I can see myself winning when I close my eyes.
It’s March. I’m at the final round of the Hogtown Showdown, the most important b-boy battle of the year in all of Toronto. My crew, Rackit Klub, is up against the legendary Infinite Jest. Some of them have been breaking since before I could walk. Not only did they start this battle, they’ve won it eight times, not to mention all the titles they hold in New York, L.A. and every far-flung cipher and circle around the planet. They’ve been in the newspaper. They’ve been on TV. Their videos have made the top ten of almost every b-boy website there is. Sponsors give them free clothes. When local MCs want b-boys in their videos, Infinite Jest gets called up first. All that’s left is for someone to name a shoe after them.
Meanwhile, me and the boys of tha Rackit Klub have trouble getting practice space at school. We can’t even get an invitation to the sessions that Infinite leads. So far, nothing we do grabs their attention. Or anyone else’s.
You can feel it in the air. Something amazing is going to happen. The crowd knows it too. As we’re called to the floor, everyone–b-boys, fans, photographers–they all rush to the side of the circle. Some use their elbows to get to the front.
Infinite jokes around with fans and makes fun of the DJ–a personal friend. By now, anyone who’s anyone in this scene and not jealous is a personal friend of Infinite Jest.
I’m terrified, but my nerves are helping me focus. That’s one thing about me. I like pressure. The cash prize is close to $5,000, but more than that, I’m driven by the chance to show what I can do next to the best of the best.
I’m wearing my lucky pants today. (The grey cargoes my mother hates–too faded.) I am also wearing my lucky shoes (too expensive), lucky shirt (too tight) and lucky hoop earrings (“How do you dance in those?”). My hair is twisted up under my lucky bandana from my Mexican grandmother (too ratty), beneath my lucky hat with the patch from my Jamaican grandfather (makes me look like a boy). Even my bra feels lucky today. (Don’t even get me started.) It’s a silver bikini bathing suit top but you can only tell if you’re looking harder than you should be. I am hot. I am tough. I am a superhero in camo-print sneakers. I can melt you with my eyes. I can shoot lasers from my hands. I don’t just have my game face on; I am
The rest of my crew is bugging-out nervous. Encore and Recoil are pacing back and forth, bumping fists and reviewing strategies. I listen to the music and force my brain to quiet down; no easy feat with Sean, a.k.a. Ruckus, a.k.a. my boyfriend, hopping around beside me, cracking his knuckles and muttering under his breath. If we can beat Infinite Jest, the money won’t even matter. A victory here is like an automatic upgrade. If we beat them, we’ll become the crew to beat. We’ll be in.
The DJ drops the needle and the battle begins.
Our two crews face each other, tensely stepping from one foot to the other, each daring the other to go first, like it’s a game of chicken. The crowd starts to clap the beat. On our side, Recoil finally gets sick of waiting and leaps into the ring, opening big with a series of power moves, more like gymnastics than dancing. The room goes wild. I cheer with Sean and Encore, but on the inside I wince. I wish Recoil would do some actual dancing before getting into the big tricks. The judges are looking for foundation moves and creativity, not just brute acrobatics.
I’m pretty sure this is why I’m always second in the running order. Mr. Ruckus and the boys of tha Klub figure that by burying me here, they’re playing it safe. They can still open big and close big and as long as I don’t screw up, the fact that I’m a girl won’t matter, ’cause at least I’ll have the basics covered for the judges. I hate the way they try to pass off sexism as strategy, like there’s nothing I can ever do to match them. But I take my battles one at a time, and right now, I need to stick with the program and nail this round. The best way to win is to win.
Mephisto throws down for Infinite next. He kicks off his run by ticking off every move Recoil did on fast-forward, as if to ask, “Is that all you’ve got?” Then he drops down and fills in everything Recoil missed, ending with a couple of tricks he invented himself.
This is what I have to follow. If I think about it, I’ll either panic or ask for an autograph. Instead, I keep my head down, try to focus on what I do best.
