Straight Outta Fresno: How the Popping Dance Movement Empowered Youth of Color

As its name suggests, popping is a dance style defined by the popping of one’s muscles and joints. At its best, popping is a time-lapsed spasm or a stop-motion convulsion highlighting intricate movements in even the tiniest muscles. Like many street dance styles, popping is a product of working class youth of color making the most of limited resources. However, popping is unique because its roots trace back not to quintessential deindustrializing communities like the Bronx or South Los Angles but to the capital of California’s breadbasket, Fresno.

Popping first entered national consciousness on the backs of a series of mid-1980s Hollywood breakdancing films. “Breaksploitation” films, as they became collectively known, like Beat Street, Breakin’ and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, featured actual poppers like Bruno “Pop N’ Taco” Falcon and Michael “Boogaloo Shrimp” Chambers showing off the dance’s characteristic pops, ticks, jerks, and spasms. However, even when Breaksploitation films depicted authentic representations of popping (which they did not always do), they created the impression that popping was simply a particular set of steps under the broader breakdancing umbrella. In the ensuing breakdancing craze that spread across the nation, morning news show profile pieces, suburban dance studios and even an episode of the sitcom Silver Spoons, similarly depicted breakdancing as a unified dance genre no different than the waltz or the tango. However, these various attempts to popularize and commodify breakdancing typically missed a crucial point, namely, that breakdancing was actually an amalgam of various dance styles, each with their own distinct histories and geographic contexts. Popping was one such dance style.

Historian Robert Farris Thompson describes popping as: “rhythmic angulations of the torso and limbs executed at a moderate tempo if one is poppin’ or very fast if one is tickin’.”1 Pioneering popper, Timothy Solomon aka Pop’in Pete offers a more direct definition when he says popping is “hittin’ your joints, hittin’ hard with your leg, your neck, your head.”2 Contemporary popping encompasses a range of movements, steps and styles including boogaloo, animation, ticking, strutting, roboting, strobing, tutting to name a few; the common denominator in these styles is the fluid “popping” or “htting” of the joints and muscles. By the time kids in Kenosha, Wisconsin marveled at Pop N’ Taco’s spastic, yet simultaneously fluid, dance routines in the film “Breakin’” or even Michael Jackson’s flawless execution of the backslide3 during his “Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever” performance, they were bearing witness to a dance whose kinetic genealogy was rooted not in the Bronx or Hollywood, but in Fresno.

Origin stories are tricky; on the one hand they provide an easily digestible narrative that pinpoints a specific starting point; on the other hand, however, they often over-simplify complex histories or otherwise obscure conflicting details and alternative origins. Popping’s most popular origin story credits the genre’s creation to Fresno’s Sam Solomon, aka, Boogaloo Sam. In this version of the dance’s origin story, popping’s characteristic “rhythmic angulations” were rooted in the holy ghost-inspired spasms and contortions exhibited by sanctified women that Sam encountered at Fresno’s First Corinthians Baptist church.4 By 1975, Sam began constructing secular interpretations of these divine movements which he shared first with other Fresno dancers and eventually with his brother, Pop’in Pete, who had moved south to Long Beach.5

A competing origin story traces popping back to Fresno’s Tulare housing project where William Green Jr., aka Tick’n Will and Ricky Darnell McDowell developed foundational popping moves like the “old man,” the “twist-o flex” and the “neck-o flex” over the course of numerous weed-fueled dance sessions held in their respective apartments. Will and Darnell eventually met Sam Solomon at Fresno’s Roeding Park in 1976 while practicing their unique dance moves; immediately impressed by their talent, Sam invited Will and Darnell to join a dance group he was forming. The newly constituted Electric Boogaloo Lockers perfected their routines during practices at the Mary Ella Brown Community Center, and created local buzz while performing at talent shows, the Fresno County fair and eventually shows further away from home in San Jose and Sacramento. The last piece of this origin story puzzle came when Sam moved down to Long Beach where he taught the new dance that Will, Darnell, and he developed to the aforementioned Pop’in Pete who then joined the group and helped further polish their routines.6

While these differing creation stories offer conflicting takes on the precise moment of popping’s birth, they have an important commonality; namely, a focus on Fresno community institutions. Both accounts specifically feature institutions from the city’s economically depressed and largely segregated, west end. The centrality of the First Corinthians Baptist Church, the Tulare housing project and the Mary Ella Brown Community Center, all highlight the fact that Fresno’s west end was an important player in popping’s evolution.

