City Gallery

Press Release, Wellington City Gallery, 28 February 1985.

What happened to breakdancing? Where did it go? What did it mean?

These are the questions explored by photographer Peter Black in his photoessay, Dancing in the Streets, opening 29 March at City Art Gallery.

Through photographs taken in Auckland, Hamilton, Rotorua and Wellington, Black takes us out into the dead of night as witness to nonviolent street confrontations of the dance kind.

The reactions to one another, the reactions of dancers to a bachelor party prank, the reactions of kids to the world around them are all to be found in these documentary photographs of fleeting moments in nighttime streets.

Mark Scott writes what Peter Black photographs. In a hostile literary style, the text of Dancing in the Streets, spattered across the gallery walls, says what the kids might say and do say when asked.

Dancing in the Streets documents the breakdance phenomenon in New Zealand and attempts to bring it into a neutral public space for another look. The exhibition is supported by research from the gallery’s Education Service which has provided a glossary of terms and a history of breakdancing around the world.

In developing the exhibition with Peter Black, City Gallery has worked extensively with city youth, seeking their advice and direction.

Dancing in the Streets will feature three dance competitions on the Friday nights following the opening. Prizes of $100 provided by Carnivore Fashions, Character Hair Design and Java Restaurant will be awarded to the best crew each night. Once a crew has won the top prize, it is automatically disqualified from further competition but welcome to demonstrate in following weeks.

Ian Wedde, ‘Dance Flips to Gallery from Street’ , Evening Post, 12 April 1985.

I felt a bit sorry for Peter Black, whose Dancing in the Streets photographs are up at City Art Gallery.

Mark Scott compiled the book for which these photographs were taken.

He records Ana Scott, a Samoan woman in Auckland, mother to the Midtown Breakers: ‘Deep down the average New Zealander doesn’t care about Polynesian culture…Their idea of culture, I often wonder what the word means…opera, art galleries.’

Mark Scott (no relation) has this to say: ‘There are heaps of kids learning all sorts of carving skills who would leap at the chance to do a bop trophy—and the boppers would be learning to value something that was truly theirs.’

Somewhere between their comments are the spectres of the vanishing of dance from the streets, its exploitation by the economics of a culture the dance had confronted, the failure of traditional culture to admit to its own places of power and sanctuary.

So now that it’s all over, at least in its obvious forms, it ends up in an art gallery. This probably explains the funeral atmosphere.

The greedy stare of art’s institutions and marketplace can turn anything to stone. At least the exploitation of the graffiti art of Keith Haring et al., in New York was fast, brazen, streetwise—a kind of urban guerrilla raid upon the credulity of wealthy art investors.

But Peter Black is one of our most sympathetic, humane and unpretentious photographers. Here he has returned to the black and white from whose lack of glamour he has always extracted a worn, wry poetry – undertones of loss, celebrations of moments of illumination.

His recent cibachromes (as seen at Exposures in ’84) have been witty, sometimes frightening, complex. But they’ve lacked the poetry of his black and white work.

However, though it would have costed reproduction right out of range of the book’s purpose, colour might have been better suited for this job.

It would have conveyed more of the glitz, the essential camouflage, the tawdry glamour of the dancing. And, in a curious way, and specially in the context of an art gallery (even a community art gallery) colour would have made the photographs seem less of an intrusion into the essential privacy of what they record.

This, despite the public nature of the dancing was the moments in which dancers overcame their whakamā, the shame or uneasiness about a society that didn’t care about them. The moments when the kids had their heads lifted by the collective pride of the dance.

Peter Black has looked into these moments—their precarious blend of seriousness and delight. His photographs thus go well beyond simple documentary.

But its been a while since we saw the dancers—and here are photographs of them in a city art gallery, together with some ‘bombing’ panels. The un-glamorous poetry of Peter Black’s photographs now seems to be recording missed chances, while the location of the show records yet again the opportunism of a well meaning ‘culture’ of ‘opera, art galleries.’

George Hubbard, ‘Origins of Break Music’ , Gallery handout.

Breakdancing began in the United States of America as a phenomenon initially restricted to the streetwise South Bronx  of New York.  Breakdancing music is known as bebop, rap, beat music, electro and more commonly, Hip Hop. A break is a part of a record where drums and percussion are highlighted for a few seconds before returning either to vocals or instrumentation.  The break, usually too short, was lengthened by adding the break from another record using two turntables.

Kool DJ Herc is  regarded by many as the  true pioneer of break music. Kool also initiated rapping to the beat, a primitive rhythm-like chanting over the microphone in time to the beat of the record. Two import­ant disc jockeys who developed the technique of rapping further around the mid seventies, were Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa. Flash went on to front the troubled Furious Five while Bambaataa, a practising Muslim, formed the Universal Zulu Nation, a group of musicians,  rappers, djs, graffiti artists  and dancers as well as recording with the Soul Sonic Force and producing a host of other artists.

Breakdancing  and  break  music are intrinsically of urban Black origin. However, with the mass commercial interest in breakdancing and the technological developments over the last seven years, break music has sustained more global attention than breakdancing itself. As a result, the majority of Hip Hop records are released on white-owned and produced labels. This trend has made the reproduction potential accessible to parties completely foreign to the origins and philosophy of the whole Hip Hop culture.

