Cool ‘Disco’ Dan documentary connects D.C. breakdancer to a portrait of the past

February 6, 2013

She found California in Georgia.

When Rachel Bicknell put out a call on Reddit last month for the D.C. breakdancer she only knew as "California," she had no idea how long it would take to find him. She also didn't know that, thanks to the Corcoran Gallery of Art's "Pump Me Up" show about D.C. culture in the 1980s, the era of boomboxes and breakdancing wasn't as far away as it seemed.


A portrait of California by Simone Warren. Photo courtesy of Rachel Bicknell.

Bicknell lives in Memphis but took breakdancing lessons from California while growing up in the D.C. area around 1982. She was seeking her former instructor to give him a portrait her mother, Simone Warren, painted of him. She didn't know his real name. The Going Out Guide posted a blog entry asking anyone with information about California to send us their tips.

Soon after, two filmmakers affiliated with the Corcoran show -- Joseph Pattisall and Roger Gastman -- posted the trailer for "The Legend of Cool 'Disco' Dan" on YouTube, where it made its way to Reddit. Two minutes into the interviews and footage of D.C.'s outlaw hero Cool 'Disco' Dan, California appears. Mystery solved! Gastman and Pattisall put Bicknell and The Post in touch with California -- real name: Claude Ellis -- who is now a chef living in Atlanta.

California was born in D.C., but lived in California with his dad for much of his childhood, returning to the District when he was 18. He learned how to breakdance by watching "Soul Train."

"Downtown on F Street, there was a record [store] called The Wiz," he said. "The DJ would play the music, and I started dancing right in front of the record store."

California's dancing by the store became a regular occurrence, and before long, he was able to recruit other members for his crew, which was originally named the GQ Poppers, but later changed to the DC Breakers. As breakdancing became more popular, he entered competitions -- "We were the group that everybody wanted to challenge," he recalled. He said that one competition on the National Mall attracted thousands. The scene was as big as go-go, he said, and attracted similar sold-out crowds for their performances.

"We would block the whole sidewalk in Georgetown," he said. "We would stop traffic. They banned us from dancing, but we did it anyway."

He also received invitations from local dance schools to teach.

"I used to like seeing the kids, they were so amazed by it," he said. He once did a lesson for thousands of Girl Scouts at their camp. He also taught breakdancing at Gallaudet: "They said, 'If you teach us how to dance, we'll teach you how to sign.'" And then there were the classes at the Russell School of Ballet, where Bicknell attended when she was about seven or eight. He remembered his former student: "She had talent, she was a little fireball," he said. He left the Russell School for other teaching opportunities elsewhere in the District.

California and his break dancing students. Rachel Bicknell is the little girl in red. Photo courtesy of Rachel Bicknell.
California and his breakdancing students. Rachel Bicknell is the little girl in red. Photo courtesy of Rachel Bicknell.

By the early '90s, the craze died out. The bumps and bruises of breakdancing began to take a toll on his body: He still has scar tissue from scraping his skin on the floor. California later worked at a car detail business, and "fell into the hustling scene in D.C.," he said. To get away from the bad crowd he had found himself in, he moved to Atlanta to pursue another passion: cooking.

"I started learning my craft," he said. "I really like my seafood."

Now 49 years old, he specializes in classic Southern comfort food, and has worked at restaurants in Savannah and Atlanta. Right now, he's a chef at Studio Movie Grill, a fine-dining-and-a-movie concept theater.

California was approached by Gastman for the documentary as well as the Corcoran show -- items of the DC Breakers' memorabilia are included in the exhibition. He's planning to come to D.C. for the opening, and says he'll even be doing a little dancing at the "Punk Funk Throwback" show at the 9:30 Club with some of his other former breakdancers. "It's in my blood, I might shake a leg a little," he said. "I know I'll be showing off."

One item that he wishes he was able to lend to the Corcoran is Bicknell's mother's painting. When California saw the Washington Post story with the image of his portrait, he said it nearly brought tears to his eyes.

"This lady was an unbelievable artist," he said. "I really would like to just thank her for those memories."

He approached the curators about putting it in the show, but it was too late to add to the exhibit, said Gastman. California has arranged to visit Bicknell in Memphis to pick up the painting and catch up.

"If my mother was alive today, she would have thought this is the bee's knees," said Bicknell. Now, she's moved on to hunting for the subject of another one of her mother's portraits -- her childhood violin teacher.

Maura Judkis covers culture, food, and the arts for the Weekend section and Going Out Guide.
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