The Origins of Breaking with Its Biggest Name, Crazy Legs | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Wednesday, August 5th, 2020  

The Origins of Breaking with Its Biggest Name, Crazy Legs

Still Kicking

Jul 20, 2020 Photography by Ian Witlen and Nika Kramer Web Exclusive
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Throughout the history of American art, there are certain people everyone knows by a single name: Madonna, Beyoncé. Others, like Slash or Prince, are known for their catchy given nicknames. But the artist that takes the proverbial cake with a nickname above all nicknames is the one and only breaker, Crazy Legs. Born Richard Colón, Crazy Legs is an inventor and one of the country’s most recognized and prolific dancers. Crazy Legs help invent breaking (or dancing dynamically to hip-hop music). He was there from the virtual beginning in the mid-to late-70s and beyond. Crazy Legs, who appears in popular movies like Flash Dance and Wild Style, has also appeared on Late Night television shows and traveled the world spreading hip-hop culture. 

More recently, Crazy Legs and pioneering rapper, Kurtis Blow, are currently celebrating the 40th anniversary of Blow’s seminal song, “The Breaks,” first released in 1980. The track, which is a tribute to breakers in the South Bronx, helped cement the art form worldwide through verse. On Thursday, June 25th, Blow and Legs appeared on the Red Bull Dance Instagram channel to commemorate the song’s release. We caught up with Crazy Legs, a proud Puerto Rican-American, to ask him about his early days with the Rock Steady Crew, what it was like spreading dance across the world, how he got his nickname and much more. 

Jake Uitti (Under the Radar): When did you first become aware of hip-hop?

Crazy Legs: Here’s the thing, you have to take into account that there was no such thing then as a reference when it comes to hip-hop. It was only, like, you break or you DJ. There were just different things that we did in the ‘hood. Whether it was girls playing Double Dutch or handball or little street games that we played. There was dancing and then you’d go to a jam and see DJs and all that stuff. But there was no such thing as a reference with any sort of umbrella like ‘hip-hop.’ So, when I first saw anything related to any of the [hip-hop] elements, I saw breaking in 1976. I saw DJ Africa Islam and my brother, Robert Colón, dancing in front of the home that I lived in at the time on Garfield Street in the Bronx. They were comparing moves and I was literally embarrassed by my brother throwing himself on the floor because I had no idea that what they were doing was a dance. They were doing these quick little moves, nothing really intricate, because there weren’t that many moves at the time. It was more about style than it was ability to do, like, visually dynamic moves. So, yeah, that was in 1976. 

Do you remember when was the umbrella term of hip-hop first used?

Well, the term is one thing. But the label is another. The term was really just a word of action. Kind of like when you say, “Let’s rock, y’all! You don’t stop. Keep on, y’all! Let’s hip-hop. Let’s rock, y’all!” It could have been the “Let’s Rock” culture, you know what I mean? Africa Bambaataa was giving an interview and it was, like, November of ’82, and he was talking about all the different elements and, although the word existed, he just reached out in the air and took the word, “hip-hop,” and said, “Yeah, this is hip-hop.” And it just stuck. Other people may have referenced, like, the scene as, oh, the “Hippity-Hoppity” because of the Sugarhill Gang record. But even the Sugarhill Gang record wasn’t about referencing a culture. It was more like “hip-hop” was a party word. 

Your brother introduced you to breakdancing when you were…

I’m going to have to correct you real quick. I don’t call it “breakdancing.” The word “breakdancing” does not come from hip-hop culture. It came from our punk rock British manager who misspoke one day—he was also our publicist—so we stopped using the word “breakdancing” for the sake of ownership as well as taking back our own terms and using them because they came from hip-hop and not, you know, an outsider. So, I don’t use the word “breakdancing.” 

Of course. What term do you prefer, may I ask?

Just breaking. B-boying, b-girling. I say “breaking” just for the sake of making sure that I’m not leaving out the women.

Cool. Thank you! So, you were introduced to breaking around 9 years old by your brother. But when did you start to land moves that would give you the confidence to continue to pursue the art form?

