What happens when a nice Jewish boy, with a good head for business, develops a penchant for breakdancing?
Just ask Pittsburgh native Barry Rabkin, who has been street dancing since he was 14 years old, and now operates CypherStyles, a unique online store for all things hip-hop, that has grown in the five years since it opened to a site that sells $250,000 in merchandise annually.
“There is a big demand [for hip-hop products], not so much in Pittsburgh, but worldwide,” said Rabkin, who graduated from Beloit College in 2005 with a psychology degree, and is now working on his master’s of business administration degree at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business.
Rabkin began learning dance moves at raves (large electronic music festivals) as a teenager, and honed his craft at college, where he helped start a breakdancing class. He is primarily self-taught.
Despite the fact that breakdancing has been a popular form of artistic expression since the 1970s, Rabkin found it difficult to find the supplies he needed to dance, such as protective gear. From this dearth of product availability, he saw an opportunity.
“The resources were few and far between,” Rabkin said. “I had taken some entrepreneurship classes and I decided I wanted to explore the business end of things.”
Rabkin began selling hip-hop merchandise out of his college dorm room, eventually establishing CypherStyles in 2006.
Among the products sold at CypherStyles are instructional and competition videos, including a series of about 50 videos featuring Rabkin himself.
CypherStyles has also developed some of its own products, such as deluxe headspin beanies that feature “super tough padding” for people who spin on their heads, Rabkin said.
Despite the time demands of running CypherStyles, Rabkin still goes dancing regularly, haunting local dance venues such as the Shadow Lounge in East Liberty, and Belvederes in Lawrenceville.
Rabkin recommends breakdancing as a good method of exercise.
“Street dancing, in general, is one of the best workouts you can do,” he said. “It is a good combination of strength training, cardio and flexibility. And if you work at it, you can see progress really fast.”
Rabkin has called Pittsburgh home since the age of 5, when his father, Michael Rabkin, moved his family here to take a job at UPMC. He grew up in Highland Park, near the zoo, and celebrated his bar mitzva at Temple Sinai.
He is a big fan of Pittsburgh.
“I was just in Los Angeles for a hip-hop event, and it made me appreciate Pittsburgh all the more,” he said. “The cost of living here is incredibly reasonable, and it is hardly ever congested. People are friendly, and there is a lot of Pittsburgh pride — people feel good about being from here, and for good reason. I feel like, for the money, Pittsburgh is one of the best places to live in the world.”
Rabkin still identifies strongly with his Judaism, and sees a spiritual component to breakdancing, and even to his online business.
“Street dancing has a positive focus on general wellness, a healthier way of life,” he said. “I think a lot about Mahatma Gandhi’s quote, ‘Be the change you want to see in the world.’
“The importance of giving back to your community is something that was ingrained in me by my family and religious education at an early age,” he continued. “You are defined by how much you give, not how much you take. My mother has taught Sunday school for years, and my father does grand rounds at the VA center. CypherStyles is my way of giving back and leaving the world a little better than I found it.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)