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Duluth break-dance pioneer celebrated

In the mid-1980s there was a teenage break dancer in Duluth who went by the street name Def Rok, who could windmill with the best of them, whether it was on makeshift cardboard stages or in competition at all-aged dance clubs.

Willie Kruger
Willie Kruger helped make break dancing popular in Duluth in the mid-1980s. A year after his tragic death, a break-dancing competition will be held in his name. (1984 file / News Tribune)

In the mid-1980s there was a teenage break dancer in Duluth who went by the street name Def Rok, who could windmill with the best of them, whether it was on makeshift cardboard stages or in competition at all-aged dance clubs.

A year after his death, his friends and family are hosting an event that gets to the core of the man they remember. The Willie Kruger Dance Contest is from 7-11 p.m. today at Horseshoe Bar & Billiards and will feature two break dancing contests, one for dancers ages 16 to 20 and the other 21 and older.

Each dancer gets two minutes to tick, lock and do the robot dance just like members of the Duluth City Crew and Dynamic Body Rockers used to do. Non-break dancers also can compete.

"The thing about Willie, he never stopped break dancing," longtime friend Ebony Carter said. "The rest of us grew out of it when we got older. Willie still break danced -- I want to say the last time I saw him out, even in 2010. He kept it alive for us old schoolers."

Kruger died on Nov. 5, 2010, when he was scraping paint off a house and a ladder he was moving came in contact with a power line that had 8,000 volts of electricity going through it. He was 40.


A 1984 story in the News Tribune credits the Carter family with bringing break dancing to Duluth from Ohio, where the kids spent the summer. Then 16-year-old Alvon Carter, Ebony Carter's brother, taught kids to dance at the YMCA. Kruger, who embraced the trend, is shown in a photograph that ran with the story, mid-move as he rehearses for a show at Washington Junior High. Kids danced in the street in the Central Hillside and held friendly competitions at Faces, a no-alcohol teen club that opened in 1985.

Back in the day, Kruger arranged break dancing showcases at West Duluth bars, said his cousin John D'Auria who is helping to organize the dance competition.

"We'd go in and dance for a half hour," D'Auria said. "The bar would pay our manager and Willie would take his hat off and pass it around the bar."

While the old-school dancers haven't regularly bounced across the floor doing the worm or executed a back spin, D'Auria said that after Kruger's funeral they all made a circle and dusted off some old moves in memory of their friend.

"I hadn't done the robot in 20 years," D'Auria said. "I said 'One more time for Willie.' "

Jerry Fredrickson, owner of Horseshoe Bar & Billiards, is planning to make the venue extra dance-friendly with the addition of a 10-by-12 foot piece of linoleum over the carpeting. He got to know Kruger as an adult, though he never saw him dance.

"Everybody loved the guy," Fredrickson said. "He always had the greatest smile you ever saw. It was infectious. He touched a lot of our lives."

Break dancing didn't end when the 1980s segued to the grunge scene. It still exists among hip-hop enthusiasts and is especially big in Minnesota, said Alexander Susuki, a senior at the University of Minnesota Duluth and a member of the Funk Soul Patrol, a group dedicated to hip-hop culture. The style has evolved from the original moves seen in cult-classic films like "Beat Street" and "Breakin'." Susuki and friends plan to dance in Saturday's competition.


"Hip-hop is an evolving and ever-changing culture," Susuki said. "The level of intricacy, the level of power moves, the level of creativity and originality. With the youths comes a lot of new ideas and a lot of individuality. I think the game has definitely changed a lot."

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