Breaking in the aisles
At Japanese-American church, young members move to the beat
The beats of urban dance music pulse from the upper windows of an imposing gray stone church on Southeast Yamhill Street. It's an odd juxtaposition, especially on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
The gym on the second floor of Sunnyside-Centenary United Methodist Church plays host, every second Sunday, to the Epworth United Methodist Church's break dancing team.
Today, the team is rehearsing for a performance at their church's annual spring bazaar, which also is a celebration of Japanese culture, since Epworth has a predominantly Japanese-American congregation.
On a scarred wooden floor, about 15 kids, ranging in age from 8 to 18, are practicing their moves. Michael Wolcott, an adult organizer of the team, is helping one the youngest members wrap a T-shirt around his head, in preparation for some attempts at headspinning.
Nearby, a teenage boy is showing a younger one how to do a move that makes him look like his sternum is popping out of his chest. Behind them, two more young men are doing a sort of hopscotch in perfect synchronicity.
Taking a break, Wolcott explains that these free-form sessions evolved, approximately three and half years ago, from a church-sponsored basketball team.
The 33-year-old Wolcott, a father of three, hadn't done any break dancing before he started working out with the church team. He remembers when Michael Jackson brought the style into the mainstream, back in the 1980s, but break dancing was banned on his grade school playground, he says, because it was deemed unsafe.
Wolcott grew up on the East Coast, making him a relative newcomer to Epworth United. He says many of the members are second- and third-generation congregants. The church was founded more than 100 years ago, he says, at its original location in Northwest Portland.
Before World War II, Portland had a thriving Japantown, approximately where Chinatown is now. But after Pearl Harbor was attacked, the Japanese community was forced into internment camps.
'Once everyone was interned,' Wolcott says, 'Japantown pretty much disappeared, and after return from camp people sort of settled all over the place.'
The Methodist church moved to its current location in the Hawthorne area and remains a cultural center for Japanese-Americans. There's a Scripture reading in Japanese at each Sunday service, and hymns are sung half in English and half in Japanese.
The church also supports a swing band, an aerobics group, a line-dancing group and other activities, in addition to the break dancing team. The spring bazaar will be the first time the team performs at the church. If anyone is nervous about the upcoming exhibition, though, it certainly doesn't show.
The attempts of a cluster of boys to work out a new move quickly devolve into a game of keepaway with a dancer's hat, and a visitor would wait in vain for a teacher to call order or a choreographed dance to emerge.
Alison Nimura, 26, and Henry Chen, 19, circle the room, trying out some moves of their own and offering advice to the youngsters.
Today Nimura is the only female dancer, but she says that often a few girls will show up. There is a break dancing culture in Portland, she says, but she knew nothing about it growing up in Vancouver, Wash. After college she took a class that introduced her to the scene.
It's a common misconception, she's noticed, that break dancing came and went in the 1980s. 'People are pretty amazed that it's still around,' she says.
Chen is a student at Portland State University, where break dancing is alive and well, he says. He likes the individuality of the style. 'You feel like you're part of something big, yet you still have your sense of your own character,' he says. 'You can really express yourself in a lot of different ways.'
In addition to today's session, he helps supervise similar gatherings sponsored by Portland Parks and Recreation.
'There's not a lot of actual classes on break dancing,' Chen says. 'It's just something everyone kind of freely develops on their own.'
Teaching break dancing, he explains, is really more like being a spotter at a gym. 'Each person has their own unique style,' he says, 'but what we do is give them pointers - maybe they're not doing a handstand right, we give them little hints on how to do it.'
This laid-back way of interacting with students has its advantages. 'You learn and you teach at the same time,' Chen says. 'You improve as much as they do.'
The Epworth kids aren't quite ready for the big time yet, but they'll definitely add a jolt of energy to the traditional spring bazaar trio of bake sale, plant sale and rummage sale.
Chinese chicken salad, sushi and udon noodles will be for sale, as well, and the fifth-graders from nearby Richmond Elementary School's Japanese immersion program will be singing songs in Japanese.
'We thought it would be a good time to show all that's happening at the church,' Wolcott says, 'because there's more happening than one would suspect.'