by Laura Damon-Moore, with contributions from Elizabeth Hough (Hedberg Public Library) and Sharon Grover (Hedberg Public Library)

Hedberg Public Library in Janesville, Wisconsin is known for its vital adult services like the Job Center and Open Jobs Lab (a trendsetting program that launched after the community’s primary employer shut down in 2009) and its strong partnerships with community organizations. In the last few months Hedberg PL has been making new waves by hosting an unusual event that breaks the bounds of traditional library programming: breakdancing competitions. Its most recent breakdancing event drew some 500+ people into the library on a gray Saturday night in November 2011.

Hedberg Public Library Let the Rhythm Hit 'Em

Hedberg Public Library Let the Rhythm Hit 'Em. Photo by Ben Pritchard.

Breakdancing. In a library. Something does not compute, right? Libraries are places for quiet study, peaceful reflection, diligent learning or professional development. The only ruckus in libraries is usually contained in the children’s area, where a puppet show might get a little rowdy, or a musician might strum a tad too loudly on his/her guitar. Breakdancing, on the other hand, requires a lot of space, and loud music, and throngs of young people “battling.” Not things you might immediately think of when it comes to library programs.

So how did Hedberg Public Library end up playing host to Janesville’s first breakdancing battle? It began with Jason Regan, a Youth Officer at the Rock County (WI) Juvenile Detention Center and middle school ESL Aide. Jason volunteers his time offering free dance lessons in an after-hours space at Craig High School. Says Hedberg PL Public Information Coordinator Elizabeth Hough, “Jason and his crew, Stylez Unknown, had performed at our multicultural event in 2010 and the crowd LOVED them. He approached us about a possible larger event” which became the library’s – and the city’s – inaugural breakdancing competition.

Hedberg Public Library Let the Rhythm Hit 'Em

Hedberg Public Library Let the Rhythm Hit 'Em. Photo by Ben Pritchard.

The first competition took place on a Saturday afternoon in the library program room in July 2011. I was there to help get competitors registered – and luckily had ample opportunity to watch the dancing too. Kids from 2 to 20 sat around the edges of the black-and-white checkered roll-out dance floor and watched their crew members and opponents face off in one v. one displays, heads bobbing to the rhythm of hip-hop, showing their appreciation for a particular style or move with gestures and rounds of applause.

Yeah, it was loud, and crowded, and there were teenagers practicing moves next to the new book section, but over the course of the afternoon 250 people wandered in and out of the program room to watch crews from Janesville, Rockford, Madison and Milwaukee spin, flip, and pop. When I left the library, both Jason and the staff were already starting to buzz about hosting another competition later in the fall.

I was at the library again to volunteer for the second competition, called “Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em”. I heard that there was some excitement with scheduling, last-minute changes, and the usual challenges posed by coordinating large-scale events. “Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em” had a different flavor from the summer event. For one thing, it was just bigger. There was to be a major three v. three battle, with as many as 20 crews coming from all over the Midwest to compete (it ended up being 23). There was going to be a beginner’s exhibition for those in the early stages of their breakdancing development, a workshop hosted by MN Joe (little did I realize at the time that this guy is a major player on the breakdance scene), vendors selling streetwear and food – and it was all going to happen after-hours on a Saturday night in the center of the library under the big skylight.

Hedberg Public Library Let the Rhythm Hit 'Em

Hedberg Public Library Let the Rhythm Hit 'Em. Photo by Ben Pritchard.

In many ways, it was a total logistical nightmare. The library had to be closed and reopened so that the staff could clear the building, but the workshop was happening while the library was still open. There was some miscommunication over the cost and time of the various events ($5 for the workshop, no charge for the competition). There was not a really great way to pack a huge audience in so that everyone could see everything happening low to the ground on the dance floor.

But the payoff? Sweet. The competition delivered something important that went beyond impressive attendance (although 500+ people at a library program was astounding). There aren’t very many places where large-scale breakdancing battles can be held, at least in mid-sized towns like Janesville. The library certainly offered a sort of “stamp of approval” for the event that may lead other, roomier venues to take the plunge. It served to make accessible a style of dance that may be quite unfamiliar to many rural Midwesterners – people from all backgrounds were represented in the crowd that night.

The community response to the event, Elizabeth says, “has been overwhelmingly positive. Library visitors who witnessed the dancing for the first time were awed by what they saw, and couldn’t wait to see it again. The dancers, and everyone involved in the planning, are respectful and passionate young people – and their positivity is contagious. The spectators ranged from the very young to the not-so-young. Grandmas and grandpas were bobbing their heads while their grandkids were trying to imitate the dancers in the aisles.” It united people of all ages and of a great many ethnicities, and it achieved an educational goal, not only through the workshop but also through the viewing and enjoyment of the competitive dancing.

Hedberg Public Library Let the Rhythm Hit 'Em

Hedberg Public Library Let the Rhythm Hit 'Em. Photo by Ben Pritchard

I asked Elizabeth about why it was important for the library to host this event: “The obvious answer is that ANYTHING that brings young kids into the library is worth doing. I would hazard to guess that many of the kids that were at our event hadn’t spent that much time in a library in a while. True, they weren’t reading books. But, it undoubtedly helped to reshape their perception of what the library is for them. Plus, having the event in the library allowed us to introduce an entirely new audience to the world of Hip Hop. It was a multi-generational celebration of the Hip Hop culture, which I don’t think could have happened so easily anywhere else.

“Plus, as a mom of a kid who LOVES to dance, it was great to introduce my son to some older boys who love the same thing.”

I looked around the crowd that night, and I was struck by the engagement of the audience as they watched with baited breath the competitors face off on the dance floor. I saw six and seven-year-olds practice their own moves in the open spaces at the entrance to the children’s room and pack like sardines around the dance floor to watch and appreciate the dancing of their older peers. Dancers of all ages were critiquing each other, demonstrating moves, and offering advice and feedback.

Partway through the night a thirteen-year-old came running up to me to ask if he could borrow a marker so that he could get the signature of MN Joe, workshop instructor and major player in the breakdancing world. That young man’s excitement showed me the power of an event like this. We talk about how libraries have the ability to change the world for their users by providing access to information. Information is conveyed in many forms, not just the printed word or digital content but also via workshops and classes and exhibitions. A breakdancing competition won’t work in every library, nor need it. But I do hope that libraries continue to listen to their community partners and take chances on events that may not, at first glance, fit a standard slot on the programming calendar.

Do you have questions about this event? Contact Hedberg Public Library for more information. Interested in seeing more photos of the dancers? Check out the Hedberg Public Library Facebook page.

All images in this post are by and copyright of Ben Pritchard.

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