Being cool is almost a prerequisite for breakdance crews. Even female dancers are pushed to exhibit unflinching machismo as they strut to the stage or the center of a dance circle. But The Body Poets are different, and not just because of the full-body spandex suits they wear under their clothes when they perform.
Despite what the anonymity of their costumes might suggest, the members of the San Diego dance crew aren't afraid to be themselves. Whether it's in their live performances at college campuses or the YouTube videos they frequently release, The Body Poets have a style of dance that's focused more on fun and entertainment than technical skill and attitude. They incorporate Disney songs when they want, channel entertainment greats like Charlie Chaplin and Frank Sinatra and do a few moves that more traditional breakers might consider too effeminate or playful.
"We are all confident nerds," says Omeed Simantob, founder of The Body Poets. "We all watch kung-fu movies and try to emulate the moves, but we can't. I know more about Obi-Wan Kenobi than any one person should, and that's kind of our angle or take. We're just a group of friends who, instead of going to sporting events or going out drinking at nightclubs, we just thought we'd put on spandex clothing and dance for people."
The Body Poets have incorporated lasers and LED-lit costumes into their live performances and videos, putting on the type of high-energy shows fit for the Las Vegas strip. They've even been on America's Got Talent, where their explosive sets got them treated like boy-band stars by adoring fans. And a few of their videos have gone viral—one, a dance piece set to Canadian cover band Walk Off the Earth's take on Gotye's "Somebody That I Used to Know," has amassed more than 420,000 views.
But then there are the less-viewed videos exhibiting The Body Poets' more experimental and creative side, like the one featuring a mesmerizing improvised piece by Simantob set to an instrumental song from the French film Amélie. Or their Grocery Store series— the second video in the series was released last week—in which The Body Poets have fun in San Diego food markets after hours. The dancers look gleefully childlike as they run through the grocery aisles while no one else is around.
"It's similar to the secret sock elves or Toy Story," Simantob explains. "You know in Toy Story when the kids leave the room and the toys come to life? In my head, that's sort of The Body Poets' mythology."
CityBeat caught up with the group late on a Sunday night in the heart of the Gaslamp Quarter, where the dancers took over Goorin Bros. Hat Shop for a video they'll release on Jan. 29. They'd put out a last-minute call to female friends and fans a few days before, asking for women of all ages, sizes and professions to simply sit on a stool as the dancers serenaded them with a piece set to a Motown-style cover of One Direction's "What Makes You Beautiful."
"The song is really cheesy," Simantob laughs in a phone interview later, "but it's a good message . And it's funny to see the way a 17-year-old girl reacts to us and the way a 50- year-old mother reacts. That's what I wanted to capture."
Among the women in the hat store that night was Hannah Burke, a young mom wearing a necklace boasting the words "Navy Wife" hanging from a gold chain.
"My son's obsessed with The Body Poets," she explains.
"He dances along with their videos and has a little fedora he calls his Omeed hat.' He's autistic and he loves them . If he's getting into a mood, I put The Body Poets in front of him, and, usually, it will calm him down. There's something about their movements or costumes."
Simantob is really the heart and soul of the crew. A self-described "nice Jewish boy" who went to Torrey Pines High School, he found himself mimicking Michael Jackson moves in the middle of a dance circle at a breakdance event when he was 13 and has been hooked ever since. He taught himself how to dance by watching other people and took advantage of his proximity to Los Angeles by introducing himself to some of the industry's biggest names, like Slick Dogg and Dolla Bill, the dancers often credited with inventing the "passing the wave" move. Simantob has since positioned himself as a master in the art of popping and locking.
He established the group in 2005 when he was 18 and eventually dropped out of college to pursue dance. Two close friends, Nathaniel Perez and Eddie Gutierrez (or "Eddie Styles," one of the original members of the famed breakdance crew Jabbawockeez), are the only other permanent members; the rest of the cast rotates and varies depending on the gig.
The Body Poets have done well enough to become Simantob's fulltime job. He spends his time making connections and booking shows that include corporate events, college campus entertainment and private parties. He's also working on getting them on another television show, which is currently in development and can't be disclosed until spring.
"I'm barely, barely scraping by, though," he admits. "We have to get really creative with our financing, and sometimes we have to eat Top Ramen for a month, but it's absolutely worth it."
The look of The Body Poets has evolved. They tried wearing just the full-body spandex suits until their first failed audition for America's Got Talent, where they got buzzed because the judges couldn't seem to get over the sight of breakers in bodysuits. They started wearing fedoras, suits and ties and sometimes more casual street clothes over the spandex and made it through the auditions the next time around. One thing Simantob likes about the costumes is that people don't have to know their ethnicity.
"We don't have to typecast," he explains. "The brother doesn't have to be doing the brother's moves, so to speak . I'm Jewish, but I'm the one doing all the Latino solos."
He also thinks the spandex suits give him and his dancers the ability to pretend to be completely different people. They can be Motown singers, Michael Jackson or Frank Sinatra. Recently, they channeled the ballerinas in the "Waltz of the Snowflakes" segment in a hip-hop version of The Nutcracker put on by Culture Shock Dance Center.
"With the spandex, we don't actually have to look like a star as long as we move like them," he says. "To have an anonymous aesthetic makes the possibilities endless."
But Simantob's favorite quality of the spandex costumes is that they seem to give the dancers license to be as dorky or goofy as they want. That's one of the messages he hopes The Body Poets are communicating to fans.
"We want to be like, look, if you're a dork, be a comfortable dork," he explains. "We're not the cool breakdancers that you've seen in movies before."