Philly martial arts instructor by day, ‘Napalm’ on the dance floor

Randi Fair

Go into Ryan Wagner’s Bensalem martial arts studio, and he doesn’t quite walk to shake hands.

He bounces.

At 29, he may be one of the nation’s best competitive break dancers, a sport that has lured him to Japan, Korea, and a few European countries.

He’s also unfailingly positive — so friendly that it’s hard to believe he goes by the name “Napalm” on the dance floor.

“I want to burn people I battle with,” Wagner said.

The world of competitive break dancing isn’t like the football, where one league dominates the entire sport. Instead, break dancers — they call them selves b-boys or b-girls — compete in all manner of exhibitions and contests.

Wagner has won several of them. On Aug. 22, he’ll compete in Orlando, Florida against 15 other dancers for the right to represent the U.S. in one of the biggest: the Red Bull BC One World Finals, which will be held in Paris.

The dancers compete by going one-to-one in dance-offs. One dancer shows some moves, then the other. The dancers do this a few times until the judges declare a victor.

As a dance style, it has its roots in the early days of hip hop, and it’s still marked by it’s fancy footwork and gravity-defying spins.

It’s a young man’s sport that can be rough on the body, Wagner says. He’ll be one of the oldest competitors in Orlando, where the U.S. finals will be held.

He credited his longevity in the sport to diet (he said he eats chicken, brown rice and vegetables for nearly every meal) and a rigorous training regimen.

He basically goes from practicing martial arts all day to his home, where one room has been cleared out to make space for b-boy practice.

“I assume he rests every once in a while, but I’ve never seen it,” said Lucas Pincione, 18, an instructor at Wagner’s martial arts studio.

Martial arts, he said, has taught him how to fall and move in a way that avoids injuries.

That doesn’t mean he’s never been hurt. A torn adductor muscle in 2010 kept him from dancing for two years.

“I couldn’t do legs, so I focused on my upper body,” Wagner said. “I’d get on my knees with a sword and do thousands of swings per day.”

Starting at a young age

For Wagner, the path to b-boying began when his parents signed him up for martial arts lessons at age 7.

His mom, Deby Wagner, said she signed him up because he had very little self-confidence. He was, she said, so shy he wouldn’t raise his hand at school even if he knew the answer to a question.

He’s now a fifth-degree black belt, and the owner of a martial arts studio.

A few years into his training, an instructor showed him some basic breakdancing moves. Napalm was born, but had to teach himself.

“I literally threw myself on my face into the ground a bazillion times,” Ryan Wagner said.

Deby Wagner said Ryan learned from mail-order VHS tapes. She’d sit with him in the living room as he rewinded them and paused them, trying to dissect how all the moves were done.

Then she’d help him practice.

“He’d say ‘Mom, hold my left foot while I try to kick my other one into the air,'” Deby said.

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