When I was about fourteen or so, what I wanted most of all in life was to be able to breakdance. I’m not sure where I got the idea that it would be cool. Probably from Michael J. Fox in “Teen Wolf”. As if breakdancing weren’t lame enough on its own, let alone breakdancing by white people, I was actually inspired to take up the craft by a sitcom star in full body hair makeup. But he was short and he was funny — and he wasn’t really a Republican — so Michael J. Fox was my god.
I did my best to teach myself this intricate, faddish skill by watching videos and seeing every breakdancing movie that came out. It still surprises me how many breakdancing movies there were, and it makes me sad to think of how their cultural impact has dwindled over the years. Krush Groove, Beat Street, Breakin’s 1 & 2 (Electric Boogaloo)… is there not a single cable channel that will give you your due? And still, after all my practicing, a casual observer would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between my version of the worm and a push-up. You may have heard an African-American comedian or two discussing white people’s alleged lack of rhythm. Call it a gross overgeneralization if you will, but in my case, Martin Lawrence, your barbs ring of truth.
So I decided to learn dancing the way Fred Astaire did: from a book.* My fourteen-year-old heart gushed with joy the day I discovered a special display at Waldenbooks dedicated to breakdancing instruction manuals. I skimmed them all, wondering which was best for someone of my novice abilities. I settled on the one with a token white guy on the cover. In the picture, he was standing on the edge of a circle of popping-and-locking black guys, waiting for his chance to jump in and bust a move. It was the closest thing we had back then to a “Breakdancing For Dummies” book.
I asked my dad to loan me $6.95 plus tax, and as I carried my purchase to the cashier, I was simultaneously filled with a sense of shame and unworthiness. I knew the history of popular culture was blighted by less-talented white people imitating cool trends created by African-Americans. As cheesy as it was to learn breakdancing from a book, I got the feeling I was too cheesy even for that. As with most things I attempted at age fourteen, I suspected mockery was imminent. Fearing the cashier might put me on the spot, I prepped a clever explanation. “It’s for my friend… uh… Tyrone.”
Once I got the book home, I studied it, starting with the simplest moves. I was only able to clear a space in my room about four feet square, but that became my “stage”. Somehow, my parents managed to ignore the thumping and rattling sounds emanating from my room at all hours of the night, or maybe I just successfully managed to drown them out with my Thompson Twins albums. (If I could barely purchase a breakdance book, there was no way I was going to walk into Sam Goody and buy Kurtis Blow.)
As I studied my new craft, my nine-year-old cousin came to visit. He had always looked up to me and wanted to do everything I did. His favorite movie was my favorite movie: “The Karate Kid”, and after I introduced him to it, he had me “teach” him karate, only instead of “wax-on, wax-off” and “paint the fence”, I had him clean my room and change the cat’s litter box. All his life, I had been like a brother to him — a hero, a Miyagi. But after watching me breakdance for about a minute, he declared, “This is retarded!” And that was it. I lost him forever.
My entire breakdancing phase lasted only a few weeks, and then, thoroughly discouraged and ashamed, I threw the book away. No, I didn’t just throw it away. I buried it at the bottom of the trash, covering it in coffee grounds and moldy casserole so no one would dare dig for it. I was a neurotic kid, and I sincerely feared the sanitation people might find it and go, “Huh? Whose book is this? Don’t white people live here?!”
And then came that fateful family gathering — it was somebody’s birthday, maybe Jesus’ — when some aunt or uncle or grandparent put me on the spot and asked me for one of my amusing teenage kid stories, and my dad stepped in, with a supportive grin on his face. I think what followed went something like this:
“Why don’t you tell them about that book you bought at the mall?”
“What do you mean? I didn’t buy anything.”
“You know what I mean. The break dancer book. You’ve been practicing it for weeks!”
“Shut up, I have not!”
“Are you break dancing, Jerry?”
“Come on, why don’t you show us some moves?”
“Yeah, Jerry! Let’s see you break dance!”
“Stop it! Shut up! I didn’t buy any book at the mall!”
“Oh, I’m sorry. That’s right. You didn’t buy it. I remember now.”
“Yeah, I didn’t! I have to go to my room now! I hate you!”
I did go to my room, and I didn’t come out again until all the relatives had gone home. The part of the incident I stewed over for months after that was how my dad sold me out and told everyone my secret. It was humiliating! Of course, he didn’t realize it was humiliating at the time. He was just a lame white guy, like me, whose only crime was thinking both of us were cool.
Well, he was half right. The part of the story that sticks out for me now is how he covered up for me. He didn’t have to, and I probably didn’t deserve it. It was one of the ten gajillion things I never thanked him for.
It may be long overdue, but I’m proud to say that my dad was a liar.
Happy Father’s Day!
* Almost certainly historically inaccurate.