Hip-Hop: A Culture of Vision and Voice

Breaking: The Dance Style of Hip-Hop

The story behind the ultimate 3-D dance


B-Terms to Know

The basic vocabulary of breaking—Hip-Hop's dance style include:

popping fluid movements of the limbs, such as moving arms like an ocean wave, that emphasize contractions of isolated muscles
locking snapping arms or legs into held positions, often at sharp angles, to accent a musical rhythm
top-rocking fancy footwork performed upright
down-rocking dance moves performed on or close to the ground
up-rocking martial arts strikes, kicks and sweeps built into the dance steps often with the intent of “burning” an opponent
power moves acrobatic spins and flares requiring speed, strength, and agility
freeze sudden halt of a dance step to hold a pose, often while balanced on a hand, shoulder, or head
cypher group of b-boys/b-girls taking turns in the center of the dance floor

Richard Colón was just 10 when his cousin took him to his first schoolyard bash in 1976. “Ah, I was just blown away,” he says in Jeff Chang's history of Hip-Hop, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop. “I just saw all these kids having fun...checking out the whole scene, and it was my first time watching the dance with the music being played...I just immediately became a part of it.”

He soon became a big part of it. By his early teens, the boy now immortalized as “Crazy Legs” became a trendsetter for breaking—a dance revolution still popping, locking, and rocking the world.

Making a B-line from the Bronx

As Hip-Hop culture rose from the streets of the Bronx, breaking spun up and stepped out from the concrete itself. Early b(reaker)-girls and b-boys like Crazy Legs and his Rock Steady Crew earned their skills on that hard ground, admiring each other's cuts, bruises, and “battle scars” as they pushed one another to evermore audacious displays of style and guts.

In keeping with Hip-Hop’s ethic of improvisation, breaking is often a create-on-the-fly dance style. It mixes super-quick footwork with body-torquing twists. Robotic movements flow into smooth whole-body waves before dropping into acrobatic leg flares that suddenly halt in mid-spin freezes that seem to defy gravity. Breaking is the ultimate 3-D dance—flipping high, spinning low, and putting a premium on physical imagination and bravado.

Getting on the Good Foot

Breaking has copied from many dance styles to generate this uniqueness. These styles include the Charleston from 100 years ago that loaned its characteristic leg kick and arm swing as a top-rocking move. The ad-libbing of the Lindy Hop, popular from the 1920s on, also lives in breaking’s style. For individual inspiration, though, no one can best soul singer James Brown. His high-energy dance moves in the 1960s and 70s have inspired b-boys and b-girls ever since, and his song “Get on the Good Foot” is one of breaking’s early anthems. Tap, steppin’, ballet, disco, and modern all continue to contribute.

Breaking has rummaged beyond the dance floor and stage to find many of its most dramatic moves. The whirling torsos and legs of gymnasts on the pommel horse are seen in leg flares, for example. Down-rocking reflects techniques from gymnastic floor routines.The world of hand-to-hand combat has also provided inspiration for b-boys and b-girls. Hip-Hop scholars often link breaking with capoeira, a martial arts dance with roots in Angola and Brazil that displays acrobatics, grace, and power. A full-blown showdown makes it clear why breaking contests are referred to as “battles” as dancers mix dance moves with shadow kicks, leg sweeps, and fake attacks in the faces of the competition.

Breaking is much more than a sum of moves from various dances and disciplines, though. It is a living, breathing art form unique every time dancers take their turn in a cypher (see sidebar). Through the years the Rock Steady Crew, the Mighty Zulu Kings, the Lockers, the Electric Boogaloos, and thousands of other individuals and crews have continuously renewed and refreshed the style with original spins, fresh freezes, and new twists on power moves—often laced with body-bending humor. Competition and innovation in breaking—as with all things Hip-Hop—is essential and inspired, and today its style inspires wherever people dance.



Sean McCollum
Original Writer

Editors & Producers

Lisa Resnick
Content Editor

Kenny Neal
Manager, Digital Education Resources

Image via Creative Commons; flickr.com user Néstor Baltodano

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