isn't a lot of room for people like me. I don't fit that perspective at all. You can be of the people and a hero to the people or become an iconic asshole."
It carries over into his interactions with other b-boys as well. In an age where many b-boys emphasize flashiness and visibility via the Internet - exposing everything they have and leaving nothing to the imagination - Dionisio prefers to play off of what people don't see.
"Cats know that I'm the most underestimated b-boy, and I'm proud of that title," he says. "Because that literally means to be the breaker that people take the most precautions with. There's almost a fear of 'What is that motherfucker capable of?' I like that.
"When I see a camera go on, I try as much as I can to avoid the cameras," Dionisio continues. "I wanted to be in stories that are recorded in a person's memory and not on video. I didn't want them to see videos of me, because then they say, 'Oh yeah, I saw him do that already.' Even on YouTube, there's not a lot of footage of me, and that's intentional. The stuff you do see, it's like, 'That's nothing compared to stories I heard.' When I walk into a jam, it's like, 'Yo, that's him, and what I heard is true!'"
It's a mentality with origins that go back even before he became the last visible b-boy in New York.
"I represent the voice of the unknown kings like the Incredible Breakers and the b-boys with no names on their shirts," Dionisio says. "I'ma make you look at the dude who has no name on his shirt and you'll be like, 'Yo, who the hell is that and what does he eat?'"
Dionisio's protective attitude of breaking even extends to the word "b-boy" itself.
"Because it's popular, the same thing that happened with word 'breakdancing' is happening with the word 'b-boying,'" he says. "The same thing that happened with the word 'hip-hop' - overexposure and commercial saturation that has nothing to do with its origins.
"I don't give a shit what anybody says," he continues. "There are corny people saying 'b-boy' who haven't earned the title
yet, and 'b-boying' was about breaking stereotypes. Breaking the mold constantly through creativity and individuality. It becomes mundane if you keep
saying 'b-boying.' Keep using it, and see what happens. That word you wanna honor is gonna become wood. And it allows the media to puts nails all in it
and hang whatever they want on it to the point where the cats who made the culture can barely recognize it anymore. Use it in context, or it backfires."
The main thing is that there's balance between genders. You have to be careful not to lose yourselves in the characters being portrayed in the play. There's a fine line between the role you play and the life you live.
To the community, we're Rokafella and Kwik. We still have to make time for the individuals who are the alternatives to the alter egos. In other words, we bring our egos to the alter and lay them down and become Gabriel Dionisio and Ana Garcia. It's the Superman-Clark Kent theory - you can never be too caught up in saving everybody else that you don't save yourself and the ones closest to you. You can become too big for your partner and overshadow one another. Communicate - you're artists, not mind-readers.
Dionisio's passion for b-boying is certainly understandable. It's how he managed to survive through difficult times, and it's also how he celebrates the good times - coming full circle.
"Everything [b-boys] learned through breaking, they can apply to real-life situations," he says. "When you learn how to control the cypher, you know how to take control of your life. When you learn how to battle, you learn how to take on things that come up. When you lose and train and go back to win, it teaches you how to take bumps and bruises in life. When you work hard for something you love, it teaches you how to work hard to get what you want.
"All the lessons in breaking you learn through breakthroughs," he continues. "And you go to another level that you couldn't get to before."
And perhaps that's what it all boils down to. Even after almost three decades - over two thirds of his life - of defending and pursuing a dance that still doesn't receive much respect as an art form, Dionisio still fights to pass on the tradition through Full Circle Productions, where worthy students are given the privilege of representing the Full Circle Souljahs.
Ironically, having seen New York when there were barely any b-boys, he now dreams that New York's b-boys can be better unified and more showcased to the world.
But Dionisio is confident that even though he's given so much into his relationship with b-boying, the relationship has been mutually beneficial. After all, b-boying has and will continue giving back to him even after he's gone, even if all that remains of him is the legend of one of the last visible b-boys in New York of his generation - one who helped future generations to understand how to make power moves through the power of a movement.
"I dance free. I feel so light when I dance, spiritually. That is what enabled me to have longevity in this game," he says. "When you have that fire in your heart, nobody can fucking stop you. I could pass tomorrow, and my rep stays solidified."
Kwikstep sends special thanks to the following for their knowledge and inspiration: Seven Deadly Sins, The Fresh Kids, Incredible Body Mechanics, Incredible Breakers, Wild Style Crew, The Executioners (Doug, Wayne Blizz, and Poe), East Bronx Breakers, Dynamic Breakers, Dynamic Rockers, Lou Rok and VQ from the Bronx, German, Eddie Ed of the Float Committee, JayDay of the Breeze Team, Klown from United Street Artists , Frosty Freeze, Kippy Dee, Take One, Teddy of the Fresh Kids in Italy, Megaflash, Fish of Union City, Sime, Kwon from Swift Kids, Charlie "SK Mystique" Sanchez, Tic, Shakey Shake (from Uptown), Float and Awesome Paul from Incredible Breakers, The Furious Rockers, Trac 2, Fastbreak, Cso, Powerful, Bandit, Roxy, and Papo from the Fresh Kids, Freeze and Chino of Passaic, the Devilla brothers - Chino, Bryan, Sammy, and Eddie (IB), and his wife, Rokafella, for sticking with him through the good and the bad times - because with a break master, it takes more than a stance.