When Joel “Leo J” Salazar first conceptualized Battlegrounds, he was DJing at a weekly in what was then Independent Bar & Kitchen in Deep Ellum. Every week, the bar would host a hip-hop artist showcase, featuring MCs, DJs and art. He noticed one important cultural element was missing, though.
“Dance was the only element that was missing out of the core elements of hip-hop,” Leo J says. Although he wasn’t a dancer himself, the art form was something that he, as a notable Dallas DJ
and event host for over 20 years, considered crucial to the night’s advocacy and success. “We were trying to keep dancers engaged, so we decided on a dance night. I reached out to my partner and it took off.”
The series grew from there into what is now a monthly all-styles and breaking dance event held on the second Tuesday of every month. After two years of success, Battlegrounds is celebrating its anniversary with a special event this Thursday, Feb. 13, at Club Dada.
Traditionally a one-vs.-one event, this month’s Battlegrounds is going bigger than ever, with two-vs.-two battles. And, in the spirit of the Valentine’s Day season, they’re calling it “Deuces Wild,” where most of the pairs will be coed. The three founders of Battlegrounds, including Leo J, David “SoulBot” Jasso and Claudette “Boogie” Brewer, felt it was the perfect way to add something new to the competition.
The battles are first come, first served, with two categories of dance — breakin and all-style — in which participants freestyle dance in rounds that last only 45 seconds. The styles, while similar in nature, have many technical differences. Breakin is a more traditional bboy style; however, all-style can include, as its name suggests, essentially all different categories, including krumping, house, jooking, waacking, popping, locking, lite feet, jerking and other popular dance styles.
While breakin is typically a lot of hip-hop, you never know what you’re going to get with all-style. It could be disco, old funk, house tracks, dubstep, Latino, you name it. The dancers just have to be prepared to do the best of what they’ve got with the sounds he plays. Then, each dancer is judged from their pool of three judges per category; and they don’t take their job lightly.
“I try to choose judges based on activeness and relevance in the Dallas bboy scene, or have impacted the breaking scene in some way,” says SoulBot. A bboy himself, he is the host of the events and does most of the interactive work with the dancers out there.
Contrary to SoulBot, co-founder Brewer strives to choose judges based on technical aspects and how they can accurately judge performances.
“Dance was the only element that was missing out of the core elements of hip-hop.” — Leo J
“I pick judges based on their overall judging ability, knowledge of movement through dance as well as the ‘street scene,’” she says, and she tries to be inclusive as well as thorough. “My goal is not to only use ‘vets’ who have won numerous battles, but to uplift and empower other highly skilled dancers and/or freestylers to step up and out of their comfort zone.”
This is one thing the team has achieved through a learning process since the start of Battlegrounds. The event was once a spot for only 21 and over, but Leo J says they got so much feedback from younger dancers that they worked with Club Dada to open the doors to 18 and up.
“What I really enjoy about battle is, for one, that dancers have a place to come and battle or see old friends,” Leo J says. “Two — I think it really exposes street dance culture, opposed to those who only dance in the studio. Maybe there’s kids out there that train in studios and don’t really come out to street events. Here, everyone is one through dance.”
The founders reflect on some of their memories at Battlegrounds over the first two years. Boogie remembers a moment when a dancer had made it to the top several times but hadn’t won overall. Finally, when he won first place, he burst out in tears and “the crowd went bananas,” reminding her of the ultimate purpose behind the event.
Leo J remembers one of his favorite moments, saying, “One time there was a 40-something-year-old man who didn’t look like he was there to battle, and he just started dancing and throwing down. Sure enough, the guy won his first round and he was actually an old bboy.
“Between studio dancers and street dancers, even past dancers like that guy, it’s a place where people can come let loose once a month. The dance community is very accepting of everyone and that’s what’s so cool.”