A Peaceful Rumble

Circle of Fire, Seattle’s original club-breakdancing crew, celebrates 20 years.

Consider those friends you’ve known for 20 years, the depth of your relations, bonds that are basically familial, how much you know about each other’s likes and lives. Now consider you and your friends are all supremely talented, passionate breakdancers who spend more time on the floor of dance clubs than almost anywhere else. It’s a beautiful if confounding exercise for most of us, but real life for the members of Circle of Fire. Seattle’s preeminent club-dancing crew, Circle of Fire first came together in 1997, gathering in a host of underground dance clubs—almost all of which are long gone—and raves, dancing not just to hip-hop but house, techno, jungle… These folks were drawn to the music, not for its style but its sensibility. If it had a beat, they would break to it. The decades that followed saw these friends travel the world, together and separately, teaching, performing, competing, all on the back of their passion, which remains as intense as ever. 

This week, Circle of Fire commemorates its 20th anniversary with events across the city. The celebration kicks off tomorrow night at the crew’s weekly hangout, Stop Biting at Lofi, and caps off with a massive throwdown at Neumos on Saturday night. DJs, dancers and fans are coming to Seattle from across the country. We sat down with longtime members Alfredo Vergara, Rob Santiago and Lateef Saleem to talk about their legacy and their future. No surprise that their conversation was as entertaining as a cypher. 

City Arts: Twenty years is a long time for any kind of collective to be together, whether it’s a band or an arts collective or a breakdancing crew. How do you manage? How do you stay together?
Alfredo: The crew up here, there’s about five of us here living in Seattle, and the rest of them migrated to the Bay Area, where a lot of them are from. But I don’t know—20 years! We’ve been doing this just because we love doing it. We never thought it would be like this, “Oh, we’re celebrating our 20 years.” It kind of snuck up on us. 

City Arts: How do you stay in shape?
Rob: We don’t [laughter]! No way.

Alfredo: Breakdancing, street dances—they’re probably the toughest dance forms out there. They have a certain kind of shelf-life for the body. Back in the early ’90s, if you were over 25, you were considered old in the game. But the way we dance, too, it’s more than just breaking. We incorporate a lot of different styles. It’s more like a pastime for us, too, so it’s not just something we’re doing for competitions. Think of it, if you’re playing basketball, and you’re going to have to catch a…
Alfredo: Side game.
Rob: …a side game, and you see people in their 40s still playing. That’s how we look at it. It’s something we do all the time, so we stay active.

City Arts: The dance itself is a form of training?
Rob: Yeah, in a way. And we go out. Man, we’ve been going out dancing at least once a week for the last 20 years. 

Alfredo: We’ll always meet up. Anybody, whatever your interests are, there’s a level you strive toward when you’re young. And then you’ll hit that level, and then all you’ve got to do is kind of maintain it. And what catches us off guard is when we want to start surpassing that level, and then we have to go back to the drawing board of like, “Alright, I can’t eat this or that. I’ve got to work out this many times a week. I’ve got to practice this many hours a week to get where I’m trying to get to.” Maintaining is not as difficult. But when it comes down to get to ready to work on something, yeah it takes hours. And the older we get, it’s like, two hours to warm up. Two hours to train. An hour to cool down. Ice down. Relax. Take a day off. Go at it again. I mean, it’s hours of your life.

Rob: It’s really dangerous, and the older you get, like, you don’t realize your body is not communicating with your mind in the same way. Or your heart, maybe. You’re heart’s like, “Go do this.” And then you’re like, “Ouch, what was that? [laughter] Ooh, what was that?” And it’s like, “OK, I need to really concentrate on warming up and stretching out.” Younger, it was a lot easier to not care.

Alfredo: Yeah, you just throw your body around when you’re younger, and not think about consequences. So some of us deal with certain injuries. But throughout the years we’ve learned to cope with it and figure out like, “Alright, so I can’t do this, but I can do that instead.” We can’t do the stuff that we used to 10 years, 20 years ago. But we find a flow, and I think we’ve done it well enough that we have our own kind of language within the dance that we maintain.

