Photo by Andrew Sea James

Zoologic Empire: Return of the B-Boy

Lessons on breaking and life among goals of studio’s founding trio

“Bring it in!” Eric Salazar shouts to the nine kids who are contorting their bodies in various ways in the bright dance studio. The B-boys circle around him. “Great session. Zoologic in 3. 3-2-1 …”

“Zoologic!” they shout in unison.

Ranging in age from 6 to 15, the kids look exhausted but happy after the grueling two-hour session at Zoologic Breaking Training Camp. Class size varies each weekday, and sometimes adults and a B-girl or two appear.  

Zoologic’s main studio is in a no-frills gym between a 99-Cents Only store and a Chicago-style pizza joint in a strip mall at Eastern Avenue and Warm Springs Road. Zoologic’s classes are also conducted at several other locations across the Las Vegas Valley.

B-boying and other elements of hip-hop culture were born in the 1970s after the height of the civil rights movement. Breaking, known as breakdancing on the mainstream level (much to the chagrin of many hip-hop purists), is a form of hip-hop dance.

The dance is primarily expressed through four elements:

  • Toprock, moves that happen while upright or “up top.”
  • Footwork (or downrock), intricate foot movements that happen on the ground.
  • Power moves, windmills and air flares that everyone pictures when they think of b-boying.
  • Freezes, when movement halts, usually in a cool pose.

Putting these together, usually over a hip-hop track, make a B-boy (or B-girl) a breaker. Another integral part of breaking are battles, in which breakers go head to head, flexing their skills, often for a monetary prize.

Salazar, who has won countless battles, founded the Zoologic Empire in 2012 with Steve Corral and Justin Buenaventura. Salazar says it was a way to give back to the community.

“For a good two years here in Vegas, I entered every battle, and I won maybe 90 percent of them,” he says. “I liked it, but I reached a point where it got a little repetitive. I was [thinking], ‘All right, where’s this going?’

“The scene is giving me all this money. I’m just going to these jams and taking it, taking it, taking it. That’s what this culture is about—you gotta take, but you also gotta give back.”

This mentality is related to breaking culture itself. “Just like the moves: You take moves, but you gotta rewrite them and produce moves to put back out there. If not, you’re just taking so much,” Salazar says.

Teaching is essential for the culture to continue.

Corral remembers why he felt starting Zoologic was necessary. “We just did it because we felt that the breaking scene in Las Vegas is separated. There was no connection between the generations, and so we wanted to make the next generation. We wanted the b-boy scene to exist in Las Vegas because we liked it. We loved it.”

Buenaventura says he had similar motives, but his were a reaction to the lack of teachers when he was coming up as a breaker.

“All the OGs back [when I was younger] were gangster, and they didn’t want to teach us,” Buenaventura says. “Basically, they didn’t want to teach us because they didn’t want us to get better than them.

“From that point on, I realized that if I was ever in a position to teach somebody and pass down my knowledge that I would take that chance because I don’t want the same fate for the next generation. I want to share what I know.”

Buenaventura, Corral and Salazar came to breaking in their own ways as youngsters, and they’re pursuing it well into their 30s.

Steve Corral, a.k.a. B-Boy Steve

Photo by Andrew Sea James

Corral, who has toyed with several aliases, is known simply as Steve in the B-boy community. A B-boy name is an important facet, whether it’s self-determined or bequeathed.

His dance moves radiate power and energy, and his teaching style is authoritative. The kids take well to the coupling of discipline and high expectations.

“When I push people hard, it’s not because I don’t believe in them or I want to be mean, it’s because I actually really believe in them,” he says. “I’m as encouraging as any other instructor, but my means of encouragement does not come through softness. I push the kids because I believe they can do it, and I know their intelligence level. I see it. So I push.”

This confidence comes from his fearless immersion into breaking. Born and raised in Las Vegas, Corral spent most of his life on the eastside, where he discovered the dance form.

“I was a little kid, and I liked dancing. I liked being active,” he says, recalling his first experience.