As the crowd gathers closer, I open with a few funky dance steps–Bronx and Brooklyn Rock, light on my feet, playing with the music, riffing off what’s going on in the song. I work through some intricate footwork–6-steps, CCs and other variations, focusing on the essential foundations of the dance. The guys are always bitching at me to learn more power. They won’t be happy until they see my feet flying around in the air. But when I’m doing these moves, I feel connected to the start of it all, back in the day, somewhere in the Bronx in the seventies. I hit everything nice and tight, toss the crowd something a little unexpected but save some strength for later. I don’t want to burn through my best stuff like Recoil, who is still panting on the sidelines even though his turn is long over.
“Yeah! Lady Six!” a fan shouts from the crowd.
We go back and forth like this until we’ve all gone twice, and at the end of the final, the crowd erupts in chaos. Some people are chanting for Rackit Klub. Some people are chanting for Infinite Jest.
It takes forever for the judges to announce a winner. When the MC finally steps up to the mike, the room gets so quiet you can hear a bandana drop.
“And the winner of the Hogtown Showdown is . . .”
It’s a tie.
The judges could have split the prize money and called it a night, but the crowd won’t rest till they declare a champion.
The room gets loud again. A fight almost breaks out. Bouncers struggle to keep people apart. The MC has to yell into the mike.
“The judges request that each crew sends one man forward.”
I can’t believe my ears. There’s going to be an extra round–a one-on-one battle–foundation only. No power moves. No backflips. No amount of spinning will help.
Sean grabs his face in his hands. I know he wants to put himself in but he went all out on his last run and popped his knee. Recoil hasn’t practised foundation in, like, a year. Encore steps forward like he’s ready to take on the job like a man, but then Sean sends him back.
“Sorry, man,” he says, “I know you want to battle but I have to think about the big picture. It has to be Nadine.”
I am blown away. All the times he acted like I wasn’t strong enough, all the hours he spent making me do it over–he saw my true potential all along.
Encore looks mad for a second, but then he thinks about it.
“It’s true, dawg, it’s true,” he says. “Nadine’s our only hope.”
“Amen,” says Recoil.
“Six Sky, Six Sky,” they start to chant as I step into the circle. Mephisto stares me down but I am not afraid. I breathe deep and summon the spirit strength of the warrior queen who is my b-girl namesake. I am Lady Six Sky.
The DJ drops the needle, and “Treat ’em Right” by Chubb Rock bursts through the speakers. I leap into the circle. None of this waiting stuff for me. I have to be first. No way am I letting the judges think the other guy might be hungrier. I don’t care how much experience he has. I don’t want to hear about upper-body strength. This one is mine. His crew might be legendary, but I’ve trained for this. I have talent, I have energy, and more importantly, I want it more.
The music rips through my body, pushing me to move. I’m not thinking. I’m not even in control of my limbs. Within twenty counts, I’m down on the floor. My hands and feet twist and wind around each other with familiar flow, weaving my body through illusions of contortions. The crowd cheers louder the deeper I get. I feed off their energy.
When the timing feels right, I unwind from a windmill, track into a headstand, fake like I’m going to end my run right there but then pop up into a hollowback handstand, my shoulders stretching, back arching so far that I can feel my feet reaching for the ground. I freeze there for a gravity-defying lifetime of seconds. The crowd sucks in its breath, then lets out a cheer as I land back on my feet in a proud b-girl stance. I brush the imaginary dust off my shoulder and toss my hair at my opponents.
Sean is waiting for me on the sidelines. “Baby, I am so proud of you.” The guys grab me and lift me over their shoulders.
Mephisto finishes his run and the judges dive into a quick huddle. The MC steps up to announce their decision.
“And the winner is–”
Sean squeezes me tighter. Encore and Recoil have their fingers crossed.
He says it again ’cause no one can believe it.
“Put it together for Rack-it Klu-uuuuuub!”
The entire building ...