From the Inferno to the Pulpit:
Break Dancing and the Art of Cultural Hermeneutics
By David Ramos
Flashback: The year is 1978, my older brother is joining the Marines and my father allows me to go with him for his going away party to a club—a real club—the Inferno in New York City. I just graduated from junior high school and my greatest fear is not being allowed to get in, I arrive with my large afro, decked out in seamless pants which were all the rave back then, and don a fierce face in a youthful attempt to look older. The Inferno is known for its infamous bass, every time they open the doors one can hear the powerful deep thumps and once inside it feels as if the bass bounces off your chest. We arrive and the line snakes down the block, my brother knows the bouncers, they open up the velvet ropes on the spot and we get VIP treatment. My brother hung out with his friends as my buddy Ben and I spent the night “rocking.” It wasn’t known as “break dancing” back then. We would dance to all the break dance anthems—both versions of The Mexican, by Babe Ruth and the other by the Bombers, Dance to the Drummers Beat, and one of the favorites for Ben and I, War’s Galaxy. But the crème of the crème, the grand daddy of all break-dance songs was none other than Just Begun by The Jimmy Castor Bunch. Whenever that unmistakable trumpet introduction would hit there were screams from the dance floor above warning and beckoning all those in the lounge below, JUST BEGUN!!! JUST BEGUN!!! We would drop everything, leave drinks, abruptly leave people in mid-conversation, and race to hit dance floor in ecstatic frenzy lest we miss the highlight of the whole evening. Break-dancers were appreciated by all, as the club drew a circle around us. It was amazing! For that moment in time we breakers ruled the night and held the people in captivation. I became a Christian and attended a hippy church that were the last vestiges of the Jesus Movement but later attended a fundamentalist church that would purge me of anything that even had the semblance of dance. They seemed to frown on everything, which worked for me at the time because I truly needed the discipline.
Flash forward: August 27, 2005. I am scheduled to minister in the Bronx (Where break dancing began) at a youth service. They have rappers and break dancers, which isn’t anything new for me because we know that break-dancers even danced for the Pope in Rome. However, at one moment, while the DJ spun on the pulpit, I hear that distinctive trumpet introduction and to my surprise and delight—it’s Just Begun! I can’t believe it and I sing every line as a crew of young men, perform their acrobatic maneuvers and back spins on the altar! I can’t believe that I lived to witness Just Begun used as an instrument to reach young people for Christ! I marvel to witness Just Begun move from the Inferno to the pulpit! While I know that this is still controversial and not the cup of tea of many, it nevertheless, did serve as a point of departure for many young people including myself. Using Niehbuhrian cultural hermeneutical categories, this was—for me—definitely a case study for the category of the Christ of Culture. It took almost thirty years for some churches to have the daring and the imagination to allow urban youth an authentic expression of talent and used for positive purposes. I pray that we do not have to wait another thirty years for our next cultural hermeneutical breakthrough.
Postscript: My break-dance buddy Ben and I are now both staff ministers at Faith Fellowship Ministries in Sayreville, New Jersey where I just came on staff. I am in anticipation because in a very real sense, it’s only Just Begun!
Post, Postscript: Last year Gigi and I decide to go to SOB’s for dinner (Sounds of Brazil). Guess who was the featured live band that evening? The Jimmy Castor Bunch. They had members of Rock Steady perform and I ran into the the main bouncer of the Inferno!