Clever remixing and repackaging allows artists such as Cyndi Lauper, Bruce Springsteen, New Order, Cabaret Voltaire, John Lydon and Sheena Easton to, somewhat dubiously, join the scene. The development of the Roland and Oberheim drum machines plus an assortment of sequencers, digital delay units and so on, saw an interest­ing counter development from the darker quarter of the Bronx called ‘Scratching’, a squealing sound achieved by rhythmically moving a part of a record backwards and forwards at various speeds under the needle.  Many djs could not afford drum machines and scratching provided a unique rhythm often becoming a djs trademark.

A new form of dance music has evolved from outside the Hip Hop capital of New York. Washington DC, home of Go Go Funk and Go Go’s forerunners—Trouble Funk. This music features real drums behind large numbers of percussive funksters with the main emphasis being on live performances. The roots of Go Go, like Hip Hop, lay in the ghetto but a big problem with this scene is the abuse of PCP—a solvent drug. The various nick­names for PCP are evident  in the somewhat crazed chants.

Go Go is young and relatively unexploited. Perhaps like the Disco overkill of the late seventies, Hip Hop may also burn out with too much exposure. The paradox implicit in the influence of Germany’s synthesiser band Kraftwerk on Afrika Bambaataa’s Planet Rock will continue.

The Bronx rocks Planet Rock, don’t stop. Hip Hop Be Bop Don’t Stop!

Carole Charles, ‘History of New Zealand Break’ , Gallery education material.

Bop and break dancing started in the South Bronx, New York, in the early 1980’s between competing youth gangs. The historical details as to whether it was originally Black or Puerto Rican are hazy, but its origin lies in the desire to cut down on violence. The act of the dance became a surrogate for the usual inter-gang confrontations. From the beginning, the new dance form was linked to traditional aspects of street culture—it was for groups, it was competitive, it was young, male and stylised. As a new phenomenon in street culture, the ideas, symbols, values and rituals are defined by the city environment. The dance is characteristically fast and constantly changing as a result.

New Zealand street culture soaks up overseas influences like a sponge. While the process begins as a reproduction of an image, the images change and adopt local meanings. In New Zealand there was no transition from inter-gang fighting to dance competitions. It was late 1982 before break dancing made its appearance on New Zealand streets. Some direct links were made by people traveling from American Samoa or from the United States itself. With amazing speed, the bop culture developed from very few ingredients. The time was right for bop in New Zealand. A small number of video clips and an influential segment on ‘That’s Incredible’ added spice to the developing art form.

The previous five years had seen some important changes in the New Zealand youth culture. With a splitting into racial, social and musical form there had been antagonism between the various groupings. There was the emergence of punk and skin styles as well as the rise and fall of mass popularity for Reggae.

Street kids became an identified group and suburban youth began to use the inner-city as a base. Mainly Maori, Samoan and Polynesian youth identified with break—those who were already identifying with the television image of Black America—Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Fame, Roots. Break provided a genuine activity into which an enormous amount of energy and dedication could be channeled. It encouraged unity, pride, knowledge and recognition. Throughout the country during the summer of 83/84 there was ‘dancing in the streets’.

While some denied that there was a Polynesian content in their dance, there were groups who did incorporate moves from their own culture. For example, moves found in the Sa Sa, the Samoan slapdance were integrated into some routines as were moves from traditional Cook Islands dance. Long hours were spent working out new moves, perfecting routines. A few girls started to bop but it remained a male domain. Parents could relate to their childrens’ involvement and offered encouragement and support.

With its own language and music, break became an integral part of the youth scene. Informal groups turned semi-formal. They wore uniforms, worked on an ‘act’ and gave themselves names—Bronx Mothers, Freakazoids, Southside Home Boys.

With growing numbers of youth ‘taking over’ malls and pavements, there was bound to be a reaction. Dancers were eventually labeled ‘unemployed’, ‘street kids’ and ‘troublemakers’. They were accused of making too much noise, blocking footpaths, frightening shoppers. Shopkeepers complained and troubled city councillors all over New Zealand expressed their concern over the ‘aggressive’ nature of this ‘new’ fad. There were problems. Few people realised that the drugfree fit dancers were not the problem. Few recognised the small time thieves and troublemakers on the periphery as the source of agitation.

Within a very short space of time dancing moved off the streets. With pressure from city councils, church groups and commercialism making bids for their share of the action, the scene changed. Competitions and challenges were being held nation wide. The dancers became too competitive. Sponsors ranged from radio stations to fast food companies. Auckland held a Bop Olympics and the Eastern Bay of Plenty Milk Promotion Group sponsored a competition in Whakatane to mark International Milk Day. Dancers appeared in television commercials. Breaking moved into the clubs—it was no longer free. It was no longer urban.

Street dancing in its purest form is gone but as in any trend, there is always a nucleus which maintains interest no matter what happens. In Wellington there is one such group still busy with Hip Hop. The group includes disc jockeys, graffiti artists and break dancers. Their art can be seen on city walls, their dancing at Dr John’s. This group numbers twenty one or so. Asked what happened to the hundreds of others who used to dance in the streets, a Police Youth Aid Officer said, ‘The young people are still around—they are just not dancing. Nothing has come along to take its place.’