Antonio Castillo, owner of the Lab D.C. Breakin’ School, strikes a pose. The break dancing studio in Northwest hosts classes in the acrobatic dance style. (Mark Jenkins/For The Washington Post)

Like break dancing itself, Antonio Castillo’s Takoma dance studio began spontaneously.

“I started the school mainly as a private practice space for myself,” Castillo said recently, while a group of pre-teen boys warmed up behind him. “But what ended up happening was people would come and ask me if I taught classes. I obviously would say yes, and it kept growing from there.”

The Lab D.C. Breakin’ School will celebrate its third anniversary Sunday with the Rock the Box Breakin’ Tournament. It’s a showcase for the acrobatic dance style, also called B-boying, that includes lots of spinning and more than a little attitude. Adults from throughout the United States and Canada will compete, and children will face off in teams of two. The event will run from noon to 5 p.m. at Takoma Park Middle School, across the Maryland line from the Lab’s Willow Street studio.

Castillo, who was born in Mexico, has always been a dancer, he said. He started breaking at 14, two decades ago and five years after his family moved to Northern Virginia.

“It was just something I saw on TV,” he said. “Also, I was trying to show off for my sister at her birthday party.”

His moves quickly proved influential, he said. “When I started dancing, 50 people started dancing. All my friends started breaking.”

“I don’t know if it’s me, or it’s the dance, or it’s maybe a little bit of both,” he added. “But it’s interesting how people gather in groups and want to learn this thing.”

A similar process occurred with the Lab, which Castillo opened soon after moving to the District. The beats of ’80s-style hip-hop instrumentals attracted visitors.

“Eventually it got to the point where schools would start asking us to teach after-school programs,” he said. “Now we had kids all over the school wearing our shirts.”

The Lab has nine teachers who work in school programs or the studio. It has had as many as 400 students in a year, and today has about 250, Castillo estimated, “who stuck with it. Some kids come and go.”

“I always tell people that breaking was developed in New York in the Bronx, but it’s changing here, in Washington, D.C.,” he said. “And it’s changing because of the kids.”

It’s also changing because of Castillo and his adviser, Ellen Zavian, a local sports attorney and George Washington University law professor whose 9-year-old son, Justus Swan, is a student at the Lab. Zavian helped Castillo organize the United Breakin’ Association, a trade group. It’s modeled on the NFL Players Association, where Zavian used to work. Complementing that group will be a league, the Competitive Breakin’ League.

“This is going to become the NBA for break dancers, basically,” Castillo said. Among his projects is a two-day competition to be staged at a health and fitness expo at New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium in June.

“The precedent he is setting is really based on a sports premise,” Zavian said. “As soon as you put in the element of sponsorships and you try to package it, it’s necessary to have rules, regulations, rankings and so forth, which is what we’re developing.”

Castillo has a black belt in tae kwon do, and when he began teaching kids to break, he discovered that many were familiar with martial arts. So he developed a color-coded ranking system, with shoelaces rather than cloth belts.

“That is so unique, so clever,” Zavian said. “People can embrace it. The kids want to achieve it.”

She also extolled the skills the Lab’s students are learning. “Teaching from kid to kid is so critical,” she said. “You often see them correcting each other or showing them how to do something. And that’s a critical skill as you grow older, for cognitive thinking, for group thinking.”

“This is the perfect fit for a lot of kids who haven’t found their place yet,” Castillo said. “It helps them find an identity and build character and confidence. I’ve seen it time and time again.”

Yet the Lab is also a place for young B-boys and B-girls who just want to have fun. Castillo’s plan to make breaking more like a sport “doesn’t eliminate the art and the passion my son has,” Zavian said. “My son doesn’t like to compete. He just likes to dance.”

Jenkins is a freelance writer.

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