Randy Vargas is a 19-year-old high school senior who dances for money after school on the trains beneath Manhattan. Among fellow dancers, he is admired and envied for his mastery of the “hat trick,” which he performs by juggling a baseball cap off his knees, feet and shoulders. Slim and elegant, he has long eyelashes and a smile so wide you can see his bottom teeth. He locks eyes with individual spectators as he dances, projecting his smile directly at them.
“He naturally has a light on him,” one friend said recently, a view shared by talent scouts, video producers and other influential people who’ve noticed Vargas on the subway and have hired him to perform in music videos and commercials. Two summers ago, at 17, he beat thousands of rivals for a spot in the quarterfinals of NBC’s “America’s Got Talent.” Although an inopportune slip-up cost him a chance to advance, Vargas, who performs under the name Kid the Wiz, won glowing praise from three of the four judges, including Heidi Klum, who gushed over his “charm” and “charisma,” and Howard Stern, who declared him “fresh” and “current” and predicted that he would “go far in the business.”
For now, Vargas is relying on donations from the captive audiences on the L and Q trains to keep an iPhone in his pocket and the freshest gear in his closet. Although some of his peers use their subway earnings to buy groceries and pay rent, Vargas, who lives in the Bronx with his parents — a cab driver and a home health aide — hustles more to thrive than to survive. He and a partner can reliably make $100 each for a few hours of dancing, far more for that amount of work than most people bring home to his neighborhood, Tremont, where more than half of the population depends on public assistance. In late September, four days before he turned 19, he excitedly outlined his birthday plans for the weekend. He’d spend Friday night at an 18-and-over all-night dance party, and then, as the sun rose outside the club, decamp for a nearby Foot Locker, where he’d wait in line for hours, hoping to grab a pair of the latest $220 Nike Air Flightposite basketball sneakers before they sold out. In the meantime, he’d need to save up some money, and he did not intend to just sit around and wait for someone to call about a video shoot. “Right now I could just be chillin’ and waiting for a gig to come up, but I don’t want to stop hitting,” he said, using the colloquial term for street performing. “I like it.”
Lately, the city has made it harder for Vargas and other talented young people from neighborhoods like Tremont to profit from doing what they like. Although Bill de Blasio, who has been mayor since January, won his seat as a progressive champion of the poor, he has appointed as his police commissioner William J. Bratton, a law enforcement luminary known in part for his “zero tolerance” approach to small-time hustles. During his first stint as the city’s police chief, in the ‘90s, Bratton cracked down on dimebag peddlers, sidewalk booksellers, and the infamous “squeegee men” who would attack the grime on your windshield whether you had solicited their services or not.
In recent months, he has presided over a campaign against subway dancers and anyone else caught violating the MTA’s rule against performing and panhandling on the trains. Until his arrival in January, the standard penalty for such infractions was a $50 ticket, and Vargas and other dancers claim that there were even a few cops who would drop money into their hats after a show. Since then, dozens of performers have been arrested for reckless endangerment -- a serious charge that can result in a day or two behind bars and a criminal record that never goes away. For many of these kids, the subway quite literally represents a potential path from poverty to a better life. Yet de Blasio has never wavered in his defense of Bratton, declaring at one recent press conference, “Breaking the law is breaking the law.”
Vargas, as you’d expect, is no fan of Bratton’s approach. But he doesn’t entirely blame passengers for complaining to the authorities. When he started out on the trains, in 2008, there were only about 15 or 20 kids in the game, he says. Then their brand new Nikes began attracting notice back in the Bronx, and the scene exploded. It’s hard to say how many people dance on the subway today, but the dancers generally put the number in the low hundreds -- a spike that some older performers attribute to the sharp decline of arts and physical education funding since the recession. Vargas sees himself as a pioneer and an artist, and dismisses many of the newcomers as untalented hacks. He’s especially disdainful of dancers who rely too heavily on stunts involving the poles: They lack respect for the fundamentals of the craft, he says, like basketball players who can dazzle with dunks but don’t know how to shoot or pass. He thinks their shoddy showmanship helps explain why so many passengers now look away when he and his friends bring a speaker onto a car. “People stopped liking it because of the other kids,” he complains. “But when I perform people still be loving it.”
