There’s a lot to say about being self-made, stories of the people who pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Shit, that’s the American dream. But it’s often not until success is realized that the hardships of the journey are fully understood. In this series, we look at the Las Vegas locals in the thick of it—dancing along the line of triumph or defeat. Because let’s face it, we learn best when the struggle is real.
“Bring it in!” Eric Salazar shouts to the nine kids spread out in the bright breaking studio. Ranging in age from 6 to 15, the B-Boys all circle up around him. “Great session. Zoologic on 3. 3-2-1…” “Zoologic!” they all chorus in unison.
This is what every two-hour Zoologic Breaking Training Camp ends with. All the kids look tired but happy, and after watching what they did for the last two hours, it’s amazing that they’re standing at all. Each weekday the class size changes, sometimes there are adults, and others a b-girl or two shows up, but there’s always someone in the gym, ready to train.
The group’s main studio is located in a no-frills gym nestled between a 99 cent store and a Chicago style pizza joint in a Green Valley strip mall, but they also teach classes at several studios across the valley. Eric runs Zoologic Empire with his Knucklehead Zoo crewmates Steve Corral and Justin Buenaventura.
Eric started Zoologic in 2012 as a way to give back to a community he felt he was doing too much taking from.
“For good two years here in Vegas, I entered every battle that happened, and I won maybe 90-percent of them. I liked it, but I reached a point where it got a little repetitive. I was like, ‘All right, where’s this going?’” he remembers.
“I was thinking the scene is giving me all this money. I’m just going to these jams and taking it, taking it, taking it. I feel like that’s what this culture is about, you gotta take but you also gotta give back.” Which ties back to breaking itself. “Just like the moves. You take moves, but you gotta rewrite them and produce moves to put back out there. If not you’re just taking so much.”
In giving back through teaching, comes the continuation of the culture, because the excitement and skills can be passed on. Steve remembers why he felt Zoologic was essential.
“We just kind of did it because we felt that the breaking scene in Las Vegas is kind of separated. There was no connection between the generations, and so we kind of wanted to make the next generation. We wanted the B-Boy-scene to exist in Las Vegas because we liked it. We loved it.”
Justin had similar motives, but his were a reaction to the fact that there were no teachers when he was coming up as a B-Boy.
“All the OG’s back then [when he was younger], they were gangster and they didn’t want to teach us. Basically, they didn’t want to teach us because they didn’t want us to get better than them.” He smiles.
“From that point on I realized that if I was ever in a position to teach somebody and pass down my knowledge that I would take that chance because I don’t want the same fate for the next generation. I want to share what I know.”
Teaching breaking or B-Boying in a formal capacity is a new concept itself, introduced by the generation that Justin, Steve and Eric represent. They absolutely didn’t have any professional training on their own come up, and that’s just one of the advantages that the younger generations have. With the explosion (and reliance on) the Internet, B-Boys and B-Girls have access to footage that older breakers could only dream of.
B-Boying was born alongside the other elements of hip-hop culture in the ‘70s and from the same struggle. And much like the other pillars of hip-hop, it’s hard to imagine how it will continue for generations to come, especially since things look nothing like they did back when it was born.
Breaking, which is known as breakdancing on the mainstream level (much to the chagrin of many hip-hop purists), is a form of hip-hop dance. The dance is expressed through four elements of its own. Toprock are the moves that happen while upright or “up top.” Footwork are the crazy foot movements that happen on the ground. Power moves are the windmills and air flares that everyone thinks of when picturing B-Boying. And freezes are exactly as they sound, a halt of movement, usually in a cool pose. Putting these all together, generally over a hip-hop track, is what makes a B-Boy (or B-Girl) a breaker.
Like hip-hop’s fascinating history, each of Zoologic’s instructors have their own storied past that connected them with breaking and the culture surrounding it. Each of them picked it up around 12 or 13 years old, far older than some of the kids they’re teaching now.
Steve Corral toyed with several aliases in the past, but is known simply as Steve in the B-Boy world today. This is fitting for a man who makes such an indelible presence on his own. When he dances he radiates power and energy, and when he’s teaching he is authoritative but also fun. The kids respond well to the coupling of discipline and high expectations.
“When I push people hard it’s not because I don’t believe in them or I want to be mean, it’s because I actually really believe in them. I want to push people to be their best, I want to push myself to my best.
“I’m as encouraging as any other instructor, but my means of encouragement does not come through softness. I push the kids because I believe they can do it, and I know their intelligence level, I see it. So, I push.”
This confidence is likely a reflection of his own ability to conquer anything. Born and raised in Las Vegas, Corral spent most of his life on the East Side, and that’s also where he discovered breaking and everything that came with it.
“I was a little kid and I liked dancing. That was it. I liked dancing, I liked being active.” He remembers.
