Clapping mixes with blaring music, filling Alumnae Hall as a dozen dancers in street clothes line the stage. Audience members at the imPulse Dance Company's annual spring show clap to the beat as the freestyling begins. Dancers start with top rock then progress into spins and flips and handstands. They take turns as they perform, throwing out dizzying head spins and movements. Legs fly around bodies like blades of a helicopter.
Reed Frye '11 stands back on the right side of the stage before breaking into a run. He jumps into a handstand, kicks his legs in the air and somersaults forward before landing on his feet. The crowd goes wild.
At the end of the freestyle, Frye and fellow members of Brown's break dancing team, Special Browniez Crew, take a bow and exit the stage for the show's next act. It is one of many on-campus performances that allow Frye — who has been a break dancer since he was a kid — to feed what he calls an addiction to dance.
Frye was introduced to break dancing when he was 11 at a summer camp run by the Center for Talented Youth — unusual both in location and group makeup. Break dancing has its origins in the black and Puerto Rican communities, Frye said, but the friends and instructors he met at camp were largely Chinese- and Korean-American.
Many of them hailed from Los Angeles, far from the part of California where Frye grew up. "I'm from Santa Cruz, California. Nobody break dances there," he said.
From an early age, he was interested in acrobatics, so his mother signed him up for gymnastics classes. "And they would turn out to just be like, ‘Now a cartwheel!' Or ‘Now a somersault!' So I just started teaching myself stuff," Frye said.
Gymnastics did not satisfy Frye, who felt he was not made for that art form alone. He wanted to learn how to string more flips together. Once he picked up break dancing at camp, his "learning curve skyrocketed" since he had already been teaching himself other acrobatic moves, he said.
He later turned to taekwondo, which "bleeds over more than you would think" with break dancing. But the sport still lacked the flips he was looking for. One day, his taekwondo teacher saw Frye performing flips and recommended incorporating them into his routines for creative martial arts forms at tournaments where artists choreograph a set of up to 25 unique moves, he said.
Frye performed at talent shows but did break dance competitively until coming to Brown. Once in Providence, he joined Special Browniez Crew, participating in "jams" in the area as well as in shows and competitions at other schools, he said. Frye served as the group's president his sophomore year.
A community art
AS220 — a community arts venue downtown — was one of the biggest influences on Frye's break dancing. Frye started attending break dancing performances and practices about two years ago, hoping to fuse the Brown and Providence break dancing communities while learning new skills.
But this goal was initially intimidating, Frye said, because of the stark differences between Brown's student body and the residents of the local Providence area. On one hand, he said, he felt local dancers had more experience and practice and, as a result, were better overall. On the other hand, the socioeconomic and cultural differences between Brown students and Providence dancers made him nervous.
"Even though we've kind of got them to merge, there's still that hesitance where Brown break dancers are a little bit intimidated by these guys. Because they've been practicing way longer, they have certain norms that they're used to," Frye said.
But he said he is impressed by the Providence-based street performers. Frye points to one move in particular — the master swipe — that involves twirling the legs while flipping the arms. Though Frye can perform it, the other dancers have perfected it. Collaborating with the local dancers allows Frye and other Special Browniez Crew members to experiment with moves they have not mastered, he said.
Other art forms like martial arts also contribute to the expansion of Frye's moves. Back home, he learned capoeira, a Brazilian martial art that originated from slaves who disguised their practice as dancing.
It was a Rhode Island School of Design cultural show, and Frye had agreed to dance and show off his flips. Standing outside the List Art Center as the sky darkened, he was preparing for the move he calls his "coup d'etat" — a round-off followed by a 360-degree backflip.
The sun was setting. As the light faded, Frye couldn't see his feet as clearly. It was one of the most dangerous situations for a break dancer who performs flips.
Frye performed the move — and came crashing down onto his head.
Head injuries are rare for Frye. Once he learned how to do a flip properly, it took an effort to mess up, he said. Though most break dancers get badly injured at some point in their careers, Frye said he very rarely gets hurt.
Even in this instance, when he failed the round-off and backflip, he walked away unscathed — mostly.
"I was so embarrassed, and I did not do that move for a really long time because the embarrassment didn't hurt me physically — it just made me not able to psychologically do it anymore," Frye said. "That's probably going to be a block for me for a long time. I still do it sometimes, but I really have to psych myself up."
It is important for break dancers to try a move again immediately after botching it to alleviate embarrassment, but Frye was unable to do so in the moment, he said.
Embarrassment is a "really destructive force" for Frye and other break dancers. One of the biggest challenges is overcoming the instinct to check himself when performing in public, Frye said. Even outside of failed flips, break dancing in front of others can make dancers feel foolish or arrogant, he said.
But Frye does not hesitate to give a demonstration. He throws out a master swipe or sticks an arrowback — a flip that transitions into a handstand, held for a number of seconds — in the middle of the Sciences Library lobby to illustrate his moves. Break dancers occasionally hold a "study break" in front of the library, where they play music and show off moves.
One of Frye's signature moves involves freezing — holding position — in the air. He threads his feet under and over each other, weaving them through the air — the move resembles a sideways mid-air split.
During group performances, Frye generally solos for 20 to 30 seconds. The adrenaline rush of dancing often causes him and other dancers to get lost in the moment. Some dancers attempt moves they have never before tried or completed, he said.
For the most part, it takes more than a few practices to transition from novice to skilled break dancer. Frye is currently working on the flare, a power move — flashy and circular — that involves spinning on the arms and throwing the legs helicopter-like around the air, then repeating for many revolutions. Frye can only make about one revolution. He is also working to improve his freezes and the invert, a move like the arrowback but that calls for holding the legs together instead of spreading them apart.
The key, Frye said, is to enjoy practice as much as performance. For him, this is not a problem. Break dancing has an "addictive" quality, he said. "I have this need to do it all the time."