Although the media often describes the performers as breakdancers, most of the kids who dance on the trains today are actually disciples of litefeet, a form that originated about a decade ago in some of the same playgrounds of the Bronx and Harlem where an older generation invented hip-hop itself. Vargas and his friends hope to bring the genre’s playful spirit and frenetic footwork to a mainstream audience, much in the way that Crazy Legs and a handful of other breakers from the Bronx introduced headspins and windmills to the world back in the ‘80s. The trains have made this dream seem possible. Through the connections they’ve made on the subway, Vargas and his fellow dancers have appeared in documentaries by filmmakers from Sweden and London, music videos for hip-hop artists like the Wu-Tang Clan's Raekwon and rock bands like the Afghan Whigs, and an online commercial for House of Marley, a high-end headphone company endorsed by some of Bob Marley’s grandsons.
As much as anyone who performs on the trains, Vargas and his group seem to have a shot at leaving the hitting behind -- at performing not just under Broadway, but on it. But if that doesn’t work out, their arrest records will make it harder for them to find other work. This past summer, Vargas landed in Central Booking, his first trip to jail but his fourth arrest for dancing. He didn’t have much to say to his cellmates: As he tells it, one was talking to himself, another was drunk, and a third didn’t have on any shoes. After eight or nine hours, a judge ordered him to stay out of trouble and sent him home. But by the end of the week, Vargas was back on the trains, flashing his smile at the passengers. Although he knows his feet may land him in trouble again, he’s confident they’ll get him out of it, too. “Next time I see the cops, I be running,” he said one afternoon in September, between bites of buffalo wings at his favorite Times Square hangout. Then he posed a question that New Yorkers have no doubt been asking themselves since the first Dutch trader stepped off a boat in the harbor. “Why not make more money at all times?”
Vargas belongs to a 12-person dance team called WAFFLE, a silly acronym that stands for something serious: “We are family for life.” Its members include a 5-year-old breakdance prodigy, his 9-year-old brother, and a 23-year-old rapper, Sean Kirkland, or ArnStar, who comes from a well-known New York hip-hop family -- his father, Kippy Dee, was an influential member of the Rocksteady Crew, the best-known breakdance group of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, and his sister, the rapper Lil Mama, had a breakout single, “Lip Gloss,” in 2007.
Most of the WAFFLE members are litefeet dancers, and they roll their eyes at anyone uncool enough to mistake their moves for “breakdancing,” or “b-boying,” which survives on the trains more than 40 years after its birth. Unlike breakers, who dance their way from an upright position into a succession of intricate floor moves, litefeeters mostly dance standing up, riffing on a pattern of bouncy steps called the tone wop. They use their hats and shoes as makeshift props, juggling them like soccer balls and making them appear to levitate, and they pride themselves on adapting to the world around them, the most obvious example being their use of the subway poles for the acrobatic routine they jokingly call “the part-time stripper.” The music is hectic and excited -- “hype,” as they say. Vargas writes and records most of WAFFLE’s tracks using his dad’s old Dell desktop and a blizzard of samples, and he posts the results on SoundCloud and YouTube, where they have racked up hundreds of thousands of plays. Last May, an MTV blogger called him the “biggest litefeet producer of the moment.”
If dance is a language, the best litefeet dancers speak in a mashup of dialects. They borrow vocabulary from local dance crazes like the original “Harlem Shake” and the “Chicken Noodle Soup,” and use their bodies to tell stories about everyday life in the city. Their leader, Andrew Saunders, or “Goofy,” recently gave a demonstration, running in place to the skittering beat of a typical litefeet track while repeatedly glancing over his shoulder, his eyes cartoonishly wide with fear. Anyone who dances on the trains would have grasped the reference. “Running from the cops,” Saunders said, spelling it out. “That’s what’s cool about litefeet. You can put anything into it.”
In the early days, litefeet was confined to neighborhood “battlegrounds” in the Bronx and Harlem -- asphalt parks, the boiler rooms of apartment buildings, the recreational centers of public housing projects and churches. Then, in 2008, a few of the more ambitious party promoters began renting downtown venues and charging $10 at the door. Vargas and Saunders couldn’t always afford the fee, but they soon discovered that they could earn it -- and then some -- on the subway ride to the party. Vargas, a devoted sneaker collector, grinned as he recalled what he and his friends did with the first flush of cash. “We went shopping.”