Without the Internet or any form of fast paced communication, breaking was discovered through experience.
“I remember one of my cousins, him and his friends used to pop. I thought that was cool. I was like, ‘oh, me, too.’ I used to pop with them. And then I saw one of them go on the floor, and I was like, ‘me too,’ on the floor. I saw more and more people on TV and just in general on the floor. And I thought the floor stuff was awesome. It kind of just caught me back then.
“Our community wasn’t so tightly knit in the pre-internet days. So, if you saw someone else breaking, and you breaked, at that time there wasn’t lessons, you were gonna battle this guy. That happened a lot. My first battle was at the Boulevard Mall. It was at the back of Photo Mania, in like 1997 or something. It’s hilarious. That’s old school Vegas, though.”
“I don’t want to say I was self-taught, because had a group of friends who I trained with.”
One of those friends was Justin Buenaventura.
Buenaventura has been known as B-Boy Yust since he was 16. The name was bestowed upon him by a joking friend who put a Y in front of everybody’s name, and in this case, it stuck. Justin has a calm presence, exuding both a sense of discipline and maturity. His dancing is the same, structured moves mixed with fluidity, conveying an air of self-assurance minus any pretension. This self-control easily transitions to the kids he’s training. With seemingly endless patience.
“That’s the key to teaching kids because kids have a very short attention span. You need to have that patience and you need to captivate them. You need to know how to command the class and keep their imaginations ignited.” Justin says.
Born in Los Angeles, Justin moved to Las Vegas at 13 years old when his father was presented better opportunities in the valley. Growing up on the East Side, off Charleston and Nellis was where he first was introduced to B-Boying.
“The first time I saw it, this little Asian kid did a flare and then he did a windmill and it just took my breath away. From that day forward, that’s when I decided that I was going to start practicing and start pursuing breaking.” He remembers.
But in the 90s, there wasn’t any formal training for breaking, instead, kids learned from watching and surrounding themselves with other breakers.
“I got into dancing just to have fun and hang out with my friends and really just to try to be cool.”
Much like Steve, Justin’s first memorable milestone was his inaugural battle, and it too was about as Vegas as it gets.
“I was only breaking for about five months and this guy who was really good, he called me out right there on the strip. Right next to the M&M factory.
“I had my very first battle right there on the Las Vegas strip and the guy totally destroyed me. Killed me! I had no moves and he was doing all kinds of crazy stuff. Windmills, one-handed jackhammers and stuff like that. From that point on that really inspired me to push myself and train a lot harder and get better.”
That move to becoming more serious aligned with fellow Eastsider, Steve. It was in 1998 that the pair became part of a crew called, Renaissance or RNS.
“It was a party crew, it wasn’t even like a B-Boy crew. It was just a bunch of party people, ultimately.” Steve says. But a few of the members of the crew weren’t really in it just for the party.
“We weren’t so much about partying, we were just about breaking and dancing. We go to parties and break, but we weren’t going to parties to get drunk and go crazy. We were just having fun on the dance floor.” He remembers.
“As we grew up a little bit, the B-Boys
started to get really serious about B-Boying and battling, so we moved in another direction. We just had more passion for the dance than we did for getting drunk and partying really hard.” Steve continues.
The more passionate members of RNS scheduled a battle with another Vegas crew, Knuckleheads due to some prompting by mutual friends. But when they all came together; the battle never went down.
“We went to a barbecue one day, and we hung out with them. It was weird, we were just kind of cool with each other and clicked.” Steve remembers with a smile.
The crews joined forces, but rather than simply adopting the Knuckleheads name as is, they wanted to add a new element to it.
“One-day Leo [another crew mate] said he saw a license plate with KHZ. He was like, ‘Z. Zoo, a bunch of animals, I like that.’ And it kind of stuck. We were Knucklehead Zoo. Wild crazy animals.” Steve says.
The Knucklehead Zoo crew would go on to have unprecedented success around the world including an off-Broadway show “REWIND,” countless battle wins and more. But in the process, the crew gained another few key members.
Salazar dubbed himself The Diss, but it came through many variances. First, as a shortening of Eric The Disease, when he rejected a bequeathed name, Eric The Cure after another B-Boy who shared a similar style of dress. “Man, I’m not Eric the Cure. I’m Eric the Disease. I don’t heal people, I kill people when I break.” He says of the joke that created a name that stuck. Then in true graffiti writer style, it transformed into an acronym for Destroying Intelligence Sideways, then when he started winning battles it was B-Boy Dis Money, “because it was like, I was here for dis money.”And today, it’s simply, The Diss.
