We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Instructor Mat Guenther is coaching Mary Killeen, 51, on her back spin. “You gotta keep your legs spread, Mary,” the lanky 23-year-old admonishes. She giggles. Guenther scratches his patchy beard and sighs. “Have you even stretched?” The widowed mother of two grown daughters shakes her head and giggles again, before launching into another gleeful whirl on the floor.
Elsewhere in the basement dance studio, 4-year-old Robert attempts a head spin, then watches a pair of clean-cut teenage boys lazily trade freezes and air swipes. These are the final minutes of Guenther’s breaking class, and his pupils look a bit winded from all those windmills. But they’re only a third of the way through the evening.
Every Friday from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., Tenleytown’s DC Dance Collective breaks down breakdancing into its constituent parts: breaking, locking, and popping.
Guenther’s tutorials on b-boy acrobatics are followed by Randy Tipton’s more aerobic lessons in the almost-lost art of locking. On a recent Friday night, Tipton, 26—you can call him Tippi—wears the classic locking costume: Chuck Taylors, striped socks, knickers, dress shirt, red bow tie, and matching suspenders. His delicate Filipino features look even smaller beneath a billowy cap, save for a huge smile.
For the next hour, as he paces his students through the deceptively simple dance invented by Don Campbell in the early ’70s, Tippi’s all teeth—except for when he’s sticking out his tongue, which is often. “You gotta remember, every position is like taking a picture, so strike a pose!” he cries out over James Brown’s “Get on the Good Foot.”
After schooling his charges on this and other locking fundamentals—the “throwback,” “Uncle Sam points,” the “rock steady”—Tippi divides the class into two parallel lines and runs them through a double-time combination. Someone yells out, “I got control!”
Well, not quite, but everyone’s grinning now.
“Watch how he pops his arms, legs, chest, and head all at the same time,” Tippi says later as popping instructor Phil Thorne, 23, plays a game of copycat with his students to the synth bounce of Zapp & Roger’s “So Ruff, So Tuff.” Tippi nods approvingly: “He’s pretty good.”
“It makes me so happy,” says Killeen during a water break. The social-science researcher from Alexandria started dancing four months ago, after her husband died of cancer. “My daughter takes ballet, and I take hiphop,” she says, beaming. “She does ballroom, and I breakdance.”
Killeen may not be the typical b-girl, but her new hobby is characteristic of a resurgent interest in ’70s and early-’80s urban culture. Like many retro trends, it’s fed by suburban nostalgia for a more innocent inner city.
“The black community has moved on,” Tippi explains. “Right now, they’re creating new dances,” such as the Harlem Shake in New York, and the Crip Walk in Los Angeles (not recommended for the unaffiliated). “It’s up to us to keep the old-school culture going.”
In addition to teaching, Tippi performs with a local pop-lock crew called Boogie Knightz. He estimates that there are only about 20 hard-core street dancers active today in D.C. “Back in the day, it was on every street corner,” he says, his smile subsiding for the first time all evening. “Why don’t we dance anymore?” —Gadi Dechter