During the early hours of a house party on a frigid Saturday, Shawn Theagene barely socializes. He’s hunched over his laptop in the corner picking songs. The other members of the Bed Stuy Veterans, the group he founded around the Jamaican dance style bruk up, pour shots from a handle of Hennessy and grind marijuana nuggets. The six core members haven’t hung out in weeks. Now in their early thirties, most have kids or day jobs, but tonight they’re partying like teenagers, downing Papa Johns and laughing at old cellphone videos. Like always, they’ve gathered in the ground-level room of one member’s brownstone on Halsey Street, nicknamed “Slaughterhouse” because when the guys of BSV battle, they “murder it.”
When Theagene isn’t talking about bruk up – he’s considered the godfather of the culture and credited with bringing the dance to Brooklyn – he takes on a quiet, almost somber demeanor. He’s come to Slaughterhouse dressed in a light, ripped jean jacket with tufts of cream fleece poking out like stuffing. The outfit, combined with his baby face and long lashes, makes him seem like someone who tried to look tough, but wound up resembling a teddy-bear.
And speaking with him, it’s hard to believe he joined the Bloods before he turned thirteen. Or that his grandmother could barely control his drug dealing. Or that at fifteen he knocked out an older gang member who came to and slid a knife into the back of his skull. Today, he sends heart emojis and walks his guests to the bus stop.
“I know what it means to have to survive and you don’t have the utilities to come up, to have something positive to do for yourself,” he says almost in a whisper. “If you come from the streets, some people just don’t really know how to escape.”
It took years for bruk up to wean Theagene off the streets, but his commitment and ambition led to opportunities to dance in music videos, write songs and star in a documentary. These days, he wants to write a book, and to show the next generation that they have options.
In 1994, when he was twelve, Theagene watched a tape his father owned of a man named George Adams doing the bruk up dance at a DJ event. In Patois, the name translates to “break up.” It melds waving, pivoting, bone-breaking, crab-walking, mime and gliding, all pieced together so seamlessly that the BSV dancers can look like they’re floating across an air hockey table with rubber limbs. The dance also adheres to an ideology that no one correct form of it exists, allowing room to experiment, innovate and evolve. Recently, Joel Marchan, the youngest member at 24, created his own style called Yah-Up.
Theagene decided bruk up looked cool enough to try and began mastering the art. Shortly after, he busted out the shoulder pops at The Hut, a dancehall club on Nostrand Avenue, and the crowd went nuts. He quickly recruited and trained several friends, who in turn attracted others by gliding across the sidewalks and battling at block parties. Bruk up spread throughout Brooklyn after that.
Though they didn’t have an official name until 2003, after they performed in Wayne Wonder’s “Bounce Along” video, Theagene considered the crew family. Today, it runs fourteen people deep, but Theagene remains one of the most devoted. It’s the only way bruk up can serve as a gateway from the streets, he thinks.
“Dedication is really key,” he says. “I’ve suffered with that a long time, straddling the fence in a sense. It’s hard to escape the reality.”
As BSV gained recognition in the early aughts, copycats started spying and stealing from them, not, it seems, unlike the warring cheerleader teams in Bring It On. The most well-known dance to stem from the bruk up style is flexing, and its similarity to bruk up irks some of the BSV members.
“We’re being kind of black-balled,” says Ghost, Theagene’s first student from the ’90s, who comes to the house party wearing white contacts and a bandana over his mouth. “Flex doesn’t show kids how to do anything but the moves.”
For the BSV, it’s about more than just dancing; it’s about reshaping your mentality, having something to live for and care about, to get off the streets.
“We have to make people comfortable that it’s okay to step out,” says Marchan, who was trained by Theagene and refers to him as ‘Uncle Poba.’ “Nobody’s teaching that, especially young black kids. Young kids period.”
Bruk up grew and now many of the “O.G.” BSV guys have moved into commercial work. Theagene is a brand ambassador for Luc Belaire and has worked with the rapper RZA from Wu-Tang Clan and Interpol’s Paul Banks. He’s releasing two rap singles and trains up-and-coming bruk up dancers. Another member, Rain, was in an Apple iPod commercial. They’ve performed at the BEAT festival and for the New York Film Festival. They also host a battle tournament called the League of Unreal Dancing.
The younger generation, which totals around fifty students, finds BSV through YouTube, social media, or at performances. Theagene’s two youngest students are six years old. Training in New York includes a discipline of gymnastics, martial arts, backflips in the park, listening to music, stretching or meditating one to three times a week. Most sessions take place at Slaughterhouse. BSV has also gained a following in other countries like Russia and Canada. For those lessons, they’ll send tutorials via email or teach by Skype. The biggest challenge is convincing the kids to stick with bruk up long enough to create change, like they did.
Several hours into the party at Slaughterhouse, the alcohol and marijuana have taken hold of Theagene and he’s ready to go. He switches the music to reggae and turns it up to a deafening level.
One man, Fatboy, starts off with some waves, and Rain and Theagene get up in his face.
“Let’s go!” they both scream, then jump into the center of the room with him.
Within minutes, Theagene’s face shines with sweat.
“Oh, we warmed up now,” he says and strips down to his “Victorious” t-shirt with a Mickey Mouse skull.
At some point, the others step back and Theagene and a member named FP battle. Only ten people surround them, but it sounds like an arena hooting. After several rounds, Theagene taps FP on the shoulder to move aside, and when he steps into the circle, he transforms. His nose scrunches like he smells something nasty and his string bean joints pop and contort at warp-speed. His eyes have glazed over. Then, in a flash, he picks up a plank of wood and smashes it on the floor. A chunk splinters off, the room hollers and someone cuts the music.
Theagene plops down on an ottoman, breathing heavily. His legs jitter like he just knocked someone out in the ring. His eyes still focus somewhere far off. When he finally stands up, he can barely speak.
G-Reddy, the quiet one in the bunch, sits on a stool by the door smiling.
“We still got it,” he says.
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MORE PHOTOS: Check out exclusive outtakes from our bruk up photo shoot – follow Narratively on Instagram.