His breaking style is dynamic, complicated and creative and he makes it look effortless, which really seems like the ultimate insult, taking his name another step further. As the proprietor, oft choreographer and instructor at Zoologic he interacts gently with the kids and makes them feel like they matter. Including them in building routines and letting them use their own creativity while on the floor. But like any good teacher, he leads through example.
“I want to inspire these guys and let them know for one, they’re learning from someone who’s good and out there doing stuff. I want them to have that same work ethic. No days off, unless, you need rest here and there. I’m just trying to push these guys every day.”
He was born in the small town of Alamosa, Colo. and relocated to the slightly larger city of Durango as a child and started dancing at the age of eight. But, it wasn’t until his family moved to Salt Lake City that he really became connected to breaking.
“I met some kids there that would break in school, doing windmills, they were already kind of advanced. That’s kind of what got me serious about breaking.”
His first battle was equally impactful to his B-Boy future, and caused a commotion at his middle school as well.
“The first battle I ever did was in seventh grade.” He remembers. “The whole school, maybe four or five hundred kids made a circle on the field. It was so much that the teachers and security had to shut it down. They actually banned breaking at my school because of it. I loved battling at that moment. It was the beginning.”
With his crew, Angels of Dead Crew (AOD), he began traveling and entering competitions out of state, including visiting Las Vegas.
“My first out of state battle was here in Vegas, and one of my closest friends, Mig, his mom drove us. That was the first time I saw B-Boys from out of state, outside of Utah. In Utah, the B-Boys were good, but nowhere near what we saw when we came out here. That was like, a big push.”
And Justin and Eric connected at one of these battles.
“At the time Star Wars was really big. The Jedis had this particular haircut where they would have a long braid. I had one and I noticed he [Eric] had one. I walked right up to him and I just introduced myself.” Justin remembers.
Later, the partnership was solidified with a formal induction into the crew.
“When I met the Knucklehead Zoo guys. They kind of recognized me and a couple of my other friends, Mig and Ali. We were making a lot of noise, winning competitions. They’re like, ‘Hey, you guys want to be part of the crew?’ We entered a couple battles and we actually won. It was a perfect fit.”
Much like how Justin and Steve moved beyond RNR, a few members of AOD were more serious than others. That’s when Eric was forced to decide whether to finish school for graphic design or pursue breaking. He chose the latter and moved to Las Vegas to work with KHZ more regularly.
“That [the move] was, for me, the breakthrough to go international. At that point I did a lot of battles here in the country, but I’d never had the opportunity to go to another country and actually compete. That’s like, a big deal in breaking. Once you step out, you’re on the world level. When I moved here, we got to go to the Battle of the Year, which is like, the dream for people. Knucklehead Zoo opened the door for me to go on a world scale.” Eric says.
Knucklehead Zoo has an impressive list of accolades and accomplishments collectively including competing in the Battle of The Year multiple times and traveling the world to showcase their skills. They were featured in the 2007 documentary, “Planet B-Boy,” which follows their 2005 journey to Battle of The Year. KHZ member also went on to form Super Cr3w (along with Battle Monkeys and Full Force Crew). Super Cr3w who won on the reality show, “America’s Best Dance Crew,” in 2008 also competed on “World Of Dance” in 2017. Making money while dancing punctuated their success. But, ultimately, breaking is an individual art, and many of the KHZ members have had overwhelming opportunities in their individual careers.
Eric’s career has been focused on dancing, even as other KHZ members found other inspirations and outlets. He traveled the world, performing as a solo B-Boy and winning, a lot. Which eventually led to the creation of Zoologic. Teaching had been part of his life since he was a young B-Boy, but he was ready to take it to the next level. He started out doing private lessons, but soon realized that the cost to the parents was not sustainable. He then offered classes three days a week, an hour a session at a fellow crew member’s studio. From there, kids kept showing up, and they were serious.
“It wasn’t just like, come to be entertained by me. No, you’re gonna train. Nothing stops training.” Eric says. But the students weren’t the only ones feeling a benefit from the program. “Once we were breaking with the kids, it brought it back to the beginning essence.”
Steve, specifically, found that he was prepared for whatever opportunity crossed his path. “I’m 100-percent Las Vegas, I’m ready for everything. What are we doing? You tell me. We’re working, let’s work.”
His energy and vigor garnered him some major (and sometimes outlandish) gigs. For a few years he performed with Cirque du Soleil’s Beatles LOVE as a specialty act, B-Boying everywhere. He warmed up motorcycles and performed stunts for Headlocks and Tailpipes, a burlesque car show, and he also served as dancer, stage hand and exotic animal handler for “The Flying Fercos.” This job had some strange duties.
“We had the tigers walking down the street, cause they had to go for walks, and there was like four Mexican police in front of us telling people to go inside. And then we had a police officer with a machine gun on the truck driving behind us slowly. And we went for like two-mile walks through the city. The city approved it because they wanted us to draw attention to show, so, that was crazy.”