“One of my cousins and his friends used to pop [another form of hip-hop dance]. I thought that was cool. I was like, ‘Oh, me, too.’ I used to pop with them. And then I saw one of them go on the floor, and I was like, ‘Me, too,’ on the floor. I saw more and more people on TV and just in general on the floor. I thought the floor stuff was awesome. It just caught me back then.

“Our community wasn’t so tightly knit in the pre-internet days, Corral says. “So, if you saw someone else breaking, and you breaked (and at that time there weren’t lessons), you were gonna battle this guy. That happened a lot. My first battle was at the Boulevard Mall. It was at the back of Photo Mania in, like, 1997. It’s hilarious. That’s old-school Vegas though.

“I don’t want to say I was self-taught, because I had a group of friends who I trained with,” Corral says. One of those friends was Buenaventura.

Justin Buenaventura, a.k.a. B-Boy Yust

Photo by Andrew Sea James

Buenaventura has been known as B-boy Yust since he was 16. The name started as a joke by friend who put a “Y” in front of names when he pronounced them. In this case, it stuck. Buenaventura has a calm presence, exuding both discipline and maturity. His fluid but structured moves convey self-assurance without pretension.

As for teaching: “You need to have that patience, and you need to captivate them,” he says of kids’ short attention spans. “You need to know how to command the class and keep their imaginations ignited.”

Born in Los Angeles, Buenaventura moved to Las Vegas when he was 13, where he also came to b-boying on the eastside.

“The first time I saw it, this little Asian kid did a flare and then he did a windmill. It just took my breath away,” he says. “That’s when I decided that I was going to start practicing and breaking.

Like Corral, Buenaventura’s first milestone was his inaugural battle.

“I was only breaking for about five months, and this guy who was really good called me out on the Strip, next to M&M’s World,” Buenaventura says. “The guy destroyed me. Killed me! I had no moves, and he was doing all kinds of crazy stuff. Windmills, one-handed jackhammers and stuff like that. That really inspired me to push myself and train a lot harder and get better.”

Birth of Knucklehead Zoo

The move to be more serious aligned him with eastsider Corral. In 1998, the pair became part of RNS (pronounced “Renaissance”).

“It was a party crew, it wasn’t even like a B-boy crew. It was just a bunch of party people,” Corral says. “We were just about breaking and dancing. We would go to parties and break, but we weren’t going to parties to get drunk and go crazy. We were just having fun on the dance floor.

“As we grew up a little bit, the B-boys [in RNS] started to get really serious about B-boying and battling, so we moved in another direction,” Corral says.

It was about 1999, when prompted by mutual friends, the more passionate members of RNS scheduled a battle with another Vegas crew, Knuckleheads. But when they came together, the battle never went down.

“We went to a barbecue one day, and we hung out with them. It was weird—we were just kind of cool with each other and clicked.”

The crews joined forces. Rather than simply adopting the Knuckleheads name as its own, they wanted to add a new element.

“One day, Leo [another crew member] said he saw a license plate with KHZ. He was like, ‘Z. Zoo, a bunch of animals, I like that.’ And it stuck. We were Knucklehead Zoo. Wild crazy animals,” Corral says.

The Knucklehead Zoo crew continued to practice together, push each other and reach new heights. Over the next few years, KHZ would go on to have success competing all over the world. They created an off-Broadway show, REWIND, and accumulated battle wins. In the process, the crew gained another few key members.

Eric Salazar, a.k.a. The Diss

Photo by Andrew Sea James

Salazar dubbed himself The Diss. First, it was a shortening of Eric the Disease, when he rejected a bequeathed name, Eric the Cure, after another b-boy who shared the same first name and a similar style of dress. “Man, I’m not Eric the Cure. I’m Eric the Disease. I don’t heal people, I kill people when I break.”

Salazar dabbled in several hip-hop elements, started winning battles and adopted a new name, an acronym for Destroying Intelligence Sideways. It was B-boy Dis Money, “because it was like, I was here for dis money.” Today, it’s simply, The Diss.

