Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy earned the nickname “Do Or Die” for a reason. Thankfully, brukup provided a way for the youth to do instead of die. Through this free-form style of street dance, which emigrated from Jamaica to the borough’s Caribbean neighborhoods in the early ’90s, brukup dancers could glide, pop, and battle their way to positivity and self-expression amidst the violence and drugs that plagued New York at the time.
“It wasn’t cool to dance back then,” says Poba, one of the scene’s pioneers. “Everyone was on the gang mentality, playing the wall. We made it cool for gangsters and cats from the street to dance.” There were a lot of problems to deal with at once. “You had the East Coast, West Coast thing going on. You had the Blood and Crips and Latin Kings thing going on. You couldn’t really go into different neighborhoods and do different things.” But street dance provided a way to break down barriers and relate on a human level.
Poba picked it up at 12 years old, taking cues from the style’s godfather, Bruk Up, who had popularized the dance in Jamaica at that time. The Brooklyn influence helped the style to bridge dancehall and hip hop, and when Bruk Up actually came to New York in ’95, that sped things along dramatically.
Many of the people Poba started with ended up dead or in jail within a few years, which led him to cross Atlantic Ave. into neighboring Crown Heights in search of other dancers who could hang with his level of skill. “We gained a lot of favoritism and it kept us out of trouble the majority of the time,” he explains. “But a lot of my friends who were good, they couldn’t escape the reality of the streets.”
This was when he met Blackie, in ’96. “He was totally unorthodox, but I was traditional,” says Poba. “We decided that since we couldn’t beat each other that we should mesh together and see what it becomes,” and so they started the team that would later become known as the Bed-Stuy Veterans, or BSV for short. Since Poba was from Bed Stuy, which was where the biggest battles happened, Blackie and other squad could travel there too.
The team’s story was told in personal detail in a documentary that premiered earlier this month called Lords Of BSV, which lays bare the trials they faced, including shootings and stabbings, drugs, and jail time. It also captures the evolution of an intricate and expressive dance style that has not only combated the pull of the streets on their lives, but also inspired people from all over the world with its ingenuity and style.
Bruk Up got his name, which is Jamaican patois for “broken up,” because of an infection he got in his youth that led to problems with his leg. The style’s foundations—popping, stop motion, animation, pivoting, gliding, the shoulder pop, and related stances—are rooted in his dances and were expanded on by Poba and BSV. The scene uses a language based on those foundations, but places a high value on individuality, with each brukup dancer developing their own trademark style.
Poba likens brukup to dancing Kung Fu. “Martial artists are all in the Shaolin Temple,” he explains, “but one has the snake style and another the monkey style, but they all drink from the same cup, a foundation.” Ghost, for example, is known for a style he calls “possession.” Storyboard P has “mutation.” More recently, Poba’s student Trini has been mastering the “mambatron.”
“You’re an ‘agent’ if you try and mimic someone’s style who’s free and unplugged,” Poba adds with a laugh. “We watch too much Matrix.” Once a dancer has a style locked down, they let the body talk on its own through muscle memory. “Brukup dancers love the feel of being in the unknown,” he says. “If you don’t know what you are going to do next, but you’ve mastered your body, it doesn’t matter what you do because you’ve mastered it. You’ll never see someone who is organic do the same thing twice.”
Through the ’90s, the brukup style was popularized at block parties and clubs. But when Busta Rhymes, who has Jamaican roots, dropped the video for “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See” in ’97, it was a watershed moment. He used a particular way of speaking influenced by West Indians in Brooklyn, ending every sentence with “yo,” helping to push along the merger of dancehall and hip hop. He also featured Bruk Up himself towards the end of the video, painted neon green, making his unmistakeable bubble face.
Another big break came in 2000, when Wayne Wonder filmed the dancehall R&B crossover video “Bounce Along” in Brooklyn and featured BSV in the video. The clips revolve around a packed block party, densely circling the dancers—not so different from many of the home videos BSV captured on their own.
Full of the energy of that day, Poba recalls how they went to the “Bounce” shoot determined “to destroy everybody who said they were a street dancer, or a dancer who battles.” It didn’t matter if they were brukup dancers or not. “We battled every type of dancer, from hip hop dancers pop-locking and breakdancing to dancehall dancers.” It was then, on set, when the nine of them officially decided to call themselves BSV. After that, they appeared in a bunch of videos, including Shaggy and Sean Paul videos.
The crew continued perfecting the style through the 2000s, “secluded in the temple,” as Poba puts it, and finally, over the past few years, have begun to get serious recognition beyond Brooklyn. Aside from the Lords documentary, the New Yorker is doing a series with brukup dancers, and they’ve performed at festivals and noticed dancers from other scenes, like flexing, incorporating the foundations into their own styles.
“Now with the Internet, people are seeing something that’s original and they want to discover and understand it,” Poba says warily. “But whenever you deal with something that’s part of a community and a culture, it’s important that you admire it from a distance. You can’t pull a secret rose from its roots without killing it.”
“Am I being greedy?” he asks himself. “I hope not. I’m just trying to protect something that means so much to us. We’re trying to give the kids something we didn’t have when we were young. It’s from the heart because this really saved our lives.”