Back before maple bacon donuts, Google busses and $7 tortas, the Mission district was Sal Barcena’s stomping ground. In the mid ’70s he ran a paper route, knew the neighborhood locals and could recognize a street fight brewing when he saw one – or at least that’s what he believed.
One day, spotting a crowd on the sidewalk, he thought, "Oh, it’s gonna jump off!” Sal moved in to watch the action, but then “someone blasted some music and people started yelling. Then it hit me, I was like, ‘Oh! They’re dancing!’”
As he talks, Sal dances the story into life, waving his arms and shifting his weight back and forth. It’s been nearly 40 years since he saw his first “cut up,” as he calls the impromptu battle. Now, dance students swarm around him in the halls of City Dance studios on the edge of the Mission district, where Sal is known by his stage name, Doc Lock.
This weekend dance fans can see Sal’s stylings for themselves when his group, the GroovMekanex, perform at the 16th annual San Francisco Hip Hop DanceFest. Sal is known for the dance styles of Strutting and, especially, Locking -- that old-school juxtaposition of robot-like mechanical movement against sudden breaks of boneless fluidity, a coupling that makes for a foil of extremes as dancers go from ironing-board stiff tin men to undulating octopi.
Another master of the dances that would evolve into hip hop, Charles “Chuck” Powell was a member of the Black Messengers dance crew. After a TV friendly name change (to the Mechanical Device), Powell and his partners won a couple of rounds of TV's Gong Show. He's now one of the Bay’s foremost fountains of knowledge about the hip hop precursor known as Boogaloo (a form of "funk" dancing that's distinct from the '60s Boogaloo or Latin Bugalú).
“Boogaloo is like martial arts; you’ve got so many styles,” says Chuck. Sal Agrees. Together they reminisce – and demonstrate -- some core moves: 3-D, the Breakdown, and the Dynarama style -- named after the jittery look of the old Dynamation stop-motion animation technique.
From San Jose to Richmond, locals in the Fillmore, Hunter’s Point, and East Oakland pioneered Northern California’s signature styles. African American, Latino, Samoan, Asian and Filipino dancers, inspired by what their neighbors were doing on the streets and dance floors, took what they saw and spun it forward, participating in local styles’ evolution.
But back at the start, in the '70s, dance was serious. Sal tells the tale of a night when he was far from the Mission, coming out of the Richmond BART station, and six young guys approached him menacingly: “A couple of them even lifted their shirts over their belts; I actually saw they were packing," Sal remembers.
Then he noticed something crucial --they had a boombox. Sal pointed at the box and fell into a locking move. One of the guys challenged, "You strut, homes?’” It was on. "It wasn’t like we were cutting up on each other," says Sal, "that part would have made it worse! But they threw some stuff and I showed what I could do."
Sal muses, "If I was bunk they probably would’ve jumped me." But that night, his moves bought him a pass. "Dancing saved my life."
The 16th Annual San Francisco International Hip Hip DanceFest runs from Nov. 14 to 16, 2014, at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco. For more information, visit www.sfhiphopdancefest.com.
All photos by Marco Villalobos.