With a dynamic, complex and creative breaking style, his moves look effortless—which helps cement the diss he lays upon his opponents. As the proprietor, choreographer and instructor at Zoologic, he interacts gently with the kids, including them in building routines and letting them use their own creativity while on the floor. Like any good teacher, he leads by example.

“I want to inspire these guys and let them know they’re learning from someone who’s good and out there doing stuff,” Salazar says. “I want them to have that same work ethic. No days off, unless you need rest here and there. I’m just trying to push these guys every day.”

Born in the small town of Alamosa, Colorado, Salazar and his family relocated to the larger city of Durango, where he became interested in dancing. But when his family moved to Salt Lake City, he really became connected to breaking.

“I met some kids there that would break in school, doing windmills—they were already advanced. That’s what got me serious about breaking.”

His first battle was equally impactful to his B-boy future.

“The first battle I ever did was in seventh grade,” he says. “The whole school, maybe 400-500 kids made a circle on the field. It was so much that the teachers and security had to shut it down. They actually banned breaking at my school because of it. I loved battling at that moment. It was the beginning.”

As a member of Angels of Dead Crew, he began traveling and entering competitions out of state, including in Las Vegas.

“My first out-of-state battle was here in Vegas, and one of my closest friends, Mig, his mom drove us. That was the first time I saw b-boys outside of Utah. In Utah, the B-boys were good, but nowhere near what we saw when we came out here. That was a big push.”

It was at one of these battles where Buenaventura and Salazar connected.

“At the time Star Wars was really big. The Jedi had this particular haircut where they would have a long braid. I had one, and I noticed [Eric] had one. I walked right up to him, and I just introduced myself,” Buenaventura says.

Later, the partnership was solidified with a formal induction into the crew.

“When I met the Knucklehead Zoo guys, they recognized me and a couple of my other friends, Mig and Ali. We were making a lot of noise, winning competitions. They’re like, ‘Hey, you guys want to be part of the crew?’ We entered a couple of battles, and we actually won. It was a perfect fit,” Salazar says.

Much like how Buenaventura and Corral moved beyond RNS, a few members of Angels of Dead Crew were more serious than others. That’s when Salazar was forced to decide whether to finish school for graphic design or pursue breaking. He chose the latter and moved to Las Vegas to work with KHZ more regularly.

“That [the move] was, for me, the breakthrough to go international. At that point I did a lot of battles here, but I’d never had the opportunity to go to another country and actually compete. That’s a big deal in breaking. Once you step out, you’re on the world level. When I moved here, we got to go to the Battle of the Year, which is the dream for people. Knucklehead Zoo opened the door for me to go on a world scale,” Salazar says.

Early Accolades

Knucklehead Zoo’s impressive list of accomplishments includes competing in the Battle of the Year several times and traveling internationally to B-boy events and contests. They were featured in 2007’s Planet B-Boy, which documents their 2005 journey to the Battle of the Year.

KHZ members also went on to form Super Cr3w (along with Battle Monkeys and Full Force Crew). Super Cr3w, who won MTV’s America’s Best Dance Crew in 2008, also competed on NBC’s World of Dance in 2017.

Making money while dancing punctuated their success. But ultimately, breaking is an individual art, and many of KHZ members have had overwhelming opportunities in their individual careers.

Even as other KHZ members found other inspirations and outlets, Salazar continued to focus on dancing. He traveled frequently, performing and competing as a solo B-boy. Winning, and the drive to give something back to the community, led to the creation of Zoologic.

The Calling to Teach

Photo by Andrew Sea James

Teaching had always been part of his life, but Salazar was ready to take it to the next level. He started doing private lessons, but soon realized that the cost to the students’ parents was not sustainable. He then offered one-hour classes three days a week at a fellow crew member’s studio. From there, kids kept showing up, and they were serious.

“It wasn’t just like, come to be entertained by me. No, you’re gonna train. Nothing stops training,” he says. But the students weren’t the only ones feeling a benefit from the program. “Once we were breaking with the kids, it brought it back to the beginning essence.”