Not all of the dancers are so free with their money. Sean Raymond, a former WAFFLE member known for hanging upside down from the handlebars (“the Batman”), said the subway allows him to help with the rent at his mother’s apartment in Far Rockaway. Saunders said he paid the $50 weekly tuition at a private Christian high school with the crumpled bills he’d collected in a hat. Daniel Siciliano, a breaker in his 20s, said he puts up with the arrests to provide for his three kids. If he finds a steady job as a janitor, he said, he’ll stop hitting.
Fred Malave, the father of the two young children in the group, said he and his wife, Jessica, are setting aside half of the money in their children’s names and allowing the kids to decide what to do with the rest. The parents’ jobs at a Midtown Whole Foods put a roof over the children’s heads -- but not the old-school shell-toe Adidas on their feet, or the virgin daiquiris in their cocktail glasses when the family goes out for barbecue on St. Mark’s Place. Marc, the 9-year-old, is “the cheap one,” joked Fred. But 5-year-old Nasir is living in the moment. He and his two siblings share a bedroom with his presents to himself: a stuffed Spiderman, a tiny basketball hoop, Nerf footballs, classic board games, and the essential accoutrement of a New York childhood, a scooter.
Like many New Yorkers, the family has a slippery hold on middle-class life. They live in a Lower East Side building where the boys share a bedroom with their 8-year-old sister, Delilah, who soon will old enough to need her own space. “We make OK money,” said their mother, Jessica, “but what if I lose my job, especially in an economy like now?”
Even with their jobs at Whole Foods, the parents can’t afford to send their kids to formal dance classes, but the streets and trains have provided the boys with a rigorous, if informal, education. Through their public performances, Marc and Nasir have formed bonds with many older dancers, including Gabriel “Kwikstep” Dionisio, an eminent breaker who grew up in a series of foster homes and says he first heard the words “I love you” from a father figure in his dance crew in the ‘80s. In 1997, his wife, Ana “Rokafella” Garcia, a fellow street dancer, helped him establish another crew, Full Circle, as a nonprofit dance company; they would go on to perform choreographed shows at Lincoln Center in New York and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Now in their 40s, Garcia and Dionisio charge the Malave family a nominal $25 for three hours of training a week. At a recent session, Garcia was showing Nasir and Marc how to “backrock,” a move that breakers use to recover their composure after they’ve fallen onto their backs. It was a fitting metaphor for a broader lesson the older dancers hope to impart.
“Nasir is young and cute, and he gets away with everything,” said Dionisio. “But what happens when he’s not cute anymore?”
Without hard work and resilience, Nasir’s talent won’t get him far, Dionisio warned. “When you’re black and brown, it’s not enough to just be amazing. Our friends who are white, they can come in and out of the culture as easily as they breathe, but for us, this is all we have. We have to be five times better than anyone else. We don’t have a choice.”
Thirty years ago, when New York was a poorer and far more dangerous place, the trains were at the center of another feud between kids and the cops. The scene was the South Bronx, where arson had destroyed nearly half of the housing, leaving parts of the borough looking like postwar Berlin. Seeking a cheap outlet for their creative impulses, some of the local young people began making up rhymes and spinning records, laying down the musical foundations of hip-hop. Teenagers who were athletically inclined invented the dance style later called breakdancing, and kids who might have become graphic designers or illustrators in more prosperous environments began stealing bottles of spray paint and firing them at the trains.
The 1983 PBS documentary “Style Wars” recorded the city’s response. “If the kids have energy and want to do something we’ll give them all brooms, we’ll give them all sponges, and they can do something that is publicly productive, useful, and that would earn them the respect and approbation from their fellow citizens,” said Richard Ravitch, the head of the MTA at the time.
In 1985, the city’s transit authority hired as a consultant the criminologist George Kelling, who had co-written with the political scientist James Q. Wilson an influential article for The Atlantic Monthly titled “Broken Windows.” Kelling and Wilson argued that the police should play a more assertive role in responding to vandalism, rowdiness and other disorderly activities that didn’t quite rise to the level of what police then considered meaningful crime.
