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Buffalo’s home to B-boy culture waiting out COVID-19 closure

WBFO Phot/Kate Kaye

Verve Dance Studio, one of the few places anywhere in the world dedicated to teaching b-boy’s dance and philosophy of self-expression, has kept the tradition strong for 15 years --and is one of many schools on hold because of the Coronavirus pandemic.

The moves and music of b-boy culture went mainstream in the 1980s then ducked back underground. But the spirit and artistic expression of the movement never went away. In fact, virus aside, it's ready for a renaissance.

Verve has a new home in the renovated School 77 building on Buffalo’s west side, connecting students with Ujima Theatre Company and community groups PUSH Buffalo and Peace of the City.

The school is closed  as a result of the state’s COVID-19 response and will reevaluate when to open its doors again after the state closure mandate is lifted.

“We're looking at what we can offer our students and community online, and the current plan is to extend registration through April 10 for this session, but of course we'll adjust as needed,” said Stacy van Blarcom, a who teaches hip-hop dance at the school and handles administration.

B-boy and b-girl culture has core components. First is breaking - what many know as breakdancing - where dancers pop and lock their arms or get low and spin as their legs tuck and glide.

“It’s hard to find even people who do the dance because of how difficult it is,” said Shane Depree, who started the school in 2005. “You’ve kind of got to be crazy to stick with it and be really determined to do it, so that means there’s actually not a lot of people who do it.”

Rapping and hip-hop DJ-ing where DJs scratch and swipe vinyl or use digital systems to play break beats are instrumental, too. And visual art is part of the mix, with graffiti letters and characters on buildings, stickers or clothing.

But those are external expressions of something deeper. B-boy culture is an attitude, a philosophy centered on ideals such as peace, diversity, originality and unity.

After trying other more restrictive dance styles, Eric Paner’s daughter, a Verve student, took to the independent approach of breaking and hip-hop dance.

“She liked the unstructured feeling of it and the fact that she could just sit there and break out a move…whatever feeling she had, she could do that and it wasn’t, ‘Oh no, that’s wrong,’ ” he said.

Verve has around 100 students from age 5 to teenage to adults.

Nine-year-old Xavier Decker looked like a rubber band on the hardwood dance floor at one of the school’s recent breaking “battles,” which are less about competition and more about supporting other dancers with good vibes.

“I like learning new moves,” said Decker, a gymnast and the youngest member of Verve’s dance crew Differential Flava.

His father, Christian Newman, said the freedom of breaking suits his son. “He struggled with the conformity of gymnastics a bit, so this allowed him to branch out a little bit more.”

The emphasis on original personality comes through in the graffiti art workshops James Moffitt leads at Verve.

More practiced graffiti artists have street names or monikers they emblazon on walls or other surfaces, sometimes in intricate “wild style.” Verve’s students come up with their own names, too.

“The first class, I always encourage kids to come up with their moniker,” said Moffitt, a muralist, sign painter and member of Pine Apple Company, a small collective of Buffalo artists.

“My appreciation for letters started with graffiti and has since grown into my life,” he said.

When it’s warmer, Moffitt takes his students outside to create characters and letters with spray paint on drop cloths. At a January evening class, though, it was all about the paint-markers indoors.

That class was held at Verve’s former home at 100 Gelston Street behind Niagara Street. But after bouncing around between temporary spaces, Verve moved in early February to what it hopes will be a more-permanent place at School 77, the renovated public school on Buffalo’s west side at 429 Plymouth Ave.

The building is home to Ujima Theatre Company and community groups working to promote sustainable housing and foster restorative justice - PUSH Buffalo and Peace of the City.

“PUSH is excited to welcome longtime friends and community partners Verve Dance Studio to School 77, knowing that it will only bolster the intergenerational and multiracial programming that already exists in the space now,” said Harper Bishop, deputy director of movement building at PUSH Buffalo.

“I think there’s a lot of people that will discover us that maybe didn’t know about us or maybe heard about us over the last 15 years and will rediscover Verve,” said van Blarcom.

The moves she teaches and uses as a member of Differential Flava - things like “popping,” “locking” and “waving” - started on the streets of New York in the 1970s in the Bronx.

Depree calls it folk dance. “It was something that was just in the community and then of course once hip-hop started to get more popular then people started to know what breaking was, then it started happening all over the world and then after the media and everyone exploited it, it went back underground,” he said.

But it’s the b-boy tradition that stuck around – one centered on ideals of unity and self-expression – that forms the school’s foundation.

“We’re not really worried about what the masses are doing or what’s popular. We’re just trying to hold true to the tradition,” he said.

Depree expects that being in a new home at School 77 will allow him to offer more arts-focused classes like poetry writing for rapping, music production and beat-making with drum machines.

“I really feel like Buffalo is filled with so much talent,” said Depree. “The majority of the people only get to see a very small piece of the talent we have here because of the lack of the diversity [among] the people they choose to pick to display their talent.”