BEDFORD-STUYVESANT — Shawn Theagene credits dance with saving his life.
As a young teen growing up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Theagene looked to break free from a life of gangs and drug dealing and found his escape in brukup, a Jamaican-inspired dance style.
Originated by George “Brukup” Adams in the early 1990s, the reggae dancehall-based genre moved to New York City, where groups like Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy Veterans popularized the art form.
Now, the crew is looking to pass down its style to the next generation by teaching children the moves that “got us out of the streets,” according to Theagene.
Theagene, 30, also known as “Poba,” dubs himself one of the pioneers of brukup, gaining notoriety in neighborhood dance battles through the grit and fluidity expressed in his motions.
“Brukup changed a lot of neighborhoods from people that were doing drugs and gang-banging,” he said. “We pretty much changed people doing negative things into positivity. We made dancing cool.”
The original Bed-Stuy Veterans (BSV), a group of more than eight childhood friends, started the movement in 1994. The art form carries a personal connection that is more than just dancing — it’s a lifestyle and a culture, Theagene said.
In Jamaican patois, brukup translates into “broke up,” and describes a style comprised of different elements of dance.
Every action means something to the individual and no two moves are the same, according to its followers. Gestures reflect experiences and everyday life for the dancers — arms and fingers cock back as animated guns, while aggressive steps mimic snatching opponents' hearts.
During a recent session, Theagene and Justin “Rain” Quinones eased into a series of expressions, glides, pretzel-like contortions and bends reminiscent of “The Matrix” as they danced to bass-heavy beats in a Halsey Street brownstone.
“We were just expressing how we were feeling, being that we had nothing, and we came from nothing,” Theagene said.
“In our mind, we try to be as clear and free as possible. Brukup is the Brooklyn kung-fu,” he added. “It’s very sacred. Like martial arts, everyone can be in it, but not everyone can be a master. This is our way of life.”
Each performer creates a character, with members boasting nicknames such as “Fat Boy,” “Ghost” and “Konqueror.”
The identities encourage BSV members to form their own paths and keep their methods “unorthodox and extraordinary,” where no two dancers are the same, Quinones said.
As BSV gained a reputation as well-respected dancers in their communities, the group graduated from underground battles before 50 to 100 people on a street corner to arenas of up to 1,500 spectators, according to Shawn Griffith, BSV’s manager.
The crew’s fan base helped build the League of Unreal Dancing, or L.O.U.D., a dance agency and battle platform founded upon brukup, extending to other styles including flexing, tutting and break dancing.
Performers go head-to-head in themed, character-driven competitions, with the idea that someone’s “entire neighborhood” is behind them during the battle, Griffith said.
As the group approaches its 12-year anniversary since becoming an official company, members are hoping to expand their passion through original music and videos. Earlier this month, the crew auditioned for season 10 of “America’s Got Talent.”
“Lords of BSV,” a documentary chronicling brukup and the group’s evolution, is set to debut early next year.
In the meantime, members are hoping to bring the free-form dance worldwide, while still staying true to their roots. The group offers sessions open to young, aspiring dancers at the team house on Halsey Street, as well as impromptu lessons during tournaments and events.
“We live, eat, breathe and preach our culture and we want to make people appreciate being different,” Theagene said. “We want children to expand their minds and learn the ways that saved us.
“Bad people take no days off, so why should we, doing something good?”