“Consider a building with a few broken windows,” they proposed. “If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it's unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.”
Skeptics have since pointed out that the proliferation of broken windows in places like the South Bronx was perhaps not so much a cause of urban decay as a symptom of economic wounds so deep that no amount of police attention could heal them. But New Yorkers were desperate for answers. As Kelling recalled in 2009, “Bryant Park, in the heart of midtown and adjacent to the New York Public Library, was an open-air drug market.” Grand Central Terminal was “a gigantic flophouse,” and the subway riders had “abandoned the subway in droves.” As consultant to the transit police, Kelling called for an all-out offensive on graffiti. A vandal squad fanned out into the trains, and graffiti-covered cars were sent to the scrapyard.
Crime did not go down right away. In 1990, the police recorded 212,000 violent crimes, up from 161,000 in 1983. But over the next three years, the toll began to fall, dipping beneath 200,000 in 1993.
William Bratton took over the force the following year, and appointed Kelling as an adviser. By now, the city had won its war on subway graffiti, so Bratton and Kelling turned their attention to other annoyances, like turnstile-hopping, above-ground graffiti, and the street artists who sold their portraiture outside the museums. As the arrests went up, so did complaints of police harassment and brutality, especially in predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods. But the overall violent crime count continued to decline, plunging to 130,000 in 1996.
Some say Bratton was merely the beneficiary of an international phenomenon. They note that crime was falling around the world, even in cities that hadn’t gone after panhandlers, like London and Toronto. But to many New Yorkers, Bratton was a hero. A sociable man with an intellectual air, he liked to unwind over a glass of Baileys in the company of the reporters and columnists who frequented Elaine’s, the iconic literary haunt on the Upper East Side. By the time he left the force, in 1996, after a clash of personalities with Mayor Rudy Giuliani, he had posed for the cover of Time. With his triumphant image fixed in the national mind, “broken windows” became the rallying cry of many police departments around the country.
Bratton’s successors at One Police Plaza followed his blueprint, and crime kept falling, perhaps because of Bratton’s enduring influence, or any number of other factors. The real-estate market boomed, and dipped, and boomed again, weathering Sept. 11 and an international banking crisis. But with the richest Americans commanding an ever-greater share of the country's wealth, New York became the most unequal city in the United States. Last spring, an observer drew a portrait of what he described as “another New York,” a city where “anxious parents whisper about making that month’s rent while their children sleep in the other room,” where “a black teenager slides off his hoodie on the way home from high school, hoping this will be a day when the police let him pass without incident.”
The speaker was Bill de Blasio, then a public advocate and a little-known candidate for mayor who had set out to distinguish himself from his rivals by taking a stand against the injustice of “a gilded city where the privileged few prosper, and millions upon millions of New Yorkers struggle each and every day to keep their heads above water.” By the end of the summer he had surged to the top of the polls, perhaps in part because of a popular campaign video in which his mixed-race son, Dante, spoke out against prejudiced policing. In November 2013, de Blasio won the election in a landslide, leading supporters to hope that he would take strong steps to protect those black teenagers in hoodies from harassment and handcuffs. So it was disappointing for many when, in the first significant act of his fledgling term, he brought Bratton back for a second turn as commissioner. (Neither the mayor’s office nor the police department responded to requests for comment.)
So far, the new Bratton regime has a lot in common with the old one, even though the pervasive disorder of early ‘90s New York is nowhere in evidence. It’s true that the police reportedly have cut down on stopping and frisking young black and Latino people who haven’t broken the law, a change that began during Bloomberg’s final year in office. But they’re still arresting tens of thousands of New Yorkers for petty offenses like public possession of marijuana, jumping the subway turnstiles, and entering a public housing project where you aren’t a resident. And now, dancing. “If you take care of the little things, then you can prevent a lot of the big things,” Bratton said in March, explaining the policy. By July, the police had arrested 240 subway dancers for misdemeanors, compared with fewer than 40 by the same month the year before.
