Long thought to be an American President without any significant or positive societal impacts to his credit, Former President Gerald R. Ford has recently been identified as one of the primary influencers of the break dancing boom in the early 1980's.
Known more for his reluctant acceptance of the Presidential office as a result of Richard Nixon's resignation, President Ford admitted then that his primary focus was to keep the country moving forward, and out from the shadows of the Nixon Watergate scandal.
But it was Ford's unique blend of physical attributes that feeds the core of this amazing story. His foibles mixed with his athletic prowess seemed to be a hidden gift, of sorts. Not the kind of amalgamated talent that might have featured him or served him well on stage in song, dance or speech however. Anyone witnessing a President Ford stage appearance will tell you that he was not necessarily a well spoken man nor was he known for being gifted on his feet. As one peer politico commented back in 1977, "That guy has the balance of a Possum, with feet the shape and utility of bone-in hams, trying to carry a watermelon over his head. Something is gonna hit the floor."
President Ford never politicized the fact that he was actually a college athlete. Voted Most Valuable Player by his University of Michigan teammates in 1934, Ford played the Center position for this great college football program. His position on the team sheds more light into the physical gifts and limitations of this new break dancing legend. "Crouched and planted at center? Gerry was a rock", says former teammate William "Butch" Beaterman. "Stand him up and throw him a bit off balance? He fell like a house of cards".
But that seems to be only half of the story. While his teammates were aware of his strength and agility at the center position, they also noted his athleticism when he did lose balance or get knocked down.
"Gerry had a way of turning a fall into a fast recovery", says Beaterman. "Somehow, as he was knocked on his ass, he could whip his legs in a clockwise motion and use that momentum to plant a cleat in the turf and pop back up to a standing position. It was amazing actually. None of the other guys on the team could do it."
"And that's what we noticed when he was President", says Bobby Simpson, one of the founding members of the NYC Kicks, a neighborhood dance troop. "Back in the early days of Good Foot dancing, with pioneers like Afrika Bambaataa leading the way, the dance style definitely saw a change when Ford took office".
Referring to several televised falls by President Ford, Simpson and some of his fellow street dancing artists noticed how fast the President would pop back up on his feet. "The dude showed amazing athleticism while on his back. He had a move to take advantage of centrifugal force, using it to spin himself back to an upright position. We had to learn that move", says Simpson.
Practicing the Presidential fall and recovery dance move led to other street dance groups elaborating on those steps to create their own versions. Modifications and elaborations led to other personalization of new dance steps, and that is when the newer form of "Break Dancing" grew beyond the boundaries of New York to achieve national recognition.
In 1981, filmmaker Charles Ahearn featured the same New York dance troops in a movie called "Wild Style". It was a blend of the current music of the day mixed with the hottest new Break Dancing moves. Dance insiders from the Bronx were reluctant then to disclose where the inspiration for many of the new dance moves had come from. "We used to call it 'Kickin the Gerry' back then", says Simpson, "but we never really gave the man credit for inspiring the move".
It was understandable. Any urban street dancer back in the early 80's, white or black, would have trouble giving credit for a revolutionary dance style to a bald, retired, former President who was famous for falling down. "I mean, how do you do that without insulting the man", says Simpson.
The inventive dance style continues to morph and expand, moving away from individual athleticism and performance towards team oriented dance moves and choreographed stage performances. "It's huge now, with specialty television competitions and the inclusion of props and advanced lighting. Crazy, crazy dance moves", says Simpson. "Those young guns needed to know where their break dancing roots come from".
Though many younger regional dance teams remained skeptical about a former President influencing a revolutionary dance style, they began to realize the truth once seeing video footage from a few of President Ford's falls. The last video clip in the series showed the President taking a tumble down the last few steps of Air Force One. Laying on his back on the tarmac, the President kicked his legs clockwise, spun 720 degrees and popped back up to his feet. "Amazing", said one young stepper from L.A. "That old white dude had skills".
President Gerald R. Ford passed away in 2006 at the age of 93, but a new legacy now lives on. Gerry Ford will be remembered as President, College football champion, husband, father, and break dancing pioneer.