City Arts: Is that sense of leveling up usually oriented around a competition?
Rob: It can be. This is a year-round thing, it’s not a season. There’s no six months out of the year you dance. It’s every weekend, so it’s hard to peak all the time. So sometimes you’ll pick the [competition] that your eyes are set on, like, “I really want to experience this. A lot of people are coming here,” and that’s your focus, and everything else is just little stages to get to that point. But once you get there, the competition is never really the biggest part of it. It’s just that there’s so much dancing. And the experience of it, it’s really exciting. And it kind of gives you a lot of energy when you come home, so you just don’t want to be hurt. You want to do your best, basically. Everyone’s kind of in the same state. Competition’s so quick. It’s over so fast. But the weekend, or the five days, it’s all this interaction and spontaneous dancing, that you’re just kind of getting ready for that madness.

Alfredo: Competition’s just one aspect of it. Like he was saying, even with this anniversary we wanted to cover different aspects of our crew. Not just the dance. Breaking is just one aspect of the dance. There’s different styles. And like you were saying, how do we evolve? Competition is one aspect. If you were an athlete training for something, you want to win a competition, that’s one aspect. But there’s performance aspects. There’s also self-discovery where you figure out who you are within the dance, and then you try to express that. So we’ve done performances, we’ve done theater shows, we’ve done street shows. And just collaboration with each other. We have a collective of artists. We have painters, musicians. Everybody in the melting pot. We’re giving each other knowledge, and that helps us evolve in our perspective of how we approach the dance, too. And I think the most important thing for a Circle of Fire is that that’s what we projected throughout to the culture, having an open mind and not being constructed in a box. So that helped us evolve, and how we want to present ourselves within the dance too.

Rob: It’s not even like you can’t do what you used to do, it’s just not important. It’s not as interesting. It’s more complex now. The subtleties are bigger than the big movements. And that’s the one thing that got addicting. As you get older, you release a lot of the past, and you just keep moving forward. And with our friends, because we’re all growing at the same age, it makes it easier as we’re all kind of adapting over and over again. It’s pretty cool. 

Alfredo: Yeah, it’s definitely a level of maturity in how people move nowadays, too, because with the scene, when we watch stuff—people don’t think breaking is around, but it’s gone to a level now that it’s—it’s worldwide. The competitions are big. And when we watch it, it’s like, “Dang! People are flying nowadays.”

City Arts: Doing more extreme moves?
Alfredo: Extreme, yeah. I’m still amazed. We’ve been doing it for 20 years, and things are still getting invented and pushed to the limit. But when we dance, there’s a certain level of maturity there that enjoy now. I mean, there’s times when we try to one-up each other. There’s a level of like, “OK, I’m going to see if I can still do that.” But it’s more about the movement now, it’s the flow.

City Arts: That combination of artistry and athleticism seems unique to dance, and street dance is where you see the most extreme moves being developed over the years. If watch the NBA now compared to five or 10 years ago, people are jumping higher, running faster. The science behind athleticism is becoming more and more detailed, to create these incredible athletes, and it sounds like you’re describing a similar sort of thing, where the fact that this form has existed now for a few decades means that people can push in a way that nobody could’ve even conceived of back in the day.
Rob: There’s education that’s being passed down, so what was a really hard combination back in the day, they can [now] teach fast, and kids pick it up. That hard combination just becomes foundation, and then they’re teaching the younger ones the even harder combinations, and it just becomes normal to them as the starting point. So it just keeps going forward, and everybody’s knowledge from all around the world contributes to these phenomenal dancers. They just step out, and you’re just like, “Wow, that was pretty amazing.” It took me years to learn stuff like that.

Alfredo: If you think about it, breaking’s probably what, late ‘70s? [Lateef arrives] Oh, this is Lateef.

Lateef: Hey, everybody.

Alfredo: We were just talking about how old breaking is. It’s not even 40, 50 years old.

Rob: Forty, 50, yeah.

Alfredo: So as a dance, it’s pretty young compared to a lot of disciplined dances. And we were talking about how information travels so much faster now. Back then, for you to know it, you either had to get hold of an old VHS tape that somebody circulated somehow, or knowledge was passed down to you by somebody teaching you…

Lateef: Or you had to be there.

