Bruk Up dancer Ghost, founder of the Bed-Stuy Veterans dance crew. Ghost will perform tonight, May 1, at Red Bull Music Academy's Bounce Ballroom event. Photos by Oliver Rivard.
"I love X-Men," Ghost says when asked about the inspirations behind his dance moves. "Then I would have to say the occult stuff—vampires, spirits, anime. In Bruk Up, you have to think outside of dance. If you don't, you won't have a character." Ghost is a 30-year-old Bruk Up dancer from Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. We're sitting in a fluorescent-lit roast beef joint on Nostrand Avenue with his protégé, Ivy, and he's explaining the difference between his style and the many shades of urban dance that intersect across Brooklyn's patchwork neighborhoods.
Bruk Up first emerged out of Jamaican dancehalls in the early 90s, pioneered by the style's originator, George "Bruk Up" Adams—who conquered a disabling childhood bone infection and went on to become one of the island's most celebrated dancers. It quickly found favor in Brooklyn, where in the mid-90s it took hold in the borough's Caribbean neighborhoods: Flatbush, Bed-Stuy, Crown Heights, and East New York.
Today's teenage and twenty-something dancers, who grew up watching Dragonball Z and playing Street Fighter, will describe it like a video game, a theatrical one-on-one battle complete with finishing moves and all. It dovetails here and there with newer styles like flexing, freeform, and bonebreaking, as well as more traditional forms of hip-hop dancing, like pop & lock. But while Ghost will be dancing alongside flexers and bonebreakers at tonight's RBMA Bounce Ballrooom event, he better not catch you calling his moves flexing.
"People in that generation try to label and create some kind of category for everyone," he says. "If someone's doing some kind of body motion, or they look like their own character, someone will go, 'You're a glider.' What do you mean he's a glider? Because that person has footwork to go with their body movement?" Alongside dancer Storyboard P, who has made a name for himself even outside of the dance community thanks to collaborations with Flying Lotus and Flume, Ghost helms a dance crew called the Warriors. More than anything, he encourages his students not to get hung up on conventions and classifications. He and Storyboard (who were "rivals for some time," he tells me) ultimately bonded because they both wanted to break dancing out of the box.
"It's like The Matrix. We unplug so many dancers," he explains. "We go, 'You know what you're doing is just your style, right?'" For Ghost, Bruk Up is not about nailing the moves—though the fundamentals are essential, as in any dance style—but more about being the moves. It's a discipline that is interpretative, expressive, and deeply personal for each dancer. "Your style is your mind, who you are, speaking on the dancefloor. It's a living documentation of how you think, manifested in dance."
As important as it is to execute the pauses, freeze-frames, shoulder pops, or glides that you might hear referred to in hip-hop dancing, it's essential that every member of The Warriors establishes their own character.
"Everyone has to be an icon," he continues. "My character, Ghost, is someone you could compare to Spider-Man. By day he's a dancer, he draws, he does freelance work—but he's half ghost. He gets into a situation where he's almost killed, but his will to live—his spirit—saved his life. His soul is stuck in limbo so he's able to appear anywhere."
His interpretation of these themes is abstract at times, and more literal at others (his last video I'm On Fire, was decorated with motion graphic animations of flames and sparks), but his moves always return to a conceptual foundation. He's currently honing a style that he calls Possession, and one of the moves, which you can see in the photo above, is inspired by the scene in the The Exorcist where the possessed little girl crawls backwards down the stairs.
Ghost warns that as dancers and disciplines age, they often atrophy, becoming representatives of an overly codified, oppressive regime. "You become predictable—not to others, but to yourself," he says, reminiscing on his early years as a dancer. "I look back at my old self and think, Man I was so explorative." He admires his younger protégés' openness to the new, in particular Limpie, a dancer who can pick up new styles at the drop of a hat. "He's like a baby," Ghost waxes. "You used to be like an abyss of not-knowing back then. We call it having more 'in-betweens'—more detailed stuff in between."
Now that he's an OG in a scene dominated by the young, nimble, and fiercely competitive, he's taken it upon himself to provide the framework for a new generation of Brooklyn dancers to flourish. He runs regular workshops and sessions out of the brownstone where he lives with his family, and organizes a larger, less frequent event series called L.O.U.D, which welcome up to 600 dancers in one evening. "With L.O.U.D I care about people's lives inside and outside of the ring," he tells me, acknowledging his role as a shepherd and chaperone.
Ghost only recently returned to dancing full-time after three years spent honing his entrepreneurial side—branding and marketing in particular. "I got great at design, but it kinda killed me," he admits. With Loud, he was "making the flyers, making the trailers, shooting everything, being there early, getting the trophies, paying for everything, and having to battle." He and Ivy showed up to meet me wearing their team colors: black leather motorcycle vests with bright red patent leather letters sewed into the back that read "The Warriors." The custom patches threaded onto the front matched the colorways of their flatbrims, and Ghost's crome-reflective, circular shades were something like Full Metal Alchemist-meets-True Blood. Apart from the shades, they designed and manufactured all of the gear themselves.
"We want people to understand how to create their own package," he says, driving his hand down on the table to emphasize the last four words. "It's great to look up to me, but I wanna show you how you can make people look up to you too." The best way to do that, he maintains, is to find out what makes you stand out in a crowd and hone that until it's sharp. "Bruk Up helps people access that energy inside of them," and we can all stand to learn or thing a two from this philosophy—if we ever want to become icons in our own right.