Oldbury, 1984

It is said break dancing started on the mean streets of Smethwick in late 1982, when the local kids who had been robot dancing to Kraftwerk and The Jonzun Crew were now tuned into the sound of The Projects in New York and started dancing to ‘The Message’ by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. They lived in their own ‘Projects’ – Hamilton House and Aitken House and Wills Way estate. A year later The Rock Steady Crew came along, bringing b-boy style to UK consciousness, just as Jubilee took up an invitation to help organise a festival in the autumn of 1983 to launch a newly built community centre on Windmill Lane. It was classic old school community arts, with processions, dressing up in all manner of home made costumes, puppets, a few fireworks and smoke bombs, an abundance of balloons and silver foil, fine African drummers, pantomime horses, a kazoo band, a Chinese dragon loaned from another theatre group, lots of things made from cardboard, and so on. But the times were changing. Here were some young lads in tracksuits and trainers hanging around, studiously observing the proceedings but a little too cool to join in. At the end of the festival they came up and said, ‘Ok, we seen what you can do. This is what we can do.’ And in a tiny backroom demonstrated their head spins, hand glides and windmills, various gymnastic moves the name of which we knew not. Wow! Suddenly there were hundreds of windmills around Windmill Lane at this time.

They called themselves The Crazy Spades AKA Smethwick Spades, had jackets with their logos. Jubilee talked about how they might work together. (It probably helped that some Jubilee staff had the original 12-inch singles by Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force.) At first the group just wanted borrow a video camera to film their moves, to play back and critique. Then they asked for help in getting access to a proper dance studio with floor-to-floor mirrors – Menzies High School in West Bromwich finally obliged. They joined in with music workshops and a magnificent May Day fireshow project, with, yes, a 20 foot high breaking puppet involved. Finally they worked on a beautiful 50 minute break dance ballet, which involved choreographing up to forty dancers of varying skills and motivation. This told the story of a day in the life of a young person on the streets of Smethwick in the early 80s, the dancers performing to a backdrop of two screens onto which film and stills were projected, with pre-recorded beats, accompanied by two live musicians, Chris Jones and Joe Crow.  It was performed at a youth festival in Birmingham. They also volunteered to run dance sessions at the summer seasons of Community Celebrations across the borough. It was fun while it lasted, with some bizarre adventures at events in Covent Garden, at Castlefield Festival, Manchester, and at the long gone all-dayers and all-nighters at the Hummingbird Club. Two of them, Mac and Franklin joined the management committee of Jubilee for a few years – ‘to see how you get things organised…’ Franklin wanted to set up his own driving school. Mac went on to be a martial arts champion, and celebrity bodyguard (if that’s the correct way to describe it), among many other things that utilised his talents.

The photograph is from a community celebration day in Oldbury, with one of the dancers warming up, on a quite warm day, their ever-present sheet of lino laid out, ready for action.

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