Alfredo: Or you had to be there. So information was a lot harder to get connected to, and the learning process was a lot slower. But you had that urge to find out more. Like, “How do I find out more? How do I search out more about this dance?” Now, it’s so much easier. Like you were saying, the hardest move can be the starting foundation nowadays. It’s so much easier, but the most important thing is, too, is learning the culture behind it, because if you don’t understand the history—where the dancers came through and evolved—then you’re not really gonna grasp what it’s all about. Now, you’re just understanding the dance movements, but not the whole culture, the philosophy behind it.

Rob: That’s a good point because see if you went on Instagram, you could see all kinds of clips of these really amazing combinations. But when you see [these people dancing] in person, you can see where they lose the dance. They’ll do it and then something might miss. Something is a little bit off. What’s important is, I think still is more important to us as dancers, is that feeling we used to get when we’d be out there, and we’d do this live, creative kind of environment of dancing, expressing yourself, learning. And competition has never really been a home for that. No matter how hard you try in a competition, you have to compromise a certain bit because you have to deal with a lot of emotions, thoughts in your head about how you compete against somebody. And they’re judging you. What you’re doing might not be what they’re looking for competitively. But when you finish with the competition and everyone’s done with that, and it’s still going on, but you’re on these little side groups, and the music’s still playing, and you guys all start dancing together, that’s where the real education and the real process is. It’s all these people from all over the United States, or just boroughs in cities, little places coming out in groups. Like, “These are my friends. This is our crew.” And then they just start dancing and going at it, and music’s bright, and somebody’s on the mic getting you more hyped, and then it’s like, “Aw this is pretty awesome.” It’s like a peaceful rumble [laughter].

Lateef: You meet people from all over you didn’t even know about. People who didn’t have access to the Internet or video tapes.

Alfredo: Yeah, and to be able to exchange with them—the energy’s weird, because you’re like, “What are they about? What are they going to bring to the floor?” Same thing with you. You’re like, “What am I going to give them?” So those kind of events were important because you had people from different places, and just trying to exchange information. And that’s kind of what the anniversary’s about, really, is trying to get everybody to just pow-wow, come from different places and share that moment.

City Arts: So what were those original parties or get-togethers where you guys first came together? How did you find each other?
Alfredo: We’d go to clubs all the time. When we first started hanging out together as a crew—before we even started calling ourselves a crew, actually, we were just friends going out to clubs, raves, house parties.

City Arts: So what kind of clubs and raves are we talking about?
Rob: Vinylize…

Lateef: Rock Salt…

Alfredo: Powerplant…

Rob: DVA…

Lateef: Max Studios. 700 Club like once.

Alfredo: Beatbox. Nation was one of the first clubs where we hosted our night, strictly for dancing and music. And that was right on Fifth Avenue, we would come there and just dance, and it became like a weekly thing. And it was like, “Hey, why don’t we make this our night?” It was a Monday night. So it wasn’t a busy night. We went strictly for that night. We went on Christmas.

Lateef: New Years. It didn’t matter. If it was on a Monday, we had to show up, and it was always enough people.

Alfredo: So those places, all those places were kind of underground, kind of small. You don’t hear about them now, and a lot of them are gone, but we were the ones to go in, get the party started. Like, there’s going to be dancers there.

Lateef: It was also some fascinating thing, too, when I first met all of these guys, they was already kind of together, and I came in late, but they danced a lot of festivals, like Folklife. Just being out and about in the city, and somebody just come out with a drum and starts drumming, and it’d be the first response. It’s like, let’s get busy. It doesn’t take a whole lot to ignite this type of energy. It just takes a little spark, and then it starts feeding itself, and the next thing you know, everyone’s just going wild, getting crazy, but what they’re trying to do is celebrate that.

Alfredo: That was a lot of things that I think our crew was like. What we were known for is we’ll just spark something out of nothing. When we used to live at the Circle of Fire house, everybody would come home at different times from whatever their job was at the time, and somebody would turn on the music, or start moving around, and pretty soon, you’re going to have everybody in the house be like, “What’s going on up there?” And then, by the end of it, we’re dancing through the kitchen, we’re like dancing around the house, outside, picking stuff up. And this is something that we just did, you know?

Check out full info on the Circle of Fire 20 Year Anniversary celebration. Archival photo via the Circle of Fire Facebook page.