The Dojo is the nickname. It’s an apartment, yes, but through the rotating tenants all involved in Chicago’s breaking, popping and hip-hop dance community, it has become an artist colony, a practice space, a hub of up-and-coming and established dancers promoting and supporting each other’s training.
Yeah, it’s sort of a dojo.
Last week, we heard the story of B-Boy ManOfGod, who recently moved from The Dojo to Hong Kong.
Today, here’s the story of Dojo resident Aaron Gray, AKA Release.
Release Falls in Love
“From where I’m from, South Bend, Ind., if you don’t have anything to do with Notre Dame, there’s nothing going on,” Release said, leaning back in his chair.
Aaron “Release” Gray, 31, is one of the newest Dojo tenants. He had only been in the apartment — and in Chicago — for a few months by the time we sat down together in October.
“There are dancers, but they just like to dance,” he said. “They don’t want to get better. They don’t want to try to elevate their skill or nothing like that. To a point, I just got tired. And the people I grew up with in the dance scene that live in South Bend, they’re all married, got kids, they don’t really got time to practice anymore. Their mindset is not even on dancing anymore.”
Around the time he hit 30, Release stopped dancing for a long, tedious year.
“I pretty much moved here just to start anew and just to get that love of dancing back,” he said. “I’m slowly but surely falling in love with dancing.”
“I started out breaking when I was in eighth grade. I got called out in a battle at a school dance. I really didn’t know how to break, but I didn’t want to be no punk about myself, like ‘He ain’t gonna show me up,’” he said, dropping into an impression of himself as a puffed-up eighth grader for the last bit.
He accepted the dance-off challenge, with potentially predictable results.
“I tried to do a 190. A 190 is when you stand on your hands and you spin. I tried it, and I never tried it before and I ended up, like, my hands gave out and I fell on my head. Ever since then, I got kind of paranoid about breaking. So I started popping.”
Popping is a cousin to hip-hop dance. It was created in California in the early 1970s. People who pop mostly dance to funk music because it was created in funk era. Parliment-Funkadelic, George Clinton, James Brown, etc.
Popping is contraction of the muscle. It’s more twitches, controlled action, jerky motions than a breakdance toprock or powerhead move. Popping turns your whole body staccato.
Think “The Robot” done by someone who actually knows how to do “The Robot.”
But, being from Indiana, Gray had another patron saint of dance to look toward.
“I was all Michael Jackson. Just do all Michael Jackson moves and everything like that, like imitate him,” Gray said.
In high school, a friend introduced him to the movie “Breakin’” and its sequel, “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo.”
“As soon as he showed me that movie, I was watching it every night. Like every night.”
Pausing and slow-mo on VHS, recording and studying bits. Pause, slow-mo, study, rehearse, learn.
Teeny-Boppers and Mr. Wiggles
“I didn’t really focus on dancing like that because I was all into sports. I was running track, I was playing football, stuff like that. Dancing was still within me, but I never took it seriously until I was out of high school.”
He graduated in 2003, settling into life in non-Notre Dame South Bend. He worked at Walmart, hung out with friends and went to clubs where he could, accepting battle challenges when offered.
That’s where he caught the attention of dancer Stefan “Sagewise” Rios.
“That’s pretty much where I started battling was at little teeny-bopper clubs and stuff like that. He saw me and was like, ‘Hey, man, let’s go to a jam,’” Release said.
That jam in 2004 was where he saw the next level. The 19 year old didn’t know people took breakdancing as seriously as they did. He didn’t know people still popped.
“Then I saw footage of Mr. Wiggles and it was over.”
Footage of South Bronx dancer and graffiti artist Steffan “Mr. Wiggles” Clemente was hard to come by in Indiana in pre-YouTube 2004, but Gray met a guy through work who would lend him DVDs.
Like he did with “Breakin’” and “Breakin’ 2,” like he did with Michael Jackson, the future Release studied, practiced, learned.
The Business of Dance
At that first jam 11 years ago, Release met a B-Boy named BRAVEMONK. They stayed friendly over the years, chatting and catching up at jams and battles through the Midwest.
Earlier this year, Release confided in BRAVEMONK about his frustration with South Bend, about falling out of love with the dance that had powered him since he was 19.
“‘I need a place to stay so I can figure some stuff out, so I can start anew.’ And BRAVEMONK was like, ‘Come here, man. Do what you got to do.’”
“Here” meant The Dojo, the Avondale apartment Release now calls home.
It’s a place where he can not only working on dancing as a practice, but, like BRAVEMONK, ManOfGod and residents you the reader will be meeting at random intervals over the next few weeks, turn it into a career. Teaching. Trophies. Purses sought and won at competitions around the planet.
“I already had the dancing, but for me, I wanted to learn the business tips. They’ve been leading me. You know how they say you lead by example, pretty much they’ve been leading by example. So I’ve just been following their footsteps, like just watching them. They probably don’t know that I’m watching them, but I’m watching what they’re doing as far as the business aspects of dancing and trying to get yourself out there.”