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Breaking Away

Group Is Making a Name for Itself With a School Dance Club


VENTURA — It's lunch hour at Ventura High School, and about 30 guys in baggy pants and sweats are crowded into the dance studio in what feels like an urban time warp.

To the hammering beat of the Tom Tom Club, they line up loosely in two rows.

They are about to do "battle"--by dancing.

"Call him out, Tony," yells one kid. "Call him out."

Tony "busts a move"--spinning his body across the floor on his hands like a crazy windmill.

To the taunting hoots of the other team, a dancer from the other side jumps out onto the floor like a dervish, whirling right back with a move of his own.

These baggily clad boys are Ventura High School's break dancers, and they practice morning, noon and night, anywhere they can.

They are not necessarily the honor society kids or the varsity athletes. Some are the students that teachers and parents worry about.

But on their own initiative, with a little help from a teacher and a school counselor, they have formed this informal club, mastered the moves and are making a name for themselves on campus.

Principal Larry Emrich said the break dancers have made an impact around campus, with their amped-up daily practice sessions. But Emrich said the greatest impact is on the dancers themselves.

"It's raising their sense that, 'We have a place here, we have some skills,' " he said. "It's like an athlete who gets accolades--it's boosting them up."

The break dancers say they have been around for years, practicing in each others' living rooms and backyards, even in school hallways when they could.

"They were homeless," explained counselor Linda Holder. "There was no place to dance or practice. It was just a bunch of guys who wanted to hang out."

So Holder opened up her office and gave the dancers a square of linoleum to spin on.

From there, the effort took on a momentum of its own, she said.

First, the dancers sought out Joe Abing, the school's water polo coach. They had heard a rumor that he used to break dance.

Holder said she came in one day to find Abing wedged onto the couch between some breakers.


Now the youths break any time they can. On Fridays at lunch, Abing takes them to the dance studio for a session. The most hard-core members estimate that they dance 15 to 20 hours a week.

"Lunch break, before school, after school; I can't get rid of them," Holder said, laughing. "The room is packed with bodies. It smells like a sweaty gym afterward."

Abing is the informal coach, Holder the informal manager.

But what is important, said Holder, is that it remains informal.

"If they tried to formalize it in any way, I swear it would kill it," she said. "It's because they created it. That's why it works."

The break dancers held their first public performance at the school's peace day retreat in Ojai in early November, giving the fledgling group a higher profile and new recruits. The recognition has made the breakers almost euphoric when they talk about their hobby.

When the lunch bell rang one recent Friday, they came bounding up the stairs to wait for Abing to open the door to the dance studio.

Within minutes, the room was throbbing with energy.

After a few minutes, they called Abing out on the floor.


Sheepishly, the laid-back Abing obliged. He removed his watch, emptied his pockets of change and pulled out the shirttail of his freshly pressed blue polo button-down.

When he started doing the wave and then fell to the floor, the youths went wild.

"They like the fact that an older guy can still do it a little bit," Abing said afterward.

As their friends "battle," Junior and Jesse Amaro speak about the difference break dancing has made in their lives.

They have been best friends since they were kids. They used to break dance in each other's backyards, but Junior wanted to start something this year, because it is his final year of high school.

"I like it," he said, a little out of breath between one-arm spins. "It keeps me out of the streets."

Zack Kantzabedian thinks breaking kept him away from gangs.

Last summer, he hung out with some youths from Oxnard, he said.


But then some members from the Colonia gang got interested in him.

"They wanted to jump me in," he said. "They started following me around and leaving threatening phone calls."

He had to transfer schools. When he got to Ventura, someone told him about the break dancers.

"It has kept me away from gangs," he said. "It has kept me busy all the time."

And strangely, he said, the gangs respect the break dancers and leave them alone.

"They have no problem with us," he said. "We entertain them."

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