The street is Poplar, central Fresno. The year is 1976, ‘77, ‘78. The familiar popping of a broadcast receiver hits hot summer air, locking to 1220 on the AM dial. A desert wind gusts. Stops.
Sooooul Followers. De Arthur Woodrow Miller is calling to all who listen. They gather around the sound of KLIP, Fresno’s first black-owned station and one of the first in the nation. Between ads for local folks like Mell-o Ice Cream on Tulare, Graves Upholstery on Broadway and J&C House of Records on California, alongside in-house conversations with James Brown, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Ray Charles, Woody Miller keeps Fresno attuned to what and who is happening in the community—all blending together in a continuous mix of Gospel, R&B, Soul and Funk.
The wave of a laugh glittered with shouts goes gliding along a grass patch, hugging on the hood-famous two-story house at Poplar Street. Skating onto the short slope of the path, bouncing between two palm trees posted like sentries at the yard’s edge, the laugh meets your feet at the street where you pause, listening. You instinctively reach in your pocket, rubbing the plastic edge of the cassette tape like a good luck charm. Echoes of rhythm touch your bones and muscles, tender from last night’s practice.
Naomi: …you would go and practice on your own?
Deborah: Oh yeah. You sure would. You would go in your room, you would go behind closed doors, and you would practice. Watch yourself in your mirror. You would practice moving. You would be the laughing stock of the world, of the street, if you got up and you didn’t know how to do something. That wasn’t a time for you to learn how to do it. That’s show off time.
Your feet hit the path, magnetized. The two palm trees stand witness as you pass. You get up on the porch. The show’s been going on and there’s still time to get onstage.
Deborah: Our porch would be filled with kids in the neighborhood and it was very interesting because with us, there was never sitting around not doing anything. We were always creating. We were always dancing. Acting. Just really busy. And everybody knew that if you came around the McCoys you would have to be a part of it. A lot of people told us they felt compelled and driven.
They gather tight, posing like superheroes. They study each other studying themselves. They carry their moves like armor. Cutting and dipping. Flexing. All the baddest dancers show up to the front porch.
Gd UP! Gddonnup. GeddUP. Get. On. Up.
* * *
In 1977, Deborah McCoy was seventeen and dressed like the boys, danced like the boys.
Deborah: I was tough and I brought it hard. I was the baddest girl ever. I could jump over your head. My first karate tournament, I broke a girl’s ribs. I was the only girl with six brothers. I didn’t want to be the girl where the brothers say go.
Their family had just moved from King of Kings, an apartment complex on Lee Street in West Fresno where Deborah had graduated Irwin Junior High and started high school at Edison. Fifteen miles west on the town’s outskirts was American Union, the K-8 she’d attended in Caruthers during the first eight years of her life in foster care, where she says, “You could count the number of black families on one hand.”
Deborah’s story switches abruptly when she recounts reuniting with her family. Around middle school, she moved in with her father, mother, and the younger three of her six brothers. In this new community, the kids were bold. Deborah speaks with reverence.
Deborah: It was like a “wow” moment for me. It was a culture shock from my own culture. Everybody knew everybody, and we loved it. At my dad’s we’d walk to the store to get food to eat that morning. I was so shocked to see a house right next to a store, or a church! I thought I was in New York when I came to the city! I thought, “This is it!” The hoodest things were like Disneyland to me.
In this new land within a land, the language of the streets was dance and the conversation was fresh.
Deborah: There was no verbal language. She repeats. There was no verbal language. It was visual language. There was no terms. The only term you heard was popping and locking. On the street there is no language. It’s not so technical and so proper. There was none of that used. It was just poppin, lockin…no formality. None of that kind of stuff. This is street. It’s street.
Deborah’s emphasis on non-verbal language reflects to me the way Streetdance merges into and out of the everyday—style that escapes the codified vocabulary of formal studio classes. Deborah speaks to the street as a mode of study, predicated on the ever-shifting terms of the vernacular, where everyday life is not distinct from artistic practice.
