It’s the final class of Rec & Ed’s winter session, and break dancing teacher Maurice Archer is hosting a dance-off so his students can demonstrate their moves. As each takes a turn inside the circle, some spin, flip, and freeze like pros, while others dance upright to the beat of the music. Archer, thirty-nine–dressed in jeans, T-shirt, high-tops, and a black cap–cheers them all on with equal gusto.
“Ooh! Fresh!” he shouts. “You bring the energy!”
Archer’s taught break dancing for a decade, and performs alongside his students at local festivals and special events. Created in the 1970s by young African Americans in New York City, it’s named for “breaking limits,” he says. Some kids in his classes are just “breaking out of their shells,” he explains, while others challenge themselves to acrobatic feats.
Eight-year-old Caleb Shiguango performs with ease today. But he didn’t start out that confident, his mother, Sarah, says. Archer’s “down-to-earth and cool” vibe and his philosophy of making break dancing “more about effort than skill” helped Caleb prosper. Caleb says he just likes “all the cool tricks” that Archer’s taught him.
When Archer was a young boy in the eighties and break dancing was at its peak, his mother discouraged it as a bad influence. Now it’s a centerpiece of his life.
Born in San Antonio, Archer moved to Ann Arbor at age two with his mother and two older sisters after his parents divorced. But he stayed in touch with his dad, Maurice Sr., who’s since passed away. Archer calls him “my kung fu master, world-traveler daddy.” A Special Forces Ranger in the U.S. Army and a black belt, he taught Maurice Jr. martial arts moves by phone.
Raised in Ann Arbor’s tight-knit New Hope Baptist Church, Archer says he was “always very spiritual.” At age twelve he had a dream that called him to become a Muslim. His mother told him she supported his decision “if it’s going to make you a better man.” He explains that she had just two rules: graduate from high school, and don’t have a police record; he didn’t break either rule.
His sisters graduated from college (he also has a half-brother), but Archer went to work as a bodyguard, using his martial arts training at a Detroit firm that guarded rappers and executives. Married and divorced twice, he now shares custody of his five children with his exes. He’s says he’s now “very single,” but admits with a laugh that having five kids has hindered his dating life.
Archer’s passion for break dancing was reborn at Geechi Bleu–a “unique boutique” in a garage behind Fleetwood Diner that he operated with his second wife from 2006 to 2009. They hosted “Freestyle Fridays” that promoted break dancing.
As a martial artist, he says, he’d been taught that “movement was private, and there should be no ego or arrogance,” and at first he was reluctant to perform. But he says he realized that “by not doing the things you love, you won’t be able to shine your light on the world–and the world will be dark.”
His children–ages fourteen, eleven, nine, five, and four–often perform with him. They’re featured in YouTube clips, but the family star is the nine-year-old, Asad. On YouTube, he’s “Bboy Asad,” and a video of him busting a move as a diaper-clad toddler has over fifteen hundred views.
Archer pays the bills working as a U-M custodian by day, a job he’s held for fifteen years. He’s taking classes toward a commercial building maintenance certificate.
“Ann Arbor has done me well,” he reflects. “I’ve learned the language. There’s liberal face value and a superconservative undertone. It’s part of me because I was raised here. I’ve found a niche here [because] parents want their kids to be cultured.”
But he recalls some difficult moments being black in his hometown. When he was eleven, walking home after dark from an Ann Arbor park with some friends, a man shouted angrily at them from a truck.
An Ypsi resident, he says he’s also had frightening experiences there. A couple months ago he awoke to flashing lights and a police officer at his front door. Archer’s dog had gotten loose from his backyard. He was questioned by the cop for twenty minutes, he says. “He asked for my ID, and I refused. I was fed up.” Instead, Archer recited his driver’s license number from memory. He then gathered his kids to sleep on the floor in the back room, fearing for their safety.
The police car waited outside for half an hour. “I started crying,” he says. “‘Why does it have to be this way?’ People have died for a lot less.”
Despite such painful experiences, he says he’s learned to “shake it off.”
“Some people let it simmer; I don’t. I’m not simmering on anything unproductive. We’re gonna mix it all up and make some love gumbo–the spice is the hurt and the pain.”
He thinks about things he’s grateful for each morning in his car on the way to work. And on his roughest days, he says, he’ll often teach his best class, because “my heart is wide open.”
He also teaches break dancing at two Ypsi schools through Bright Futures, an EMU initiative that offers after-school programs in economically challenged school districts.
“He doesn’t get frustrated when you get frustrated,” says Jacobi Thigpen, age ten, who’s mastered a front handspring and a backflip after two years in Bright Futures. Pam Baker, the program’s site coordinator at Ypsi International Elementary, says Archer includes “social and emotional learning”–he sees “that mistakes are opportunities for growth.”
Archer says he incorporates respect, discipline, and self-awareness into all his classes. He eventually hopes to open a creative movement center in Ypsi that offers break dance, yoga, art, music, weekend camps, and community gatherings.
“He’s a mentor to my son,” says Patti King, single mother to six-year-old Emile, who’s at the Rec & Ed class. “Dancing with Maurice is his favorite time of the week.”
Archer, aware that his body “won’t work like this forever,” seems heartened that he has so many young fans.
“I may not be the best break dancer in the world,” he says. “But I know I’m pretty damn good at connecting with children.”