As in years past, the New Yorkers most likely to get stopped, questioned, and ultimately punished for these small infractions are overwhelmingly black and Latino. In the 24th precinct on the Upper West Side, for example, blacks and Latinos represent just a third of the population, but have received more than 80 percent of the summonses for low-level offenses, according to a Daily News analysis of state court data. Likewise, the police arrest Latinos at four times the rate of whites for low-level pot possession, and blacks at seven times the rate of whites, despite studies showing that young blacks and Latinos in New York and elsewhere are no more likely than their white counterparts to use the drug.
The question of whether racial bias explains these discrepancies has become a flashpoint in a larger debate, one that has intensified in recent months with the front-page deaths of two unarmed black men at the hands of police: Eric Garner, a Staten Island grandfather who allegedly had committed the offense of selling loose cigarettes to his neighbors, and Michael Brown, the teenager whose killing on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, sparked a national outcry. Michael Denzel Smith’s arch criticisms of the subway crackdown in The Nation last spring carry an extra sting in the aftermath of those incidents. “Those scary, disorderly, dancing young black bodies,” he wrote. “Always causing fear.”
Dropping the sarcasm, he went on to say that “the ease with which we criminalize and abuse black youth in this country would be astounding if it weren’t so routine.”“The law makes sense,” retorted The Daily News. “Asking for spare change on a platform is fine because people can walk away. In a moving subway, they are trapped.”
Robert Cornegy, a Democratic councilman who represents a largely black area in Brooklyn, has raised one of the city council’s few public challenges to the policy. Addressing the police commissioner directly at a September hearing on the department's use of force, he questioned whether too many people were getting hassled and arrested for “just doing what they do to get by in these tough times.” He brought up the subway dancers specifically, noting there’d been no reports of them hurting anyone, a claim supported by an article in the Associated Press.
Bratton didn’t refute the point, but he didn’t concede it, either. The subway cars “are not for dancing, if you will, no matter how entertaining,” he said. As for street performers who stay away from the trains, they have nothing to fear from the police, he assured Cornegy. To support this claim, he cited the department’s tolerance of the dancers who pack the plaza outside City Hall. He presumably didn’t realize that his men had written those dancers a ticket on camera just a few days before.
Some observers of City Hall see the alliance between de Blasio and Bratton as New York politics as usual, an attempt by a cautious liberal to protect his right flank from critics who would jump at the chance to attack him as “anti-cop” or “soft on crime.” In many ways, de Blasio has made good on his campaign vow to fight for the poor, expanding the city’s pre-K program, for example, and raising the minimum wage by more than 50 percent, and it may be reasonable to wonder whether these achievements would be possible if he didn’t guard against the perception that he doesn’t also care about public safety and order.
In August, de Blasio announced a $12.7 million investment in a progressive effort to curb gun violence, a program that provides potential gang members with counseling and other supportive services.“But ironically, what we’re learning about these types of programs is that aggressive policing can undermine their work,” said Alex Vitale, a sociologist at Brooklyn College who studies police tactics. “Kids join the program, and then the cops arrest them and put them in the juvenile justice system, where they end up right back with the gang.”
Dionisio, the veteran street dancer, offered a more specific account of how “broken windows” policing can ultimately sabotage the goal of keeping people safe. “When you grow up in the street you live to dance,” he said. “After a while you dance to live.” When a cop messes with you, he said, that hurts your earnings for the day. “Now you’re slaving through dance, so you’re angry. You’re not like, ‘Look at this move I got.’ You're like, ‘Look at this move I got to get away from the cops.’ You learn to talk your way out of trouble, but sometimes you don’t want to talk your way out of it and then you end up at the precinct. You say, ‘Fuck dancing,’ and you get involved with other shit.”
His voice softened and he became reflective. “When you push people into the corner,” he said, “it always brings out the worst.”
When de Blasio expounded on the theme of a “tale of two cities” while running for mayor a year ago, he could have been talking about the city’s divided dance community. For the children of wealthy and middle-class professionals, there are classes at prestigious ballet academies like the American Ballet Theatre Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, where a year’s tuition can climb as high as $7,500. For those who can’t afford private lessons, or aren’t lucky enough to land a scholarship, there are public-school programs, community centers -- and the streets.
