The Story of Boogaloo Sam as Told by Izel Gaye

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We all have that one piece of clothing, be it a fresh new hat or a favorite pair of jeans, that when we slip it on it makes us feel like a million bucks.  You walk a little taller and feel as though your outlook for the day may be brighter simply by adorning yourself in this one item.  For Izel Gaye, a 58-year-old man who has lived most of his life on the west side of Fresno California, that special item is a pair of dancing shoes that were given to him by his friend, Poppin’ and Boogaloo icon Sam Solomon. “When he gave you something,” Mr. Gaye reflected in a recent oral history, “It was like oh boy you better hang on to this… it’s got the magic touch.  Then when I put ‘em on I feel like I’m him, got me a little nice stride and everything.”[1]

Boogaloo Sam Solomon, 58, is also from the west side of Fresno and is known by dancers across the globe for pioneering the Boogaloo dance style in the late 1970’s.  Boogaloo is commonly associated with Poppin’ but actually features a different type of body movement performed by the dancer that differentiates the two styles. Tim Solomon, Sam’s brother and a Poppin’ legend in his own right, explains the difference between the two styles: “Boogalooin’ is rollin’ your body.  When you move, you go in different positions your body normally wouldn’t go.  Poppin’ is more jerkin’ or harder style, and we combined them both.” [2] The innovative dance style that emerged from the two brothers’ collaboration has propelled Sam to a career in dance that has allowed him to travel the world teaching, demonstrating and judging a dance that has its roots in Fresno.

Sam is also central to the development of hip-hop dance and culture.  Over the years he has taught dance groups across the globe his particular style and rhythm, but has always been drawn by an internal pull back to the west Fresno neighborhood where he grew up. As Thomas Guzman-Sanchez writes, referring to a young Sam Solomon just making a name for himself in Long Beach California in the late 1970s, “After a few months run (on the road)… Sam would become homesick… and move back to his life out in west Fresno.”[3]  Clearly Sam had an affinity for his neighborhood and the people he had grown up with, which is paramount to understanding the positive influence that Sam has on many people from west Fresno, and why he would desire to take on a role as a mentor to his friend Izel Gaye.

Much has been written about Sam and his place as an originator of Boogaloo and Poppin’ dance style. Articles such as Ben Higa’s 1996 “Electric Kingdom” and Fresno State professor Sean Slusser’s recent KCET essay “Straight Outta Fresno” document this history, yet little has been said about Sam and his life and influence on Fresno’s west side community. During Fresno State’s Popping Project we conducted an oral history with Izel, who has been a friend of Boogaloo Sam for nearly 30 years, and gained crucial insight into their friendship and, thus, a sense of Sam’s connectedness with his west Fresno neighborhood.  As Izel remembers it, not only did Sam provide the gift of his magical pair of dancing shoes, but through their continued friendship he has served as a role model for Izel.

The two met in their thirties while patronizing Hunt’s, a west side night club. Izel remembers that when they walked into the club everyone stopped what they were doing to see Sam strut in like he owned the place. Izel had struggled through his early years with poverty and homelessness thanks to the west side’s underfunded education system and lack of employment opportunities, and he went to the club to bet with patrons who doubted Sam’s dancing abilities.  Someone would say, “Hey, I bet you 10 dollars Sam can’t bust this move,” he explained, laughing. “I’d say to Sam go on and bust that move, thank you for the money.”[4]

This provided Izel with some occasional spending money, but also showed him the correlation between image and success.  As Izel recalls, when he was living on the streets, he would wear any type of mismatched clothing without much thought about it.  Once he met Sam and developed a friendship with him, Izel began to see the carefully crafted image of success that Sam projected.  As a result, Izel put more thought into his own appearance, which ultimately allowed him to develop his own individual style and a more positive self-image.

