Young women look to dance right through b-boying world

The girl in red sweat pants walks to the center of the gym and begins frog squats to stretch her hamstrings. She rises from the floor into a full backbend, pulling her wrists, knees and ankles into submission. Sneakers keep her from slipping on the dusty floor. The move is not exactly downward dog -- more sunrise belly.

Arica Vasquez is warming up, but already her head is moving to the constant unce- unce- unce from a portable sound system that a DJ is mixing in the corner -- hip-hop, pop, anything with a beat.

You have to have good breaks to move. It's where the inspiration comes from. The energy? Well, that comes from within -- and the cans of Red Bull nearly everyone is sipping from at this Fort Worth gym on a recent evening.

Clusters of young Hispanic boys are battling it out in a kind of gritty street ballet behind Vasquez. Except that these guys aren't in leotards. They're in sweats, baggy cargo shorts and loose T-shirts, each one trying to outdo the others with power moves. A sprinting head spin that ends with a purposeful skid across the floor and a lazy, I-meant-to-land-this-way pose draws nods of approval from the youths gathered in a circle. A few jump forward to try the same move.

The choreography is almost impossible to follow because it's soul-driven.

And for Vasquez and her fellow members of Femme Fatale, b-boying is more than just a workout or a way to look cool.

"This is my drug," says Jennifer Gonzales, who started the six-member Femme Fatale group, one of the only female b-girl crews in North Texas, three years ago with Michele Roth. The 22-year-old hairstylist from Fort Worth has immersed herself in a world where young women are outnumbered and dancers like ShamRock, Bout It and Rockill throw down where they can.

This night, it's a gym on Fort Worth's north side. Tomorrow it may be a park or warehouse.

But it's always with b-girl style.

Exhibiting b-girl style

"I was 8 years old and I knew about breakdancing, but I didn't know about the culture," Gonzales says. "I saw all the guys doing it."

"We started practicing and got another girl, and then just started asking girls," says Roth, whose red hair, pale skin and shamrock tattoo fit with her b-girl name, ShamRock. "We're pretty much the only girls."

B-boy crews aren't street punks just loitering in parking lots. If you're talented, you can join a professional crew and travel locally and internationally, competing in tournaments and earning sponsorship.

Described as breakdancing by most -- says Roth, "That's the name the media gave it" -- b-boying is an acrobatic hip-hop dance style that incorporates different types of music with extended musical breaks, hence the "break."

Dancers wear loose clothing to cushion the impact of skin-to-surface contact. Others wear elbow or knee pads wrapped in duct tape to decrease friction. And specially made beanies help protect a b-girl's skull as she spins across concrete floors.

"I had a bone pop out of my hand," says Raquel Saechao, aka Rockill, a 26-year-old college student. Another young woman in the group caught a staph infection, and all have suffered multiple shoulder burns and sprains from dirty floor mats and makeshift dance surfaces.

"I love it. This is my passion," Saechao says. "You just listen to the music and you just dance and it's just you."

The self-taught b-girl juggles her passion and parenting. When her two children were younger, "I was dancing in my garage when they were asleep," she said. Now they practice with her. And what toddler would pass up the chance to do a headstand and flop around on the floor with Mom?

This isn't a hobby for Gonzales -- it's her life. "It's not just spinning on your head. You have to feel it in your heart and soul," she says.

It's a b-boy world

At the gym where Vasquez and the girls are practicing, older boys walk around offering encouragement and demonstrating setups for the other guys: Put your hand here to steady yourself. The guys, while respectful, generally dismiss the young women in the room. "Oh, they're only here sometimes." And there is some resentment. "They only get attention because they're girls." Not because they're good.

"Some b-boys don't like b-girls," but that goes with the territory, says Roth, 27, a dancer, artist and graphic designer.

Being female gets you a lot of attention, and some people are haters, says Roth. B-boying is "growing because it's in the media again," Roth says.

Just take a look at the popularity of movies like 2004's You Got Served, and the "Step Up" franchise. The most recent, Step Up 3D, grossed more than $42 million in the U.S. this past summer. And Inside the Circle, a 2007 documentary about the lives of three Texas b-boys, won an audience award at the South by Southwest film festival.

Femme Fatale performs at '80s theme parties, competitions and events, including girlShow at Life in Deep Ellum. But there aren't as many opportunities for girls locally. There are few female crews and even fewer professional female dancers.

And though a b-girl will tell you that she's just as good as guys and better at footwork, males are physically capable of performing power moves: headstands, one-arm stances, etc., the kind of moves that take upper-body strength. Only a few of the Femme Fatale members can perform a head spin.

Professional b-boy dancer Luis Palacios of Fort Worth, better known as Louie Evol, says there aren't a lot of girls out there willing to throw themselves into the mix. "They think it's boyish," he says. Palacios' father was an early b-boy dancer with a group called Spindletop.

Palacios, 20, dances with the professional crew Vicious Germz. "We try not to take it easy on [the girls]," he says. "We all represent one thing and one city," Fort Worth. If the girls are lame, that gives the rest of them a bad name.

But the b-boy world is relatively small in North Texas despite widespread merchandising opportunities (T-shirts, beanies, pants), and becoming a professional b-boy dancer isn't easy (or profitable), an issue that frustrates Dallas dancer Jorge Torres, 29. He wants more people to understand and support the b-boy culture. "They think it's like the '80s, and when they see it they say, 'Oh, they're still doing that?' but it never really died from the mainstream."

Most crews like Femme Fatale can't afford rehearsal space. And protective gear, for those who choose to wear it, costs about $100 (for a beanie, gloves and elbow pads). There are some battles, or competitions, including international and national competitions in Las Vegas that offer up to thousands of dollars in cash prizes, but most b-girls and b-boys have day jobs or make extra money teaching hip-hop or b-boy classes.

But this night, it's not about money or tournaments. It's about the b-boy world.

Palacios takes a break and talks with Gonzalez. The rest of the girls have arrived, and they're ready for practice. "More girls should come," says Palacios, pointing toward the cluster of young women. Just because there are a lot of boys dancing, "doesn't mean you have to dance like a guy."