Well, in ’77, I went to a jam on Katonah Avenue in the Bronx and my cousin, Lenny Len, had brought me there. By that point, my brother wasn’t even dancing anymore. So, my cousin Lenny Len brought me to this jam and it was the first time that I had seen all these things that were happening. There happened to be some graffiti writers there tagging up. People were breaking. There was a Puerto Rican DJ on the turntables by the name of Little Angel and I just fell in love with everything. I felt like, you know, I came to life on that day. I tried to dance that day. I had absolutely no moves but I was so excited that I wanted to try it. I even jumped in the circle with no moves! I don’t remember what I did but it wasn’t that good. 

How did you get the name Crazy Legs? It’s obviously because you’re an exquisite dancer and your legs are a prominent part of that. But who gave you the name and how did it stick?

I lived in Manhattan for four years, from ’79 to ’82, something like that. And I went to a middle school, Junior High School 52 in the Inwood section of Manhattan. And I was practicing after school in the auditorium, where I was teaching some of the local people there, you know, dudes I was hanging out with, you know, the moves that I had from the Bronx, because, you know, we were a lot more advanced than Manhattan. And this girl named Arlene Rosario is walking down the aisle in the auditorium with the rest of her cheerleading squad. She was the captain of the cheerleaders. And she just said, “Oooo, he got some crazy legs!” And it just stuck and the cheerleaders started calling me Crazy Legs and when the cheerleaders are doing something, it’s all cool. And the rest of the school started to call me Crazy Legs and it became well known that I was doing what I was doing. 

How did it feel to discover your gifts for breaking? Was it liberating? 

Nah—you got to remember I was only 10—or 11 years old when I started breaking. We’re not thinking like that at that age. When I first started it, I felt like it brought something out of me, but I wasn’t looking for some liberating feeling. I just wanted to be able to battle. You know, for me it was—I think the thing that stood out the most was after six months of dancing and learning from my cousin Lenny Len, I had started to advance a lot faster than him and I started teaching him. But, for me, it was just, like, practice. Go to the jam, or meet up with some b-boys or b-girls. You show off your moves and some people ask for criticism and sometimes people say, “Oh, that was good.” Or, “That was horrible,” or whatever. Then you went back—you didn’t take it personal—but you went back and you practiced again all week until the next jam or wherever you were going to meet up at with your friends or the people you looked up to and they gave you criticism. It was harsh criticism but it wasn’t disrespectful. Because we all spoke to each other in a very straightforward, blunt way. It definitely wasn’t for people who were weak. 

Can you tell me the first few things that come to mind when you think about the Bronx when you were growing up?

Wow. Things that I think about are the Yankees winning the World Series in ’77. Son of Sam, the .44-caliber killer. Burned down buildings. A lot of people living on public assistance. Dysfunctional homes. At-risk children. Poverty. But we all found a way to still have a good time.

Did you find yourself having to defend the value of hip-hop or breaking then?

I mean, for me, when breaking was first fading away in ’79 and I was just getting better, I was criticized for being that person that kept on doing it and was, so-called, “throwing himself on the floor and getting dirty,” which I was. But, you know, people would try to—yeah, I would say they tried to discourage me or wondered why I was still doing something that was supposedly over with. So, you figure, breaking started in ’74. Its first heyday was only about five years. So, I was just getting better. I was inventing moves. I was creating moves that no one had ever done before. I turned dance into something that was more acrobatic and dynamic by adding the spin on the back, windmills. You know, I was what we call—I had “B-boy Fever.” B-boy Fever is when you just, like, all you want to do is go out and battle and battle and battle. That’s all you want to do. You want to find people and battle. 

Seeing that energy in the early movies is really beautiful. What was it like for you when those movies came out, Wild Style and Style Wars? I saw a clip of you on David Letterman in 1983. Did people start to pay more attention?

