Local dance group Massive Monkees breaks down moves into an art form

You might call Jerome Aparis a hip-hop contortionist.

The 21-year-old bends and spins, twists and flips as he engages in a style of dance that marries acrobatics and artistic ingenuity. A polished wood or tile floor — not a tightrope — is where Aparis, a breakdancer, performs physical maneuvers that are intricate, intuitive, even mind-boggling.

For Aparis, pliability and creativity go hand-in-hand as a founding member of the popular Seattle breaking crew, Massive Monkees. The group, which began in 1999 with four breakers, is today 13 members strong. Massive Monkees, composed of Seattle-area dancers, is well-known on local and national performance and competition circuits. The dancers represent diverse backgrounds and life experiences but share a deep-seated passion for breaking. "For us, (breakdancing) is an art form," Aparis said. "It's our passion."

"When you go out (to perform) it's like having a conversation with everybody else," said Massive Monkees breaker Jonathan Higuchi, 22. "I think of it as talking. It's something you just do."

Breaking is an instant connection to the world of hip-hop; breakers, along with MCs, DJs and graffiti artists define the culture, with each element integral to the next. For young people, breakdancing is a positive, healthy outlet for expression that can foster community outreach, as in the case of Massive Monkees (several of the breakers perform at solo competitions, city events and local schools).

The roots of breakdancing go back to the streets of New York in the 1970s and '80s with pioneering groups including the Rock Steady Crew and the Zulu Kings.

While many associate breakdancing with East Coast hip-hop, Seattle groups including the Emerald City Breakers, Seattle Circuit Breakers, Circle of Fire, Vivid Vixens and the Monkees have brought national and international attention to the city's underground hip-hop scene. Massive Monkees is among the most popular and in-demand local group.

For the squad's only B-girl, Fides Anna Mabanta, breakdancing began as a source of comfort and community. Mabanta went through a period of adjustment when she moved from California to Washington.

"Breaking, and hip-hop in general, was just something I identified with," Mabanta said. "It felt natural. When I'm dancing to the music it's just about me. I express that through my body. It's like no one else is there."

Many breakdancing troupes got their start at community centers or in school halls.

Nollan Worrell's introduction to breaking happened while a student at Mountlake Terrace High School. When Worrell saw his peers breakdancing in the hallways and after school he decided to join in. Now 23, he's been dancing ever since.

"I started it ... as a junior in high school just for fun," Worrell said. "And for the girls."

The group has little trouble meeting "girls" and getting shows as the members line up gigs and competitions. It's all part of a bigger plan to stay vital and fresh.

"We're always trying to take it to the next level," Aparis said. "Great chemistry: that's what makes us. We're all friends, and we all have faith in each other."

For years, breakers have converged at the Jefferson Community Center on Beacon Hill to hone their style. The center is a kind of home-away-from-home, a safe, friendly place for youths to learn about the arts, including the art of dance.

The community center "is really the hot spot to come and dance," Aparis said. Part rehearsal space, part social club, it's where teens and 20-somethings coalesce and where the Massive Monkees practice twice a week.

On a recent Friday night, Massive Monkees, along with a dozen or so onlookers, positioned themselves on exercise mats around the modest-sized hall to practice for a couple of hours. The breakers loosen up with bends and twists, flips and tumbles. Massive Monkees' Glen Takamura casually segues from a head spin to a backspin, while others, seemingly emboldened by the activity around them, attempt a windmill or handstand with varying degrees of success.

The Monkees are outfitted with the basic accouterments of a professional crew — namely, a metallic-colored boom box blasting continuous beats and polyrhythmic pulses that bounce off the floors and mirrored walls of the rehearsal space, and loose fitting clothes: jeans and sportswear, wristbands and pageboy hats and stocking caps.

While there is no strict mandate of what moves the dancers practice, most challenge themselves to surpass their personal bests. At times this translates into sore elbows and overtaxed wrists; it's not all serious, however. There's a playfulness to the Monkees' method as members add their personal imprint to traditional breaking moves such as the windmill, backspin and flares.

The group's practices are with a purpose: In addition to participating in national and international B-boy competitions — from New York City to Denmark and Japan — there are performances at hip-hop concerts, including a Missy Elliot show and KUBE-93 Summer Jam.

Eight Massive Monkees participate in TURF!, a Seattle-based dance theater and performing arts group created by Sonya Boothroyd. TURF! puts on live stage shows that bring the excitement and verve of urban dance to audiences from the Moore Theatre to local classrooms. The versatility and maturity of the young dancers is evident in the shows, Boothroyd said.

"The dancers that I see in TURF! who are also in Massive Monkees are very talented artists who have an exciting future ahead of them," she said. "They are young leaders who participate in pioneering an innovative art form, in both TURF! and Massive Monkees."

Breakdancing factors heavily into TURF! shows, and young people in particular, Boothroyd said, seem to latch on to this style of dance more than modern or interpretive dance.

"I believe youth are drawn to the B-boy and B-girl scene because of the culture, where it originated and the people who are involved with the community," she said. "The art form rose up from young artists born and raised in low-income communities. The rise of this culture from self-taught poor artists symbolizes an independence, freedom and liberation from class and racial struggles."

The dancers' dedication to their art is inspiring — they dance because they love it, and because it works the body and mind.

"It's a form of expression and a stress reliever," said Takamura, 21, who's been a B-boy since 1995.

A video of a B-boy battle was the catalyst for Joe Stoltee to learn breaking. The intensity and energy of the breakers struck the then high-school student. "I'd never seen anything like that," said Stoltee, 21. "It's more than something you do. It's who you are."

Unlike other styles of dance, such as ballet, jazz and tap, breakdancing doesn't always get the respect it deserves, these breakers said. Many of the dancers believe it's gotten a bad rap, born from misconceptions about hip-hop in general.

"It's looked down upon by a lot of people," Takamura said. "But it's art to me."

Tina Potterf: 206-464-8214 or tpotterf@seattletimes.com