Breaking Out

The break dancing leaders of Sisterz of the Underground blaze a trail for women in hip hop

It is a Monday evening at Cell Space, a Mission District arts venue, and the last rays of sun filter through the yellowing skylights, casting the empty warehouse space in a deep summer glow. Mirrors line one wall, and couches frame another side of the room's expansive wooden floor. In these quiet moments, despite its spaciousness, Cell Space becomes a comfortable, almost serene setting.

And then the b-girls arrive.

The female break dancers file in about 6 p.m., in baggy pants, holding water bottles and backpacks. They immediately throw a CD into the stereo -- usually funk or old-school breaks -- and suddenly the room explodes with energy. The pulsating bass reverberates off the walls in a contagious rhythm, and within minutes a half-dozen women -- and a few men -- begin flinging themselves to the floor in a kinetic frenzy of moves -- headstands, handstands, spins, a lightning shuffle of hand- and footwork, flailing their arms and legs into freakish positions.

Members of the Sisterz of the Underground collective.
Brandon Fernandez
Members of the Sisterz of the Underground collective.
Sarah "Dark Star" Ramirez hopes the Sisterz's 
workshops will inspire girls to participate in hip hop.
Brandon Fernandez
Sarah "Dark Star" Ramirez hopes the Sisterz's workshops will inspire girls to participate in hip hop.

At one end of the room Sarah "Dark Star" Ramirez stands on her head with only a wool beanie and a wreath of curly brown hair as padding. As she balances, she keeps her knees bent as if she were in some inverted sitting position. Then, with sudden force, she throws her legs into a sideways motion and her body begins to rotate like a wobbling top. She spins on her head for one ... two ... almost three rotations before she collapses with a laugh.

Nearby Jana Rowlan, her blond hair pulled into a tight ponytail, stands on her hands as though she were part of a circus act. The blood drains to her face as she kicks her legs into off-kilter positions and holds them in defiance of gravity.

All the while, Sarah Saltzman works on what is called a "baby freeze," in which she supports her entire body weight on her arms and the side of her head, her legs kicked up at a precarious angle.

Ramirez, Rowlan, Saltzman, and other b-girls usually claim their territory in the front of the room, near the mirrors and the stereo. The handful of guys tend to stick to their assigned space in the back.

Those boundaries were delineated when the practices first began about a year ago as a venue exclusively for women, hosted by a burgeoning San Francisco female hip hop collective called Sisterz of the Underground.

"In the beginning, this was only for girls," explains Rowlan, a core member of the collective, as she takes a short break. "But the guys said, 'Why you hating on us?' So we said, 'Fine, you guys can come, but you have to stay in the back.' The girls should have more space."

Asserting themselves as women in hip hop -- typically a boys' club -- is the Sisterz's mission. In its two years of existence, the group has grown to encompass more than 50 twenty- and thirtysomething women who practice different elements of hip hop, though it is really more of an all-female hip hop network than a formal organization.

Saltzman, Rowlan, and Ramirez are the nucleus of the group. They put together performances featuring women in all aspects of hip hop, and several times a week they lead workshops at schools, summer programs, juvenile hall, and city-sponsored events to introduce girls to the four elements of the culture: DJing, MCing, graffiti art, and break dancing.

The classes are a critical part of their mission, a reaction to their own struggles to become participants, rather than mere observers, in hip hop. When they started learning to break about a year and a half ago, the Sisterz say, most of the b-boys they knew didn't take them seriously, and they had to cobble together bits of knowledge and teach themselves.

Now, as if to make up for lost time, they practice daily, for hours at a time.

"This is all we do," Ramirez says. "Eat, shit, talk, hip hop. When I'm sleeping, I'm dreaming about it."

In recent weeks, especially, the Sisterz have thrown themselves into overdrive. Not only has word-of-mouth secured them a flurry of workshop gigs, but the three leaders are also preparing for Scribble Jam, a four-day hip hop convention in Cincinnati, Ohio, where they, along with 17-year-old Gellaine "Bean" Rabiano, plan to compete in their first large break dancing competition. For Ramirez, Rowlan, and Saltzman, this will be the biggest test of their skills so far. They will be going head-to-head with some of the Midwest's best and most ambitious b-boys in a form of dance that has been dominated by men.

The Sisterz will likely be among very few women competing. But if there's hesitancy, they try not to show it. "Ohio, I don't think there'll be any female battles," Rowlan shrugs. "It'll be real male-dominated. You do what you can."

The Sisterz are not ones to readily admit vulnerability. If they hurt themselves during practice, they shake off the sting and keep going, even as their eyes glaze with pain. They deny nervousness before a break dancing competition, even when the fear is apparent on their faces. They use these poses as a way of showing that they are just as tough and skilled as the b-boys.

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