He then spent six years working as an International Stage Captain for the Jabbawockeez, setting up shows in Australia and at home in Vegas. His passion for working with kids and creating longevity in the culture eventually led him to focus on teaching via Zoologic.
“I wanted to teach them [kids] about hip-hop in the community, but our goal was also to create good people. We want to create amazing B-Boys and B-Girls, but our ultimate goal is to create good people. And people that support the community.” Steve says.
Justin got his first taste for the small screen with an appearance on “Star Search” in 2003, when he and a few other KHZ members auditioned in front of Arsenio Hall.
“We did the audition and we totally messed up. We did horrible, but we still made it. We made it to the second round and we got robbed. They gave it [the win] to some cloggers. But from that point on that’s when we realized that we could make a living off of dancing.” Justin remembers.
An opportunity to perform at an NBA playoff game was another mark on his belt as he was down on the court in front of 20,000 onlookers. When he turned 29, however, he decided to pursue a different passion for a while and he took up boxing.
“That sport has taught me a lot about life. Not just being able to defend myself and have six pack and all that.” Justin laughs. “Boxing has taught me that I’ve got to be patient and in the face of adversity that you cannot give up. Being in the ring, it’s like life…there’s nowhere to run and there’s nowhere to hide. That’s one thing that I love about the sport and that’s one thing that I’ve also carried not only into teaching breaking but in all aspects of my life.”
It was when he was frustrated at a typical office job, no longer dancing, that Justin had a revelation.
“I was working at a chiropractor’s office, working 40 hours a week. I had a normal office job and I wasn’t really happy. Yeah, I was making money but I wasn’t really happy and I was no longer really dancing at that time, either.
“Eric invited me to come teach his class and all I could say was feeling the energy and seeing the kids’ excitement from breaking and seeing how much fun they were having. It really put everything into perspective for me.”
Zoologic has been in business for over five years and each weekday there is someone in class ready to train. Several kids have grown up with the program, progressing into extremely talented B-Boys, in their own right. These aren’t just cute kids trying to break, they are real B-Boys and B-Girls with legitimate skill.
The kids, alongside KHZ and Super Cr3w perform at places like Sunset Station’s Foodie Fest, Culture Shock’s yearly event, “Takin’ It To The Streets” and also compete in battles in Vegas and beyond. The confidence that it builds in the diverse group of kids and teenagers is palpable. To see a six-year-old comfortably relate with a 15-year-old, where there’s no negativity is a rare occasion, but it’s a daily occurrence at Zoologic Studio.
As an extension of the character and passion they’re developing in the students, Eric, Steve and Justin also help out with Be Brave, a bully prevention program supported by Nevada Child Seekers. Further emphasizing the positive impact that breaking can have on a community. But, when it comes down to it, these aren’t simply pupils and instructors. They’re a crew.
“We don’t really look at the kids as like, they’re the students. We do, but they’re really our friends. In reality, these are the guys that we break with. I have the Super Cr3w, and I break with Knucklehead Zoo. Those are my crews, but my real crew is Zoologic. The staff and all the kids. That’s who I want to break with.” Eric says.
Zoologic Empire has already made an impactful mark on Las Vegas and the B-Boy community at large, but Eric, Steve and Justin aren’t the types to sit pretty. They each have ambitions, both in the works and in the bank for what’s next.
Steve, alongside his fiancé, just opened a bar in the vibrant Art District called Ninja Karaoke (1009 S Main St). And although this renaissance man has no problem accomplishing the unimagineable, he found opening a business from scratch to be quite the dance.
“So far this journey’s been fun. It’s been a lot of hard work, a lot more than I expected. I’m used to breaking, which is physically tiring, but this is like, another level of tiring.” He laughs.
Justin and Eric both have big dreams for Zoologic’s potential, but Justin also thinks law might be in his future.
“It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do. Right now I’m kind of in a transitional period where I’m trying to figure that out, because I am still young and it’s never too late to have new goals.
“I love helping people. I realize that is my calling, that’s why I continue to do what I do here at Zoologic.” Justin says with an easy smile.
Eric knows that Zoologic has the legs to really become an important institution in the valley, and he intends to push it to that point. He envisions having a stand-alone studio that they can call their own, but that’s not all.
“To me, the end result’s not a studio. That’s just something to progress what we’re doing. We want to become a program that’s not just in one spot, but throughout the whole city. That way, kids that live in Summerlin have a consistent place to break. Kids that live in Henderson have a consistent place to break. They don’t have to drive all the way across town and then not be able to go because they can’t get there. For us, we’re just providing the outlets and giving opportunities for anyone wants them.” Eric says.
Originally published in Vegas Seven Magazine 2017