Aside from frequenting west side night clubs and dance halls in Fresno, Sam and Izel often went to local eateries, held barbecues, and worked on cars together.  Sam enjoyed working on cars and was always willing to tinker on any friend’s vehicle in his spare time. Izel fondly remembers that Sam fixed his car on more than one occasion. The two African-American west Fresno residents also enjoyed venturing into the great outdoors on short fishing trips to local fishing spots around the valley. Sam loves to fish and on one occasion the two of them joined Sam’s friends on a trip near Oakhurst in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  Once they arrived to Bass Lake and settled in, Izel began fishing from the shore while Sam was out not to far from him in a boat bobbing along the choppy water of the lake.  Izel was armed with a heavy duty reel with forty-pound test line when, suddenly something hit the line and pulled out all the drag.  Fearing that there might be some sort of lake monster or perhaps just a giant fish, Izel and Sam both got scared. Izel announced that he was done fishing and was ready to go home, much to the amusement of Sam who got a kick out of the whole ordeal.

In addition to friendship, Sam provided his friends with material support. Izel remembers a difficult time when he was bouncing around between homeless shelters like the Poverello house or at a place he referred to as “the Barrel,” when he found himself with nowhere else to go.  When Sam found out that Izel was staying down at the shelter he insisted that Izel stay with him at his house, telling him he was welcome to stay for as long as he needed.  To show his gratitude, Izel helped cook and clean around the house in order to try and earn his keep.  Looking to help, Izel often headed down to the food bank in the morning and collected whatever food he could get to bring back to the house.  Izel would get some donuts from the shelter and tell Sam, “I hit me a lick, got some donuts, I’m coming through,” which Sam always appreciated since he has a bit of a sweet tooth.  By providing Izel with a roof over his head, Sam gave back to a member of his community.

Through the stories and recollections that Izel shared with the Fresno State Popping Project, we are able to piece together a picture of Sam and his generosity to members of his community in west Fresno.  It is clear that in Izel Gaye’s mind, Boogaloo Sam deserves to be recognized in Fresno not only for his accomplishments on the dance floor, but also as a person who was always willing to lend a helping hand to a friend in need. “Sam Solomon has always been part of my inspiration for having a family. I told him one day I’m gonna have a house and a daughter just like you,” he says, grinning widely. “I got a house and a daughter just like him, that’s what made me want to go up instead of going down.”[5]  Because of the friendship and mentoring that Sam devotedly provided, Izel now lives a stable life with a home and family of his own. Izel was, in turn, honored to participate in the Popping Project and hopes that the event will draw renewed local interest in Boogaloo Sam’s undeniable talent and place in the history of Fresno dance and culture.

This post is part of our Straight Outta Fresno series. To learn more about the project, click here

About the Author

T.J. Medina is an undergraduate student majoring in History at Fresno State.  He will be graduating this Spring and looks forward to pursuing a teaching credential in the next step of his education.  T.J. was proud to be a part of the Fresno State Poppin’ event held on campus this Fall as well as being part of the Valley Public History Project which collectively documented oral histories from a variety of valley locals, as he believes in the importance of preserving the stories and experiences of people throughout the San Joaquin Valley.  Growing up T.J. moved around the U.S., living in places like Massachusetts, Virginia and Washington.  Living in these history-rich environments played a major role in shaping his enthusiasm and passion for history.

References

[1] Izel Gaye, Oral History Interview 2016, Fresno State History Department, Valley Public History Project: Preserving Our Stories.

[2] Higa, Ben. “Electric Kingdom.”  Rap Pages Special Dance Edition, September 1996.

[3] Guzman-Sanchez, Thomas.  Underground Dance Masters: Final History of a Forgotten Era. Praeger Publishing, Santa Barbara, CA. 2013.

[4] Izel Gaye, Oral History Interview 2016, Fresno State History Department, Valley Public History Project: Preserving Our Stories.

[5] Izel Gaye, Oral History Interview 2016, Fresno State History Department, Valley Public History Project: Preserving Our Stories.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Solomon introduces himself as “Boogaloo Sam, specializing in boogaloo.” His brother Timothy Solomon introduces himself as […]

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