Well, I mean, it’s not like we set out to have a career in the entertainment industry. This just all happened to happen. It’s not like we were groomed for it and it’s not like we were taught to appreciate it. Even doing the David Letterman show—that, I mean, besides him seeming like a dick [Laughs], it wasn’t like it was a goal of mine. I would say the impact of doing the David Letterman show didn’t happen until maybe shortly after Flash Dance was released in ’83. I just happened to be in Hawaii for something then and I’m sitting out there in Waikiki and there’s this guy with, like, Dockers pants and a blue shirt. Like, a typical yuppie dude. I’m sitting out there 6,000 miles away from home and he’s like, “Hey! Weren’t you on the David Letterman show?” At that moment, I was like, “Holy shit! I have some fame!” I realized there was a fame aspect to it outside of having my neighborhood props. But, again, it wasn’t something we were chasing. We just fell into all of that stuff.

Was that scary for you at the time, fame? Maybe fame is different now because of all the access people can have with social media. But was it scary to realize you had fame in the moment?

Man, we grew up in the Bronx during tough times. It would take a lot more to scare me than that. No. The only thing I’ve ever been scared to do or nervous about is right before I dance. But once I take that first step, I’m good. You know? But other than that, no. There was no fear when it came to that. If anything, it was an opportunity to get money to, you know, finally pay for my own food. 

Did you have a favorite moment when the Rock Steady Crew went to Paris or London to perform?

One of the first things that comes to my mind is—I don’t remember if we were in France or in the U.K., but there was a point when we were performing somewhere and this group called the Fantastic 4, who were also known as the McDonald’s Double Dutch Girls, were on stage and they were doing their routine and someone from the audience threw a bottle at them. And Dondi and Futura 2000 [from the Rock Steady Crew] made their way in defense of them and basically beat the shit out of the persons in the audience. And we were all ready to fight the audience and Dondi and Futura come back on stage after they defended the girls. We’re all looking at the audience like we’re ready to fight everyone in the building. And it started, like, one person at a time, until the whole audience started doing it—they just started clapping. They gave us a round of applause for it. 

Wow. That gives me chills.

It was pretty cool. And we just kept on with the show. 

Do you think America understands breaking, understands hip-hop today?

I think a lot of people would like to think they understand hip-hop. But, you know, they just throw the word around loosely because they listen to rap music. I would say the majority of the country does not understand what this really has represented globally, in terms of bridging the gaps between cultures who probably never would have gotten with each other to break bread, to discuss race relations, social justice and all these things that we all have to deal with. The thing is that we came to that table because of a common interest of skill and an appreciation for art. 

Hip-hop has been an important part of my life, so I appreciate the pioneers like you who helped bring it to the forefront.

Thank-you. 

Thank-you! Speaking to that end, you were one of the originators and promulgators of the culture. Do you remember any specifically important conversation between you and your peers about the early days or early challenges of participating in the art form?

A lot of us are always trying to connect the dots in terms of a timeline. And that’s just for the sake of understanding who did what and when, who came first. But as time goes on and we realize that sometimes it isn’t always important to find out who’s the first, because you’re going to have your key people who are going to be the major role players and then people who had the greater impacts. But the bigger picture is something that came from nothing eventually played a big role in bringing the world a lot closer together. That did come from the Black and Puerto Rican community in the Bronx during the time when New York was actually bankrupt and social programs were nonexistent. So, to be in a position of having to travel around the world when the odds for me even to make it out of my neighborhood were really low. Or to even be successful, they were really low. It’s pretty amazing to say I’ve been through six passports in my lifetime.

Why is it important for you to keep dancing and to continue to teach breaking to younger generations?

It’s not important for me to keep dancing. I just can’t control myself! I love music. It’s more about the music. When it comes to the new generation, I think it’s important for me to be there. For instance, someone called me up earlier. Just, like, a half-hour before you and I got on the phone. It was this Puerto Rican girl who is anxious to find out more about the Puerto Rican contribution within hip-hop because she feels like, you know, the Puerto Rican community is understated when it comes to our contributions. So, I think, just for people to be able to take pride in something is important. Especially when you come from a group of people who were colonized and you’re stripped of your culture and your family history and you’re constantly searching for something to, you know, lay roots in and take pride in and keep building on that legacy. People need legacy in order for them to feel proud of where they’re going because a lot of us, as Puerto Ricans, don’t know where we came from. The average Puerto Rican can probably trace their history back only to the 1920s, which, I mean, is disgusting. 

www.instagram.com/crazylegsbx

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