I’m at the busker festival and I tell M we need to stand a bit back from the front of the crowd; that if we don’t, I’ll get pulled up to perform. This is what happens to me, and I don’t particularly enjoy it. “Maybe you’ll be my lucky charm,” she says, hoping to get picked herself.
But I’m nobody’s lucky charm. Chosen to mime, chosen to be the support bridge so that an acrobat could do a handstand off my back. Chosen three years ago to tandem hoola-hoop with a Quebecois woman in a unitard, and my hips don’t move that way, they don’t circle, especially after a morning long run. She told me to lift my hands in the air, and quickly she removed my shirt. She hung a lei around my neck. And then we were together in a big hoola-hoop and her hands were on my hips trying to get them to rotate, trying to get them to unlock.
Selected three times in three years. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because my face, when relaxed, looks intense and angry. Maybe they see a guy who looks like he isn’t having fun and they want to brighten his day. Or maybe it’s just because I’m 5’11” and have a fit frame, and they want somebody who won’t die on them.
We have four shows we want to watch, but the one I’m most excited about is the USA Breakdancers. These Bronxians can drop. In a spectrograph we’re as far apart as possible. Knee bones don’t seem to connect to thigh bones for these guys, and thigh bones don’t connect to hip bones. Their bones seem to be able to separate and migrate to anywhere in their bodies.
The USA Breakdancers are set up on Government street. Basically they’ve closed off traffic from the downtown core for the shows, and these guys are right by the Irish Times pub, in the middle of the street with a thickening mob of tourists. And locals, like those two right there, Leah and Allan, and I wave at them but they don’t see me and so don’t wave back.
Once the show gets underway, it’s with undying amusement M watches as the MC squares his shoulders my way and walks over. She knows what I know. I’m screwed.
They need four spectators to help with the show. Four out of... how many are out here? There’s a thicket of people. You see the first row and the offset second row, and a bit of the third row, but then patterns of fabrics and heads get too complicated, the mesh of arms and legs too dense to estimate. Two black guys are pulled from the crowd. These two are dressed like they’ve been planted in the audience, like they could make money off dancing, poorly disguised sharks, clearly with Dance in their genes. They also grab an unfit looking white guy, and me.
But how bad can it be? They’ll teach us a move, we’ll do some choreographed routine as a group, I’ll be a minnow and then the audience can get back to watching the professionals.
No, no, no, and eventually.
What happens is they divide us into two teams and their team will send one guy to the floor, and after he busts all the moves he knows and possibly even a bone, he’ll throw the gauntlet down for someone on our team to pick up. Which, in this case, is me.
I have one signature move and it’s pretty white, something with guns blazing in the air and a cap gun sound a kid would make, rapidfire. Not exactly breakdancing but this is probably the genre it best belongs in, and it’s better than no move, but when the other white guy finishes his rather aggressive dance and points to me, my mind goes devastatingly blank.
What I know is I did something with my neck. Some move with my hands in the air up around my neck, maybe what the uninitiated would call Locking, but not what I would call it and not what the MC called it when, after all four of us had peacocked, he hummed about who he felt were the two winners and chose me as one of them because of my “neck move”.
The two winners would have a final dance-off.
That’s how these things work.
A competition of four gets pared to two, and the final two do one more dance to determine the winner. Me against the other white guy, and what this really means is we’re the losers, and the MC, the other breakdancers, the growing crowd, and the few I recognize in the crowd all get to see the sequel.
The shorter breakdancer walks over to me. “Dude, you’ve gotta help,” I plead, and he’s like, Ya, that’s why I’m here. He’s assigned to teach me something spectacular. Something to wow them. For the win. But I don’t care about winning so much as just not looking like a clown. He hangs a chain around my neck with a dollar sign on it, fits me with a baseball cap, angled sideways, and walks me through my moves. It’s all pretty sedated, all pretty family friendly, my routine. Almost soothing, I think, the rhythm of it. But from the corner of my eye I’m catching some serious gyrations happening at the other end of the dance floor, which worries me. The other pro breakdancer, the taller guy, used to perform on Broadway. His face is more of a caricature of itself than itself, and he’s pumped up.
The MC is back on the Mic. He tells the crowd this time our team, which is just me now, will be going first, and he says “When you’re ready.” but I’m not sure if he means ‘now’ or if I have a bit of time to get my bearings, and I’m not even sure I heard him correctly, but when he goes silent and the crowd goes silent and I see a lot of white faces, I know it’s time. Honestly, I have so little to remember and still I almost forget, but there’s also a part of me which has split from the corporeal me and is above, observing, and so I know I hit my moves. Hands flat in front, hands behind the neck, again some rotation at the hips, and I finish with a bit of harmless thrusting. I turn defiantly from my challenger and brush him off.
And he gets out and kills it. He looks so good. He’s found a toque and sunnies, and his movements are so fast and hard he never has more than one foot on the ground, and usually less. His sunnies fly off his face sometime during his performance. I’m clapping before he's finished.
Now it’s time to determine the winner, Starsky and Hutch style. Everyone who thinks this guy won, give a cheer, says the MC, and a large roar erupts for the other guy. And everyone who thinks he won? says the MC, pointing at me, and it really does sound like a difficult question, as though he doesn’t expect an answer, and there’s a civilized applause the kind you might hear during Sunday mass, like women clapping with two fingers on a gloved palm. Let’s hear that again, says the MC, and we go through the process a second time, and now I’m tuned in and I think even my friends might be cheering for the other guy, and for me it’s unmistakably not quiet, though you do have to listen. The MC walks over to me, shakes my hand, and congratulates me on winning.
In the photographs after, you can see I didn’t quite get down into the deeper grind of my moves. I look pretty straight, like I’m still caring about posture. The taller professional breakdancer is looking away from me with his face balled up like he’s being branded. There’s a mom in the crowd with her right hand covering her mouth and most of the rest of the lower part of her face, almost up to her eyes, and with her left arm she’s pulling her child in to her body tightly. Protectively.
Later that evening as I’m walking down the street, and this is maybe two hours after the show, I pass a different mother and her son. The mom taps her little boy on the shoulder and says “Hey, look, there’s the dancer.”