Over the last few decades, these options have grown more limited. In tough times, as schools look to save money, art programs are always among the first to go. After the recession hit in 2007, spending on art supplies and musical instruments and equipment for New York City students fell from about $10 million to less than a fifth of that, and the high schools alone lost more than 230 art teachers. The city’s poorest neighborhoods bore the brunt of the cuts, according to a recent report by the city comptroller, Scott Stringer. Of the more than 300 schools that lacked even a part-time art teacher, nearly half were located in the South Bronx and Central Brooklyn.
Kirkland, the rapper and dancer who performs as ArnStar, said he saw the effects of similar choices up close. A decade and a half ago, when he was nine, he entered a public school founded in cooperation with the renowned Boys Choir of Harlem. “It was amazing,” he said. “We actually had a summer program. Half of it would be spent in the school, and the other half of the summer we would go up to Skidmore College, where we would stay for about two or three weeks actually learning how to become independent and live, pretty much, like, a college life. We were learning Bach up there, Mozart. We learned how to read music. But after the third year, we stopped going there. Every year, another program was snatched away. It was almost a waste of time if you think of it. The kids would get into programs and get interested at the beginner levels, but if the next year it's over, they don't know what they need to know to make a living out of it. Or to make anything out of it, you know?”
Kirkland has a skyscraper of hair and a philosophical outlook. In a recent conversation, he made an observation about “the difference between knowing and walking the path,” and then immediately owned up to stealing the line from Laurence Fishburne in “The Matrix.” Kirkland’s path hasn’t always been smooth. When he was a teenager, he said, his family was so poor that they ate nothing but instant noodles every night for a year and a half. “I thought this was just what people eat,” he said. “That there wasn’t any different dishes that could be made.”
At 14, he enrolled in the High School for Arts, Imagination, and Inquiry near Lincoln Center. As far as he recalls, it offered no dance instruction and just one art class. But that one class made an impression. He remembers the shock of recognition he felt when the teacher showed the class “Style Wars” and Kirkland’s father, Sean “Kippy Dee” Rucker, a respected New York breaker from the early ‘80s, appeared on the screen.
Kirkland only knew his father from stories and photographs. Toward the end of the ‘80s, breaking went out of style, and Rucker “got involved with the wrong crowd,” Kirkland said. In 1990, at the age of 23, he was shot and killed on a sidewalk in Queens. A day after the funeral, Kirkland’s mother, Tara, learned that she was pregnant. Kirkland was born eight months later.
“Style Wars” was filmed seven years before Rucker’s death. It showed him as an impeccably cool teenager, a full-brim Kangol shading his eyes, a small gold pendant hanging from a chain around his neck. Kirkland watched in awe. “That’s when I got really serious about hip-hop,” he said. “I realized my path had been chosen for me before I even knew it.”
A community center in his grandmother’s housing project helped make up for the school’s deficiencies, providing him with access to recording equipment and computers. He created his own litefeet songs and eventually joined his sister in L.A., where he scrambled for a foothold in the industry before learning, about a year ago, that litefeet was beginning to gain recognition from some of New York’s hip-hop kingmakers, like the radio station Power 105.1.
Kirkland flew home, moved into his father’s old room in his grandmother’s apartment, and began performing on the subway about three times a week. Although he rarely works the trains anymore and hasn’t been arrested for dancing yet, he has landed in court for other violations of the transit rules, like jumping the turnstiles. (He says he doesn’t remember if he was en route to a performance at the time.) If he had the money, he said, he’d buy an unlimited monthly pass for $112. “But I don’t have it,” he said. “So you hop the train and get a ticket, or you hop and get arrested. The same old song and dance.”
Artistically minded kids starting high school today may have more alternatives than Kirkland did. This year, under de Blasio’s direction, the city is spending an unprecedented $23 million on arts programming in the schools, a move that education advocates have hailed as an important step. Still, some in the hip-hop community wonder whether the city, even with this windfall at its disposal, will find a way to lure young dancers off the streets. Ana “Rokafella” Garcia of Full Circle said she has petitioned the city to bring talented street performers into the formal economy by hiring them as coaches for less-experienced dancers. So far the city has spurned this suggestion, she says, and she finds it hard to believe that the political establishment ever will truly embrace the culture of the street as an art form worthy of serious study and financial backing.
“I don’t know that the city is ready,” she said. “It equates the culture with gangs and similar activities -- when really, dance is where we went to get away from those things.”