Deborah: Whatchoo mean where were we learning? From the street! On the street. Are you kidding me? I have to say it like this. You’re black and you’re gona go take dance lessons? It’s on the street. It’s right there. That was a release for us. It was nothing like it. It was nothing like it. Nothing like it. You learned by watching other dancers, what they did, what you liked. The way they hit.
This isn’t a definition of the street that corners blackness into a type of mythical physicality. Deborah reminds me what’s significant about the street—it’s an affirmation of study unaccountable to professionalized lessons and learning within the protected space of industry dance studios. In 1960s and 1970s California, the studio world hardly accepted Streetdancers as legitimate artists. Streetdance is black study and Streetdancers are students who love to “study without an end,” a phrase that turns up in Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s book The Undercommons. “The student is not home, out of time, out of place, without credit, in bad debt.” There is no regular schedule of classes to attend or pre-determined levels of expertise to achieve. Streetdance seems “non-technical” or “natural” because the method of incorporating technique in these informal contexts is not linear. Practice is stitched intimately into everyday happen-stances—extending through sleepless nights preparing for a community talent show and improvised in tight spaces of front porches.
Deborah: It was like a way of life for us. Everybody would dance. Everybody would participate. People would get up and do solos. We would get up and we would dance. We would do our thing and they would watch. They would join in. We were learning.
Naomi: Sometimes you were choreographing but a lot of times you were also freestyling.
Deborah: It was both of those. We did a lot of the Motown choreos on the front porch. It was like group dancing. That was much easier to do than the popping and the robotting. All of that was all stirred up in a pot. It was all together.
There are no starting and ending points, in time or space. Practice quickly turns to performance. Witness your mom get down to a nasty groove in the living room. Get pushed in front of the crowd at the neighbors’ house party. Study the off-balance stroll of a peg leg man at the corner store. Not unlike the hip hop social/party dances of Now—[#HITDEMFOLKS] [#NAENAE]—early hip hop dance weaves the collective rhythm of blackness into offstage contexts that make up the often overlooked black social scene. Sociologist Marcel Mauss used the expression “Techniques of the Body” to describe everyday movements like walking and eating. Streetdance technique generates knowledge through cultural tradition and social practice: “Learning and doing techniques takes place in a collective context; a context which forms and informs the social constitution of its practitioners.”
Black study, in this sense, is collective study that stays indebted to many people—named and unnamed. Two Fresno innovators, Boogaloo Sam Solomon and his younger brother Timothy Earl Solomon aka Popin’ Pete, would eventually travel around the world, building the vocabulary and technical principles of Electric Boogaloo and poppin style and shaping the global cultural landscape of contemporary Streetdance. Yet poppin history is infinitely indebted to the street study of uncountable innovators: Fresno dancers William Green Jr. aka Tickn’ Will and Ricky Darnell McDowell; early dance groups from Oakland (The Black Resurgents, The Black Messengers aka Mechanical Devices); Berkeley (Damon Frost); Richmond (Richmond Robots, Audionauts, Androids, Lady Mechanical Robots, Green Machine); San Francisco (Deborah Johnson RIP with Granny and the Robotroids, Demons of the Mind, Close Encounters of the Funkiest Kind); San Jose (Playboy Rob RIP with Playboyz Inc.). It’s a running list. The trans-local movement of Streetdance remains, richly, in debt.
Deborah lists her debt to her father, mother, and brother Ken. Bob McCoy was born in 1922 and by the late 1940s had migrated to Fresno from Texarkana, Texas, working as a truck driver in farming and construction. A singer and self-taught musician, he raised the McCoy family in performing arts. Her brother Ken led a variety of dance groups—Soul Patrol, the Minute Men and The Puppets—the last of which Deborah joined. Together, they graced stages of schools and churches, local fairs and Fresno clubs like Rainbow Ballroom, Lucy’s, the Piccadilly Inn, and the Hacienda hotel. They created routines for weddings, fashion shows, house parties, community centers, and dance competitions—a winding resumé woven with rich patterns of Fresno dance history.
