Des Moines studio will be home for break dancing

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — For Anthony San, the basement in his childhood home was sacred.

San was a teen in the 2000s when break dancing made a mainstream comeback but lived in Des Moines, where the scene was much like the dance itself — spontaneous and sporadic. There were hardly any local studios dedicated to the street-style dance, so San retreated to his mother’s basement and practiced moves he picked up from watching his older brothers, friends and contestants on the former MTV hit series “America’s Best Dance Crew.”

The son of Cambodian immigrants, San said he was hooked on the show and dance style because it helped him find a sense of belonging when he saw people who looked like him on national TV — a rarity at the time.

Sprawled out on the floor, the former Roosevelt High School wrestler bent, twisted and contorted his body in ways that felt familiar and unfamiliar all at once. He felt free every time he was airborne.

“With wrestling, you have to be stiff, (in) a certain form,” the 32-year-old told the Des Moines Register. “Same with breaking, but the majority of the time you’re letting loose and expressing yourself freely.”

Though San eventually outgrew his mother’s basement, he struggled as an adult and instructor to find a permanent studio where dancers like him could come together.

This past fall, San helped one parent take a leap of faith and open a break dance studio in Des Moines, one that they hope will become a fixture in the city and a real home for street-style dancers. They want the Des Moines Breakerz studio on 100 E. Euclid Ave. in Highland Park to help strengthen the city’s disjointed break dance scene and build community. The studio has also become a refuge for young people of color looking for a creative outlet.

“I want people to feel welcome,” said studio owner Tami Swartwood, whose 8-year-old son, Micah, was a student of San’s.

A former ballet and jazz dancer, Swartwood said she knows it’s important for dancers to have a studio, a permanent physical space where they can gather. For years, she took classes at Charlene’s Dance Studio in Des Moines and Pat Barton Studio in Altoona, two prestigious institutions, and thought “Why not build something like that for break dancing?”

Swartwood, 45, said she sees Breakerz as a vehicle to showcase the wealth of talent bursting out of Des Moines — or rather, the Hawkeye State — and someday provide elite training as break dancing becomes an Olympic sport in 2024.

“It feels like home,” Swartwood said. “I’m excited. Last night, there were three people (break dancing), and it was a good feeling to see and hear the music going as I was working in my office.”

San and Swartwood met in 2018 at the Des Moines Social Club, a nonprofit once housed in the historic Fire Station No. 1 downtown. The Social Club offered affordable arts and culture programs, including a break dancing class that San taught.

Swartwood thought Micah would enjoy break dancing because it complemented his “dramatic” and “theatrical” personality, and enrolled him in San’s class. She said she liked San because his love for break dancing was clear but thought her son, who was 5, was too young and just not ready. She planned on bringing Micah back when he was a little older and told San: “I’ll see you down the road.”

But the Social Club closed in 2019, leaving San without a studio and hundreds of other artists without an affordable space. The club provided him his first gig as a break dance instructor, a role that gave him hope — that maybe he could finally make a living on dancing — and support from other artists.

“I just thought eventually this little passion of mine will die out just like everything else, and I’ll find like a 9-to-5 job or something,” San said.

Yet he continued teaching, offering classes with West Des Moines Parks and Recreation, where Swartwood and San reconnected in 2020. Micah started attending San’s classes right before the COVID-19 pandemic and this time stuck with the program.

By that time, Swartwood decided to be more involved in break dancing and revive the spirit of the Social Club. She helped San expand classes to four Des Moines elementary after-school programs and three parks and rec programs. She later organized performances at arts and cultural festivals around downtown Des Moines, including at the Dew Tour and CelebrAsian. She also helped enter break dancers in competitions outside of Iowa.

A natural friendship formed between San and Swartwood, and they soon began talking about the idea of building a studio. They had grown tired of students shuffling from one location to the next and wanted to put down roots.

So they rented a room at Mainframe Studios on Keosauqua Way in Des Moines and later at Dance Vision in Johnston. Some classes were even held at Swartwood’s home garage.

It took months before Swartwood and San found the current studio space, located behind Park Fair Mall on the city’s north side.

There are now six instructors at the new Breakerz studio, including San. Swartwood quit her full-time job at an insurance company to run the studio.

“My sister kind of calls me fearless,” she said. But the move, Swartwood said, was “the right thing to do.”

Kellen Zanders, a Breakerz instructor, started break dancing in college. Alone in his dorm room at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, he’d pull up YouTube videos of the Jabbawockeez, the first hip-hop crew to win “America’s Best Dance Crew,” and Laurent and Larry Nicolas Bourgeois, two French brothers who performed under the moniker Les Twins.

Zanders, a Des Moines native, said he quickly noticed the difference between the break dance scene here and in Minneapolis. At school, he was connected to other break dancers who held weekly dance tournaments. Zanders also started his own break dance club that met twice a week.

Those kinds of events and spaces became harder to find once he graduated and moved back to Des Moines.

“There are pockets — or were pockets — of break dance crews who would do an event here and there, but largely it definitely was not centralized,” he said. “That’s one of the things Anthony San was really, really trying to put together was a centralized place for dancers to come to here in Des Moines, like there is in Minneapolis, like there is in other states, especially major ones.”

The internet anchored the break dance scene in Iowa, said Jesus “Chuy” Renteria, a close friend of San’s and a break dancer in Iowa City. Long before TikTok tutorials and Instagram reels, Renteria, 37, used his family’s computer to comb through message boards and find other dancers and tournaments, most of which were held outside of Iowa. San caught the first wave of Facebook and used the social media platform to build connections.

As teens, they’d sneak out of their parents’ houses, borrow their cars and head out to Chicago, St. Louis, Madison or wherever else in the Midwest to battle break dancers in churches, warehouses or gyms.

“We would print out Mapquest maps,” Renteria said, laughing.

Now, San and Swartwood hope to host tournaments at the Breakerz studio.

What San and Swartwood are doing in Des Moines with the new studio is different, said Renteria. They are creating a firmer foundation. They want break dancing to be “more entrenched” in the community — not just a trend, he said.

For Zanders, Breakerz is special.

“It just takes me back to being that teenager who didn’t have a place to actually go and learn any of this stuff — who really wanted to break out of their shell and wanted the opportunity but didn’t know it even existed,” he said.

Skyler Fongdara, a student at Breakerz, mirrored Zander’s sentiment. The 15-year-old called the studio his second home, a place where he can meet other break dancers, “have fun and relax.”

“One of the greatest experiences a person can have is when they can share their passions with others,” Fongdara said.

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