Photo Gallery: Advanced breakdancing class at Funk Box Studio
PITTSFIELD -- City resident Andres Ramirez is one of North Street's newest, and among its youngest, business owners, but you won't see him hawking goods, sitting behind a desk or showing up to work in a suit.
Ramirez, 22, established The Funk Box Dance Studio back in January, with a focus and passion for breakdance (aka B-boying), and supporting local youths.
He has transformed the former Unusual Wedding Rings space, located inside Crawford Square at 137 North St., into an instructional studio, from savings he's earned over the past few years working as a breakdance instructor. The jewelry store is still open and moved into the front of building.
Ramirez says running a business hasn't been easy, "I'm really still learning how." But, he says, he's motivated by his naysayers.
"I had teachers in school who told me you're not going to be able to do anything with [breakdance]," said Ramirez, "It was the extra push, that doubt, that motivates me. My technique is to prove them wrong."
Originally from Bogotá, Colombia, Ramirez is a 2010 graduate of Pittsfield High School. It was during his PHS days that he discovered B-boying.
"I was watching [MTV's] ‘America's Best Dance Crew.' I had never seen breakdancing before. I had played soccer but wanted to be different. The variation of movements the crews did with their bodies and the musicality of it amazed me," he said.
So, he started practicing -- "and crashing and falling" -- in his own living room, watching and rehearsing the moves he saw on television and through YouTube videos.
Around 2009, he met Joshua "B-Boy Butta" McHugh, a Pittsfield resident and dancer.
"I owe it to him. He introduced me to the actual culture of breakdance, the B-boy and B-girl style. He showed me events and jams and competitions, and the documentary, ‘The Freshest Kids,'" said Ramirez.
The 2002 film features the likes of Afrika Bambaataa, Mos Def and Fab 5 Freddy, showcasing the history of the B-boy, from the "Boogie Down Bronx and beyond."
Ramirez, then 18, joined McHugh and others, who formed a breakdance troupe known as Fresh Trix Crew, and performed at Third Thursdays festivals and city block party events.
Soon, Ramirez outgrew his living room, and did a Google search for area dance studios. He said the area ballet studios didn't seem to fit his style, but something about Rhythms yoga, dance and wellness studio in Lenox caught his attention.
He and his fellow crew members met with Rhythms co-owner Chantal Leven, who took a chance on the teens and permitted them time to practice in the studio. Eventually, Ramirez began teaching classes there.
"I asked to try, and I started really liking it. I would come up with a plan and started teaching what I knew," he said.
After high school graduation, Ramirez would go to teach breakdance at the Pittsfield Family YMCA and Terpsichore Dance Center, with 20 to 40 students enrolled in his sessions, he said. He simultaneously worked for Hillcrest Educational Centers, which serves youths with a range of learning disabilities, behavioral disorders, trauma or other challenging life experiences.
"Working at Hillcrest helped me out," he said, "I saw how important it was for kids to move, to express themselves and what they're going through. Watching them, I was able to develop methods to help that process."
Feeling confident, ready for a change and for the challenge of teaching dance full-time, Ramirez engaged in another Google search this past fall: "How to open a dance studio."
He said he took cues from existing stories and posts from other schools, and began putting together his own business plan, looking at the range and rates other schools offered.
"I also put myself in the position of parents and thought about how much would a parent pay to teach their kid how to breakdance," said the teacher. (He charges between $80 and $110 per five-week session; $7 to $10 per drop-in class or workshop.)
Then, as a budding business owner, he had to find a space and figure out how much he'd have to pay in rent and maintenance.
Ramirez said he was walking down North Street when he saw a space for lease and a listing phone number, which led him to a meeting with Rebecca Weeks of Whaling Properties, and later another meeting with company president, George Whaling.
"The only thing he had going against him was the fact he's younger," Weeks told The Eagle in a separate phone interview, "but then I thought, I'm 30 years old, and I have friends my age and younger who are doing well for themselves, so I listened."
"I basically told them everything I had in mind for now and for the future," Ramirez said.
"We asked for a lot from him, from a business plan to marketing ideas, and he presented it perfectly," said Weeks. "He had such a thought-out plan and such passion, how could we say no."
So, Ramirez signed a lease for The Funk Box Dance Studio, and has since been learning how to manage both a business and teach and keep up with his own training. He said the latter two have come more easily than learning how to keep books and do cost and enrollment projections, but he's doing it.
"I have to really focus on what I have to do. I'm doing it by myself, though, I have ideas and support from friends. But my number one priority is making sure the kids and I are happy," he said, even if it means slightly upsetting neighboring tenants by cranking up the music. ("We're negotiating noise levels," he said with a smile.)
Ramirez is currently focused on running a core group of breakdance classes for youths ages 5 to 12 years old, at the beginner, intermediate and advance, as well as competitive levels. There are also classes in bucket drumming, kids Zumba and yoga.
Already one of his students, Collin "B-boy Big Foot" Layden, has earned the claim of winning the kids competition at The Cold Warz jam (competition) held in Worcester last month. From 3:30 to 8 p.m. this Saturday, Funk Box will also hold "Funkdation 2," a regional B-boy (and B-girl) jam, with one-on-one and group competitions.
But Weeks, who ended up enrolling her own niece in a class, said Funk Box is more than contests and winning.
"For kids who may lack confidence, or are just a little bit shy, it does wonders for them. I see a transformation in them every Saturday morning," she said. "We're lucky to have him not only in our building but in Pittsfield, as well."
In class and on the studio's Facebook page, Ramirez talks about the "5 Rules to a Creative Mind": 1) Be yourself. 2) Have fun. 3) Listen to the music. 4) Express. 5) Tell a story.
"Even now, whatever I'm feeling, I just put it all into the floor and my moves, and I feel happy," said Ramirez.
This spring, he's also expanding studio offerings to include an adult class in capoeira (a Brazilian martial arts form that combines elements of dance, music and rhythm), taught by Joel Moodie, and is working with Stefanie Weber to develop a rhythm tap dance class.
As for the studio itself, Ramirez says there's still work to be done on polishing up the place, including looking for local art to put on its walls to inspire himself and his students.
"I want to do and have stuff here that nobody in the Berkshires offers," he said.
Ramirez said he's also still doing instruction for schools, including spring sessions for Berkshire Arts and Technology Charter Public School in Adams and Stearns Elementary School in Pittsfield. He said he's also open to input and general support from the community.
"I want all my kids to grow themselves, to have a goal in life. Even if they stop dancing I just want them to take this experience and grow as a person and feel like they have something to achieve," he said.