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Breaking it down B-Boys bring hip hop to Kona

Updated: 
August 17, 2014 - 12:05am

Call it a three-day clearinghouse for hip-hop and its many facets.

Ride The Breaks came rolling into Kona over the weekend, bringing dancers, graffiti artists and other performers from around the world intent on sharing their passion for the art with the Big Island community.

“This is my refuge, my escape from life, to come out here and share culture,” said New York City hip-hop legend Ken Swift, warming up before teaching a Saturday break dancing class at the KTPS community performance cooperative in Kealakekua.

“I work all year to get out here,” said Swift, who appeared in the movies “Flashdance” and “Wild Style” and is considered by many to have the greatest influence of any artist on break dancing.

“New York is a concrete jungle,” he said. “To be over here every year balances me.”

Waiting for the moves to start in front of the big mirrors at KTPS, Hilo’s Grady Sullivan said his love for hip-hop began in Illinois eight years ago, but it really took off when he moved to the Big Island and met Joe Baxter, the founder of Ride The Breaks, a festival now in its sixth year.

“It’s my passion,” said Sullivan, 24. “I live for this stuff.”

Baxter was exposed to hip-hop growing up in San Francisco. It took him away from the negativity on the streets. Baxter moved to the Big Island in 1995, married and settled down; after a while he started to feel like something was missing.

Getting back into the music and dance — and promoting them — filled the void.

“It’s built by community, for community. It’s homegrown; it feels good,” Baxter said. “With hip-hop, it’s always freestyle. We’ll throw it up in the air and see if it falls into place.”

Hip-hop is at its best when taking on the elements of the culture it’s being practiced in, said Yarrow Lutz, a co-founder of the festival.

“All you need is a boombox. It’s the most free, accessible art form,” she said. “It encourages originality. Take what you see and make it your own.”

There are basic structures of the performance art, such as the break. That’s when the dancer — the b-boy or b-girl — who has held back to some extent, can finally let the moves fly.

“When the drum solo comes, you have to go off. You have to do it,” Swift said. “But you can’t go that way for three minutes. You have to get your breath. You hit it and quit it.”

As a group of 35 people of all ages threw down their moves at KTPS, dance instructor “Venom” reminded them it’s not just about tricks, but heart, too.

“We’re living in a time when breaking is more tricks,” he said. “The important thing is to dig deep and find lots of emotion and feeling. Don’t worry about how you look or the people around you.”

Growing up, Swift gained a sense of accomplishment and creative enterprise forging his own moves in the malleable style that is hip-hop. Throwing the moves down to impress friends was a real confidence builder, he said.

“Hip-hop is a positive, very powerful culture that lets people experiment with their ear, eyes and body,” Swift said. “It’s a renaissance, almost. To see it alive and well on an island like this is just amazing.”

On Friday, Ride the Breaks kicked off with a presentation at Donkey Mill Art Center by John Prime, the creator of 50 large-scale murals in Hawaii and the mainland, and founder of the arts youth organization 808 Urban. Saturday’s events were comprised of workshops by Swift, Venom, Mike Sato, music producer and dance teacher Maurizio Cannavo, and other instructors, followed by a block party with mural painting featuring Prime and artist “Estria” at Kona Brewing Co.

Ride the Breaks wraps up today with “The Battle,” a break dancing competition and potluck from noon to 10 p.m. at Hale Halawai in Kailua-Kona. Donations of canned goods and essentials to help out those impacted by Tropical Storm Iselle will be accepted at the door.