You might not know the name Moy Rivas but, chances are, you’ve seen his moves. He’s danced in dozen of national ad campaigns and feature films, and even traveled the world as a performer and motivational speaker. What Rivas does is technically called b-boying, but you probably know it as breakdancing. Popularized in the mid 1970s, breakdancing traditionally combines four base movement types known as top rock, down rock, power moves, and freezes. While it might sound easy enough, Rivas combines these moves with his own signature style to create a performance that is truly one of a kind, and that has made him one of the most famous breakdancers in history.
And like so many great heroes, Moy Rivas comes from humble beginnings in Houston.
“I first grew up in an area called Manchester,” he explains. “Manchester is a dying neighborhood. I mean, there’s nobody there. It’s surrounded by railroad tracks. It’s hard to get in and out of, mentally and physically. And then around 93’ or 94’, my family and I, we moved to another side, which is kind of the east side of Houston, Texas. It’s another area called Magnolia, which is also a very rough neighborhood. At that time it was just so bad that you could literally walk outside and get shot at for no reason.”
The story of Rivas’ childhood is not an uncommon one in the United States. He grew up in a rough neighborhood and was surrounded by a constant culture of poverty, crime, and isolation. That feeling he describes, of life being “hard to get in and out of, mentally and physically” is a perfect example of the desperation that can develop in these circumstances. It’s easy for many of us to look at neighborhoods with high crime rates and judge the actions of the people who live there, but as Rivas explains, sometimes crime is presented as the only viable option.
Luckily, as Rivas discovered, there was another way. Dance.
“It’s funny,” explains Rivas. “When I first started dancing…I mean, when I first discovered dancing, it was actually when I had a 9 millimeter in my jacket at a middle school talent show,” says Rivas. “I was trying to get this gun off my hip. I wanted to get it to my boy who was going to meet me after school, but all day long, all day long….I heard about the talent show for weeks because they posted all over school, but all day long, this day, my friend was like, ‘Let’s go to the talent show, let’s go to the talent show.’”
It was there that Rivas was introduced to breakdancing for the first time. One of the last acts of the talent show was a local breakdancing crew, and their performance was fundamentally transformative for Rivas. “All of a sudden,” he says. “You see these dudes come out, spinning on their backs, their hands, their heads and just top rocking, just coming out with style. I was just like, ‘Wow, what the…what is that?’”
The show changed Rivas forever. He set out on a new path, started practicing every day, and even worked hard to excel in school — because he knew it would give him the freedom to dance. “I immediately started practicing every single day. Everyday after school ‘til probably about 11 p.m. and I wasn’t even supposed to be out that late, but honestly, my mom or my dad couldn’t yell at me at the time because all my school work was done.”
It’s important to note that the change occurring in Rivas’ life was more than physical. Sure, he was learning to dance, and he was learning the discipline that comes along with rigorous training, but on a deeper level he started to develop a new ideology. Hip-hop, for Rivas, became a worldview.
“Hip-hop was created in the ghettos and kids started [breakdancing] because they had no other options,” he explains. “Their parents couldn’t put them in ballet. They couldn’t put them in another dance class. So they created their own dance. They created their own music. They created their own art. These are kids from the hood, same energy that I had. I didn’t have nothing and that’s the essence of hip-hop and the values that are represented are peace, love, unity and having fun. Once you sit in that foundation, you have no choice, but to love, have fun, create that unity and have peace in your life. Immediately, that’s what hip-hop did.”
Motivated by a love of breakdancing, Rivas quickly became known for his skills. It wasn’t long before he was able to go pro. “Right when I graduated high school, I did want to attend college, but I just had so many opportunities that I knew that if I don’t take these opportunities, I don’t know if I will ever get them again. So I ran with them and I started just traveling.”
All of a sudden, Rivas had an opportunity that had seemed impossible when he was a child. He was able to travel the world, to make some real money, to “get out” of the dying neighborhood that he was raised in. “I wanted to do some movies, commercials. Some of my friends were kind of getting involved in that and so in 2003/2004, I ended up moving to L.A. without having any idea how much things were going to cost, how hard it was going to be, who I was going to be up against, but I knew that my drive and my passion wasn’t going to…it wasn’t going to stop me, no matter what.”
Rivas would go on to enjoy several years of success in his career. That alone would make his story a happy ending, but what’s really inspiring is what Rivas decided to do with his new found opportunities. In 2011, he founded Break Free, a Houston community center/ hip hop dance studio which has served hundreds of youth since its founding.
“The first time I got an idea for Break Free, it was probably when I was about 15 or 16-years- old,” says Rivas. “I remember just growing up and it was tough finding places to practice. Whether you practiced at home or at a friend’s house, there was other times where we would even go to the mall because the mall had very nice floors. We would go to the mall and dance in the corner until we got kicked out. At one point, I was just like, Man, why can’t there be a place specifically for us? Why? Why can’t we be accepted?’” What Rivas has created with Break Free is a place for kids, kids who are in the exact same situation that he was in, to find a way out. To find hope. “One of the main things that we focus on in Break Free is positive hip-hop education.” For Rivas, hip-hop is more than a style of music, or dance, or anything else. It’s a positivity-based belief system. Whether or not you like breakdancing, whether or not it’s your style, there’s no denying the positive impact that it can have. “We focus on positive energy and we really believe that regardless of where you come from, what you’re dealing with, these values will allow you to break free and that’s where Break Free comes from. It doesn’t come from breaking or break dancing. It comes from actually instilling these values into your life.”When Moy Rivas went to that talent show, his life was headed in one of two directions. The first included the gun that he was carrying, the other was breakdancing. He chose to follow positivity, and he dedicated himself to doing what he loved. Now, he shares that with others, and works hard to make sure that kids today can have the same opportunities that helped him rise out of the poverty-cycle.“I’m very honored and humbled,” he says. “We worked so hard for so many years to get to a level where breaking and hip-hop is being accepted in a certain way and to have Break Free be the only hip-hop school in the world is amazing to me. We’re the only full-fledged, like full service hip-hop school in the world. That is insane. That doesn’t even make sense, but it exists and it exists right here in Houston and it’s ours. Break Free all day everyday. That’s what we do. One of a kind and it’s a blessing.”