As a child growing up in Wilmington in the South Bay, Michael "Boogaloo Shrimp" Chambers watched all the classic musicals. He was familiar with the dance steps made famous by Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Ginger Rogers and the rest. Nothing, though, captured his attention the way John Travolta did in Saturday Night Fever.
That slick disco choreography didn't just influence nightclub-hopping adults and Dance Fever contestants — it infiltrated schoolyards, too. "We were all just trying to do our interpretation of John Travolta," says Chambers.
Even then, Chambers learned the power that dance steps can wield. Dancing became a bridge between various groups in his ethnically diverse hometown. It was a way to socialize, and a way to capture the attention of girls, too. Chambers and his peers danced at school events and hit up roller rinks that played the big club tracks for a crowd too young for the nightlife.
But they didn't stay disco for long. Chambers took on the influence of what was happening in Los Angeles as b-boy and hip-hop culture grew. He learned how to do the robot and built off of that, developing a dance style that was distinctively his own.
Chambers was still a teenager when he went on tour with Lionel Richie. Not long after that, he got his big screen break as Turbo, a young street dancer, in the now-cult classic films Breakin' and Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo, both of which come out via Shout! Factory on Blu-ray on April 21.
On a recent phone call, Chambers' voice is as energetic as the dances he has performed in film and TV. He'll sing out lines from the songs he references, big '80s hits like "Mr. Roboto." His anecdotes are told with vivid descriptions, like how his mom resembled an "animated wax figure" when Marlon Jackson of The Jacksons showed up at Chambers' family home for dance lessons. He'll talk in detail about what inspired his dance style: everything from sci-fi movies to stop-motion animation to the ways animals move and people walk.
Of course, he talks about Breakin' as well. There's excitement in his voice when he recalls working with choreographer Jaime Rogers, who was in West Side Story. "We were all green," Chambers says of the dancers. Rogers, though, helped them adapt to dancing for film productions. "If you look at Breakin', it was always moving. It was always one wonderful dance number after the other."
The plot for Breakin' is nothing special: A frustrated jazz dancer finds inspiration on the streets and works with her new pals to hip the old farts of the dance world to this new style. Still, there's a sense that the people making the film tried to capture a specific pop culture moment that was happening in Los Angeles. Even the costumes had a certain authenticity; Chambers used his own wardrobe for his role. In fact, the headband that Turbo sports in Breakin' is one that Chambers picked up in Japan while on the Lionel Richie tour.
The films incorporate a few different dance styles that were popular at the time ("electric boogaloo" is more than just the sequel's catchy title) and used dancers who had credibility in the Los Angeles scene, like Chambers and co-star Adolfo "Shabba-Doo" Quiñones. In fact, some of the performers, Chambers included, appeared in the documentary Breakin' and Enterin', which centered around a dance club known as the Radio, or Radiotron, near MacArthur Park.
Chambers says the old meeting spot was a "safe haven" for dancers from across the city. "Los Angeles was plagued by a lot of gang and racial boundaries," he says. At the Radio, however, creative young people from different neighborhoods could hang out with each other. "People came with the right attitude to socialize and interact," he says.
Of course, cinema life and real life aren't the same thing. In Breakin', Turbo and his pal Ozone show off their skills at Venice Beach. While Chambers did spend time dancing by the ocean, his haunt was the Redondo Beach Pier. The South Bay teen would head to the Pier on weekends, where beachcombers watched as he pumped up his boombox and worked out a style he calls "liquid animation," a mix of fluid movements and stop-motion-inspired poses. At the beach, Chambers could end up with $100 or more inside his tip bucket at the end of a performance. "That let me know that I could earn a living with my talent," he says.
That he did. Chambers has worked on a lot of cool projects. He fondly recalls sharing his moves with both Michael and Marlon Jackson. He was also the basis for MC Skat Kat in Paula Abdul's "Opposites Attract" video and choreographed Bart's moves in the "Do the Bartman" video for The Simpsons. He even played the Urkelbot in Family Matters.
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There's still more that Chambers wants to do. He is working on his own music and is interested in doing more youth-oriented speaking engagements. Above all, he still wants to meet John Travolta and thank him for the inspiration.