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When it comes to subway break dancing, the NYPD is killin’ it

Performer advocates say crackdown is pushing characteristic art out of New York City

An ongoing crackdown by police on dance and other performances in the New York City subway system — reminiscent of the blockbuster 1984 film “Footloose” — is driving many artists who've adapted their craft to the transit system above ground and, advocates say, out of the city.

The police “just want to reach their quotas,” said Andrew Saunders, a 20-year-old founding member of New York subway dance troupe WAFFLE NYC.

“Whenever they want to meet it, they know where to find us. But they don't know where to find the real criminals, killing people, stealing and raping.”

The New York Police Department (NYPD) has told local and national media that since Jan. 1, when Police Commissioner William Bratton took office, 46 subway dancers have been arrested for reckless endangerment. Subway performer advocates at BuskNY tell Al Jazeera that represents a drastic spike in arrests.

The NYPD did not respond to further questions from Al Jazeera on the subject.

Performances and other non-transit-related activity are prohibited on subway cars.

Prior to the crackdown, Saunders said he and his fellow members could bring home over $100 a day, but in recent months they’ve been lucky to bring home $50.

WAFFLE, which stands for “We Are a Family for Life Entertainment,” started performing what it calls Lite Feet dance — a combination of several different styles of dance that uses dancers’ hats, shoes and subway cars for props — in 2011.

Despite the crackdown, Saunders says subway dancing represented a chance to leave a neighborhood where many decry a lack of opportunities for professional and personal development.

Subway dancing “is our platform to stay out of trouble,” he said. “Our neighborhoods are not, like, safe — we come to downtown to stay out of trouble.”

It’s not just dancers. Kaylan Sherrard, also a member of BuskNY, has been performing “literary theory inspired non-narrative object-puppet shows” in the New York City transit system for five years. Sherrard dresses, often in drag or a gender-neutral body suit, and expresses philosophies like absurdism with old, mangled dolls and chalkboard signs.

In early April, he was arrested without explanation on the mezzanine under Times Square.

“I do these strange puppet shows when it's kind of late,” he said. “A cop came up to me and was being pretty disrespectful and rude to me. I was trying to figure out what I was doing wrong.”

Sherrard said the officer told him he was “disrupting the pedestrian pathway” at 1 a.m. Sherrard maintains that he didn’t break Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) Rules of Conduct, which allow performances outside subway cars that don’t obstruct the flow of foot traffic or use sound amplifiers without permits.

Law enforcement in the city is arbitrary, Sherrard said.

“For me, it's like it's illegal to jaywalk — it's one of these laws. Getting arrested for jaywalking in New York City is embarrassing, if not laughable,” he said.

Some have suggested that the crackdown on dancers is part of Bratton’s campaign to address crime from the bottom up — Bratton is known for what has been called the "broken window theory," the idea that reducing minor crimes will reduce overall crime rates. 

“If you start arresting artists on the subway all the time, artists are going to move to Canada and Europe. People here love art,” Sherrard said. “If you have a bunch of doctors and lawyers, that's great — life can go on. But if life is just perpetuating life, why live? That's why we have culture and art, is to produce meaning.”

Saunders plans to take his group’s act above ground. WAFFLE's reputation — largely due to Saunders' work handing out business cards and marketing to big companies — has garnered the team gigs with international companies looking to bring a quintessential New York edge to their publicity.

Saunders’ dance has adapted to the subway — troupe members spin on poles in what appears to be half a homage to burlesque and half Chinese acrobatics.

“We are developing a train-type tour bus,” he said. “We are looking at a way of doing this legally so we don't have to worry about the MTA bothering us anymore.” 

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