Fresno's Mary Ella Brown Commuinty Center
Boogaloo Sam and his Electric Boogaloo lockers practiced their early routines at the Mary Ella Brown Community Center in west Fresno. | Image: Sean Slusser
In recent years, however, dancers from Oakland and the broader San Francisco Bay Area have begun to challenge the idea that popping came straight outta Fresno. Popping reconstructionists claim that the style came from boogaloo funk dances based in the Bay Area and that Fresno youth absorbed these dance styles during dances held in conjunction with the West Coast Relays, an annual track meet held in Fresno that attracted prominent track athletes from around the state. In this competing version of popping’s origin story, Sam, Will, and Darnell either copied, or put their own twist on, boogaloo funk moves such as the dimestop and bopping they witnessed while attending West Coast relay dances at the Fresno convention center.7

While there are disagreements on popping’s exact birthplace, almost all agree that Sam’s decision to move to Southern California and reunite with Pop’in Pete changed the direction of the style’s evolution. Pete and Sam helped introduce popping to locals who were mostly lockers and eventually recruited new group members Cedric Williams aka Creep’n Sid, Gary Allen aka Scarecrow Scally, Marvin “Puppet” Boozer and Dane “Robot” Parker. Eventually, Will and Darnel came down to help train the Southern California recruits on popping’s finer points and work on group routines.8

The West Coast Relays as documented in the 1969 Fresno State College yearbook
The West Coast Relays held in Fresno attracted world class athletes such as John Carlos (upper right), while the post-competition dances held at the Fresno convention center attracted dancers from around the state. | Photo: Fresno State College 1969 Yearbook Collection
This incarnation of the Electric Boogaloo Lockers was discovered in 1978 performing on the streets of Hollywood by choreographer and promoter Jeff Kutash. He shortened the group’s name to the Electric Boogaloos (which made sense because the group did not actually lock) and featured them in his shows at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe casino and Chicago’s Playboy Club. Kutash also helped get the group on a couple of TV shows — “Midnight Special” and “Hot City” — under his Dancing Machine brand. Despite these small-scale successes, group members were still struggling economically and some began to question Kutash’s handling of the group.9

Between 1978 and 1979 the group’s membership was in flux with original Fresno members, Will and Darnell moving in and out of the group and Sam growing increasingly disgruntled with Kutash. Tensions boiled over in 1979 with Sam deciding to leave the group. That departure proved to be short-lived, however. Not long after leaving the group, Sam received a phone call from “Soul Train” creator Don Cornelius requesting an Electric Boogaloo performance. Sam agreed to reunite with the group and the Electric Boogaloos delivered two iconic “Soul Train” numbers.10Taken together, the two “Soul Train” performances synthesized elements from each origin story. On Cornelius’ stage, the two brothers from Fresno and their three Southern California students blended together holy ghost spasms, the twist-o flex, and dimestops. Furthermore, these two nationally televised performances helped bridge popping’s roots in funk dance to its eventual absorption into breakdancing.

When you add the Electric Boogaloo’s two “Soul Train” performances to the contested origin stories you end up with another definitively Fresno element in popping’s history: the city’s perpetual struggle to wrestle legitimacy from its more popular and resourceful neighbors to the north and south. Not only do Fresno poppers have to fight back attacks from the Bay Area on the validity of their contributions but their claims to origination are often predicated on the fact that they went to Los Angeles and performed the dance on television. Yet, that very ability to navigate the literal and figurative distance between the Bay Area to the north and Los Angeles to the south further points to the resourcefulness of Fresno poppers. More to the point, these Fresno youth found ways to augment their local experiences by tapping into a sophisticated cultural network that stretched across the state. In the process, they helped create an art form that has since been viewed, practiced, adapted and evolved by succeeding generations of youth around the globe.

Whether you believe popping is a secular reverberation of a sanctified echo, a remnant of weed-fueled teenage spasms, or a legacy of sweat saturated cultural exchange, what is indisputable is that popping is yet another example of youth of color leaving their mark on a world not always hospitable to them. The greatest evidence of this mark is the complexity and beauty of popping’s movements; however, equally important is the fact that popping’s evolution was shaped by the construction of networks to share and disseminate cultural knowledge. In this context, youth from communities as diverse as Fresno, the Bay Area and Southern California collaborated with and inspired each other in parks, community centers, apartments, sporting events and countless other mundane spaces that are typically ignored by history.

Sean Slusser is a PhD candidate in History at University of California, Riverside and an adjunct at California State University, Fresno. He is co-founder and co-director of Straight Outta Fresno, a public history project that seeks to document and showcase the multi-ethinc history of hip hop in Fresno.  This piece originally appeared on KCET’s Artbound on November 17, 2016.

This project was made possible with support from California Humanities, a non-profit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Visit www.calhum.org.

 

References

1 Robert Farris Thompson, “Hip-hop 101” in Droppin’ Science: Critical Essays on Rap Music and Hip Hop Culture, edited by William Eric Perkins (Philadelphia,PA: Temple University Press,1996), 219.

2 Ben Higa, “Electric Kingdom” in Rap Pages Special Dance Edition, September 1996, 57.

3 Popping purists point out that Jackson mislabeled the move as the moonwalk which is a related but different move in the popping canon. Backsliding, as the name suggests, is characterized by a backwards sliding; the moonwalk, in contrast, is characterized by a circular, gliding pattern.

4 Thompson, “Hip-hop 101,” 219.

5 Higa, “Electric Kingdom,” 57-58.

6 Thomas Guzman-Sanchez, Underground Dance Masters: Final History of a Forgotten Era (Santa Barbara,CA: Praeger, 2012), 109-112.

7 Ibid., 112-114. and Higa, “Electric Kingdom,” 57.

8 Ibid., 115-116.

9 Ibid., 117-120.

10 Ibid., 119-120.

Top image: Dancer pops and locks at Justin Herman Plaza. | Photo: Nick Fisher/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Author: Tropics of Meta

We are legion.

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