Corral, specifically, found that he was prepared for whatever opportunity crossed his path. “I’m 100 percent Las Vegas, I’m ready for everything. What are we doing? You tell me. We’re working, let’s work.”

His vitality garnered him some major (and sometimes outlandish) gigs. For a few years he performed with Cirque du Soleil’s The Beatles LOVE as a specialty act. He warmed up motorcycles and performed stunts for Headlights and Tailpipes, an automobile-themed topless revue at the Stardust. He also served as a dancer, stagehand and animal handler for The Flying Fercos

He then spent six years working as an international stage captain for Jabbawockeez, setting up shows in Australia and Las Vegas. His passion for working with kids and perpetuating the breaking culture led him to focus on teaching.

“I wanted to teach the [kids] about hip-hop in the community. … We want to create amazing B-boys and B-girls, but our ultimate goal is to create good people. And people that support the community,” Corral says.

Meanwhile, Buenaventura got his first taste for the small screen with an appearance on Star Search in 2003, when he and a few other KHZ members auditioned for Arsenio Hall.

“We did the audition, and we totally messed up. We did horrible, but we still made it. We made it to the second round, and we got robbed. They gave [the win] to some cloggers. But from that point on, we realized that we could make a living off of dancing,” he says.

Performing before 20,000 at an NBA playoff game in New Jersey in 2003 was another highlight. When he turned 29, however, Buenaventura decided to pursue a different passion—boxing.

“That sport has taught me a lot about life—not just being able to defend myself and have a six pack,” Buenaventura says. “Boxing has taught me that I’ve got to be patient and in the face of adversity that you cannot give up. Being in the ring is like life … there’s nowhere to run and there’s nowhere to hide.”

Frustrated working a typical office job and no longer dancing, Buenaventura had a revelation.

“Eric invited me to teach his class and seeing the kids’ excitement from breaking and seeing how much fun they were having, it really put everything into perspective.”

Character Building

Several kids have grown up with Zoologic, developing into talented B-boys.

Students, alongside KHZ and Super Cr3w, perform at venues such as the Great American Foodie Fest at Sunset Station and Culture Shock’s annual event, “Takin’ It to the Streets.”

Performing and competing build a palpable confidence in the diverse group. To see a 6-year-old comfortably relate with a 15-year-old is rare in the outside world, but a daily occurrence at Zoologic.  

As an extension of the character and passion they’re developing in the students, Salazar, Corral and Buenaventura also help out with Be Brave, a bullying-prevention program supported by Nevada Child Seekers.

When it comes down to it, these aren’t simply pupils and instructors. They’re a crew.

“We don’t really look at the kids as like, they’re the students. We do, but they’re really our friends. In reality, these are the guys that we break with. I have the Super Cr3w, and I break with Knucklehead Zoo. Those are my crews, but my real crew is Zoologic. The staff and all the kids. That’s who I want to break with,” Salazar says.

Ambitions Aplenty

Photo by Andrew Sea James

While Zoologic has already made an impact on Las Vegas and the B-boy community, its founders aren’t the types to sit pretty.

Corral, his fiancé and another partner just opened Ninja Karaoke, a bar in the Arts District. (Read more about the bar here.)  

Buenaventura thinks the law might be in his future. It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do. It’s never too late to have new goals. I love helping people,” Buenaventura says.

Salazar knows that Zoologic can become an institution in the Valley. In the last few months, the program has expanded to several dance studios and has acquired a roster of accomplished instructors, including Ben Stacks (Super Cr3w), J Funky, Rated G, Docta Trey and Leo Suede. Salazar envisions a stand-alone studio, but that’s not all.

“To me, the end result is not a studio. That’s just something to [advance] what we’re doing. We want to become a program that’s not just in one spot, but throughout the whole city. That way, kids that live in Summerlin have a consistent place to break. Kids that live in Henderson have a consistent place to break.

“They don’t have to drive all the way across town and then not be able to go because they can’t get there. For us, we’re just providing the outlets and giving opportunities for anyone who wants them,” Salazar says.

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