Mary R. Simmons McCoy was their mother and staunch supporter, driving the family to shows and designing their dance costumes. Her sewing gifts are captured in an old photo of Ken, posing in wide-legged red and white knickers crafted from a flag found at the former Pink Elephant thrift store on Shields and Maroa Streets. Red suspenders, bow tie and matching thick-framed sunglasses complete the outfit. His arms jut at off-kilter angles from neatly folded cuffs of a button-up white dress shirt. His head tilts in subtle agreement, accentuating the jaunty perch of the oversized red Apple cap.
Deborah details the careful selection of research sources from which the family drew as they crafted their dance and performance style.
Deborah: We studied Marcel Marceau. We would watch his videos. We looked at him as a role model. We started watching his videos and watched the isolations. We tried to polish up on those skills by watching him. To me, that was onstage. We knew, “Okay, wait a minute, we want to get closer to the stage.” Doing what we were doing was street. It was a way of life for us. Seeing Marcel Marceau dance, and he was on stage, and he was famous. We had much respect for him. That’s how we came up with the name called The Puppets. We would tell stories with our popping and our robotting. When you watched [Marceau] you were there with him in that story. He just walked over to you and grabbed your hand and took you with him.
Street and stage form and inform one another, folding into movement conversations that blur boundaries between off and onstage.
Deborah: What’s interesting too, when we danced on the street, we did not use Marcel Marceau or music from The Sting. You have to come correct. Coming correct means that you gotta do what you’re supposed to do at that moment or in your atmosphere. Do you understand what I’m saying?
Naomi: I think so. You’re saying that you’re speaking the language of the street.
Naomi: You switch depending on the environment you’re in.
Deborah: Exactly. You got it.
Naomi: When you’re on the street, you’re responding to the folks where you’re at in that moment. And you’re talking a common language you all share being from this particular place, this lifestyle, this community.
Deborah: Right, because that would not impress them at all. Absolutely not. So that wasn’t the place to do that kind of dancing.
As an early or emergent form of hip hop, Streetdance draws its politics from what, where and how the streets are talking. Against a move to gain value through professional accreditation determined by formal measures of achievement and success, the black study of Streetdance remains displaced in/by/from a proper sense of place in history, because its place was never guaranteed in the first place. Streetdance, as black study, sustains a debt that’s unpayable, incalculable.
Deborah: I never left…my sense of family, that’s my success. No success in the world could compare to being able to touch my father, or my mom, or my brothers. Being separated as kids? Come on now. And I’m gonna go to LA to try and make it big? Being successful within myself. That’s for me moving up.
In 2005, Deborah opened McCoy Talent Gallery on the second floor of the Manchester Mall at the corner of North Blackstone and East Shields Avenue. Holding two black belts in Shotokan and Tae Kwon Do, she teaches classes in Karate, self-defense, and hip hop to youth and women.
The front porch stays lit…
Naomi: What was it about popping?
Deborah: Popping and robotting to me is an outer body experience. You have to be in tune to some parts and let go of the other parts. You’re in and out. You have to isolate. You have to think about, okay if I’m leading with my elbow, I can’t be thinking about my hand. The focus has to be on my elbow. So that means that my hand is hanging there like it’s about to fall off. I have no control over that hand because I’m focusing. I’m leading with my elbow. To be able to do this and it seems real. That you do look like a robot. You’re gone. When you’re a robot, you’re looking right through someone. You’re looking right through them. You actually hypnotize that person that you’re dancing for. You take them where you’re going. You’re both on a journey. You know? You’re both on that journey.
* * *
Feet touch concrete.
Switch out the cassette for the one in your pocket.
The receiver pops.
Everything starts on the front porch.
The porch is always lit.
It’s a way of life.
It’s not history. It’s Poplar Street.
It’s an everyday thing.
Naomi Macalalad Bragin is an assistant professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington Bothell, where she teaches courses in black performance theory, performance research, and dance improvisation. Her current project, Black Power of Hip Hop Dance: On Kinethic Politics, traces the role of freestyle street dance in the generation of Black political aesthetics.
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.