In McCarren Park, A Breakdancing Tradition

The southwest corner of McCarren Park has been a meeting place for breakdancers, or “B-Boys” as they call themselves, since long before the gleaming row of luxury condos rose on Bayard Street, and a doggie daycare and organic market followed.

Anywhere from a couple to a couple dozen breakdancers continue to roll out their tarp at least three nights a week on the edge of the track, alongside the postwork joggers, picnickers, and meandering hipsters—and under the gaze of the condo-dwellers above.

They’re a motley crew of 20-somethings from the Bronx and Brooklyn (some went to the same junior high together in Williamsburg); European and Asian exchange students who’ve ventured to the city for a dose of authentic street culture; modern dance instructors who “break” in their spare time or promote competitions, and a few old-timers there to coach the new generation.

South Bronx native Anthony Colon, 38, has been breakdancing since 1980, when it was still called “down rocking or scrambling,” he said. “Karate Anthony,” as he is now known, makes a living teaching hip-hop and martial arts to kids and dances with his crew “The Throwbacks.”

“Everybody [breaked] back then, and did graffiti, and wild art,” Mr. Colon recalled on Thursday night. “Hip-hop is so negative now, but it was created to keep kids off the streets. Then the media kind of exploited it, and it lost its street credibility. It turned into a Hollywood thing. Now it’s raw again.”

One difference between breakdancing today and its former incarnation is the presence of women, Mr. Colon said. “Back in the day the girls partied, but they weren’t doing breaking and windmills. Now that’s one of the things I see that still makes me be, like, ‘Wow.’”

Richard Santiago, a.k.a. Break Easy or Papa Rich to his students, has been “B-boying” since he was 12 years old. Since breaking had a renaissance in the city 10 years ago, the 41-year-old accountant has been giving free lessons to kids from Brooklyn and the Bronx.

From Monday to Wednesday every week between 7 to 9:30, he can be found sitting cross-legged sketching “wild art” in a notebook in his lap, and periodically instructing the B-boys dancing to the tunes of James Brown and Jimmy Castor—“Sex Machine” and “Just Begun” are classic breaking anthems.

This week, though, he was directing a handful of dancers practicing a choreographed routine for the two-day, Brooklyn Kings street dancing competition this weekend. The turnout was bigger than usual on Tuesday, as break dancers from three different crews that started between 1998 and 2002–the Brooklyn Kaos Connection, breaks kru, and Breaking in Style–took turns practicing on the tarp. There was no indication of which team each dancer belonged to, let alone that any of them would be competing in a few days.

Breaks kru won the tournament in 2004 and 2006 (one of their battles is in the clip above), only to have three-time champion BKC take it back last year, explained Julio, a 23-year-old, soft-spoken Puerto Rican BKC-member. He was one of the first to start “breaking” in McCarren Park back in 1998, when he was in junior high a few blocks away.

E Rock, a more boisterous 20-year-old who went to the same junior high, interjected some breakdancing proselytizing. “Breaking inspired me to change my life,” he said, sounding not unlike a guest on Oprah Winfrey.

“Now I live my life through breaking. I get girls from breaking. It’s everything,” E-Rock said.

The B-Boys reserve their best moves for their own private practices before the tournament kicks off on Saturday, he said, but ultimately it’s not about choreography.

“Once you’re good, it’s all about how you perform in battle,” E-Rock said.

“Battles are all about style,” Mr. Colon agreed. “It’s the same with singers. You can sing like an opera singer and hit all the right notes, but if you’re not feeling it, you’re not going to get the audience’s attention.”

The tournament runs Saturday and Sunday from 1 to 8 p.m. at St. Mark’s Church at 10th Street and First Avenue.