Angel Sanchez, a handsome 22-year-old breaker who guarantees that he can charm a dollar out of any woman on the train, fell in with a group of tough kids in the South Bronx when he was a teenager. One night, a brawl broke out and a rival was shot and killed. The dead kid’s friends retaliated by stabbing two of Sanchez’s friends, killing them both. Sanchez had recently taken up dancing on the subways, but he’d been spending all the money on sneakers and clothes. After his friends died, he began to feel he’d been wasting his life. “Those kids, what are they remembered for? They’re remembered for nonsense,” he said. “I wanted to be remembered for something positive.”
He started treating the hustle as a serious business, investing in Behringer speakers to enhance the quality of the performances and Nikon cameras to record and promote them. Today he works weddings and other paid events, but when the Yankees are in town, he and his crew can still haul in more than twice as much on the trains, he says. Each of the dancers on the team plays a specific role -- “the acrobat,” “the b-boy,” “the ladies’ man.” Aboubacaur Dembele, the acrobat, usually opens the show with six flips in a row. He wears the robes and beads of his ancestral Mali, a costume deliberately selected for the off-putting effect it seems to have on some passengers. “Every time we say ‘showtime,’ people are annoyed,” said Sanchez. “And the way the world is now, when people look at an African Muslim, they look at him like he’s nothing. They doubt us, but as soon as they see us dance, they see we’re not what they expected. That’s all we’re really doing -- we’re killing doubt.”
On a crisp morning this fall, Sanchez took the subway to Rockefeller Center to meet up with several members of the WAFFLE team. A producer for NBC’s “Access Hollywood” had seen Nasir and Marc dancing in Times Square and had booked the team to appear in a special episode filmed in the plaza.
A cop stood at the edge of the square, watching the crowd. Speaking anonymously, he said he didn’t think it was safe for people to do kicks and flips on moving trains. But when the topic of the arrests came up, he looked around, as though to make sure no one was watching. Lowering his voice, he said most of his colleagues were just acting under pressure from higher-ups. “We don’t go out there trying to hurt anybody,” he said.
The dancers were standing around in a roped-off section of the plaza, awaiting instructions from the TV crew. Kirkland wanted to begin warming up; instead, he and his teammates spent most of the next hour arguing. One of the performers objected to promoting the show on Facebook -- he was worried that his friends from the Bronx would think he was showing off. Kirkland accused him of looking at life from a “poor-people perspective.”
“If you have success, that needs to shouted to the top of the mountain,” he said. “Shout it respectfully, but shout it.”
An NBC staffer finally called them to their places. Billy Bush, the smooth-talking co-host, reached out to touch Kirkland’s towering hair, his own locks swept back into a glossy wave of gold. Saunders said a few words about the group, weaving in a mention of the recent trouble with the cops. Vargas did a flip and a quick hat trick, and made sure to aim his smile at the camera.
The show ended, but the arguing didn’t. Some on the team would later accuse Vargas of hogging the limelight; others would question whether Kirkland, with his celebrity sister, deserved a place in a crew of scrappy “hitters.” The goal of commercial success, seemingly more attainable now than ever, was threatening to divide the group of kids who have called themselves a family for life. As the city’s street dancers themselves point out, the cops aren’t the only people who can stand in the way of success. “You join a crew thinking it’s going to be great, but the people that are standing with you, they’re not really with you,” said Garcia. “You become jaded, bitter. Or maybe you become a schemer, and you take advantage of others.”
Outside Rockefeller Center, Billy Bush was dusting off a show-business platitude to congratulate the performers. “When the bright lights come on, you gotta make it happen,” he proclaimed. “The bright lights came on, and you were there.”
A few hours later, Vargas and Saunders were standing beneath the dim lights of the Union Square subway station. As they boarded the train, Vargas scanned the crowd for the telltale signs of undercover officers -- bulky jackets concealing bulletproof vests, badges stuffed into the breast pockets of button-downs, eyes as watchful as his own. Seeing only the bored and tired faces of what he decided were ordinary commuters, he switched on his speaker and pressed play.
“Showtime,” he announced. Then he and his friends started dancing.
Story by Saki Knafo, and video and photos by Emily Kassie.