Hip Hop Dance is a style of dance with deeply rooted historical, social, cultural contexts.

Hip Hop culture started among the youth in the Bronx, New York in the 1970’s as a way to escape inner-city gang violence. They embodied Hip Hop in the way they dressed, talked, danced, and expressed themselves. Hip Hop was a way of life that revolved around creativity, identity, and respect.

KRS-One defines the etymology of “Hip Hop” in this lecture below.

Basically, “Hip” = present “Hop”= action.

It is a movement that represents the youth and the freedom to learn, grow, and evolve. But for you to be Hip Hop you must actively participate in the culture.

The four main elements of Hip Hop culture are Deejaying (music), emceeing (rapping), graffiti (writing / art), and breaking (dance).


Hip Hop Music and Hip Hop Dance

Wanna know how Hip Hop Dance started… in two words?

Dance parties!


Hip Hop DJs

what is hip hop dancePhoto by The Guardian

DJ Kool Herc, AKA the “Father of Hip Hop,” would start block parties at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the West Bronx, AKA the “birthplace of Hip Hop.” Kool Herc would simply play music and invite the community to come out.

During these get-togethers, he noticed that people got the most hype during the breakbeat of a song. The breakbeat is the instrumental, percussive section in funk and R&B records.

To extend the breakbeat for a longer time, Kool Herc isolated the section and used two turntables to replay them continuously on a loop. (Price 165) Longer breakbeats = more time to go off!

Grandmaster Flash further innovated the art of DJing by using his headphones to pinpoint exactly where the beats started and ended. This allowed him to “precue” the beats and make seamless transitions between the breaks. (Price 156)

Afrika Bambaataa also expanded turntabling techniques. By the late 1970s, they and other DJs were regularly partying it up on the streets – spinning, scratching, cutting, mixing for the partiers.

what is hop hop dancePhoto by Voices of East Anglia

Hip Hop Dancers

Breaking, later known as breakdancing, was born through these parties.

“The intertwined nature of the DJs and MCs trying to keep the dancers moving on the dance floor with innovations in music as well as the efforts of the dancers to “one up’ each other contributed to flexible and organic creativity.” (Dimitriadis 181)

Herc called these dancers break boys (b-boys) and break girls (b-girls) because they danced to the breakbeats.

Early breaking incorporated drops and swift footwork (top rock). It also involved gestures associated with mock-battle forms (uprock), and movement on the ground including spins, freezes, and more (down rock).

“Footwork and toprock both require being able to think in three dimensions, the ability to create your own moves, and the originality to imbue every individual movement with style, flavor, and originality.” (Rajakumar 19)

Breaking has roots in salsa, Cuban mambo and rumba, Brazilian samba, Jazz dance. It also drew from martial arts like kung-fu and Capoeira, a form of Brazilian martial arts.

Breaking and battling was test of athleticism, attitude, originality, and dominance. B-boys and b-girls would dance against each other hoping to earn pride and respect through one-upping their opponent.

The dancers, DJs, and emcees all created an environment where everyone was respected for who they were and how they expressed it.


Hip Hop Party Dance

There were a number of other moves that emerged from the Hip Hop scene, like the Snake, Chicken-head, Cabbage Patch, Running man, and more. The Happy Feet was an iconic move in the 1980s, always danced to the rap song “The Show” to get the party started.

Social dances weren’t created for competition and displays of athleticism like breaking. These dances were for people to share with each other and create a sense of unity. It was their way of partaking in the culture of dance without the intensity of training that bboys and bgirls engaged in.

As the dance scene expanded, multiple Hip Hop clubs sprang up all over New York. Two popular ones were Latin Quarters and Union Square. Dancers came up with new moves and showcased them at clubs.

This was called “party dancin’” – I mean, that’s exactly what they were doing!

The Whip, Nae Nae, Dougie, Cat Daddy are examples of new school party dances that came from songs. (Brandon Allen Juezan, Versa-Style Dance Company)

Other “Hip Hop” Styles?

Often, styles like Popping/Boogaloo, House, Locking, and Waacking are grouped under the Hip Hop “umbrella,” but these are actually their own individual styles of dance with their own techniques, vocabulary, and origin.

The social dances that developed in the 1980s like Locking and Popping are more accurately described as West Coast funk styles.


Street Violence To Street Dance

It’s no exaggeration to say that Hip Hop saved lives.

Dance, DJing, graffiti, and MCing were outlets for those struggling with who they were and where they stood in society.

For b-boys, battling was a way to assert their identity and earn respect without resorting to violence. Dance sessions eventually moved from streets into gyms and community centers. Crews started to form, giving the members a sense of belonging and pride.

Hip Hop also reminded those in the city that their differences – the color of their skin, their background, their socioeconomic status – were no match for the inherent connection between all people. Hip Hop was their common ground.

Universal Zulu Nation is an organization dedicated to the preservation and education of Hip Hop culture. “Afrika Bambaataa was an early promoter of political consciousness in Hip Hop as a means to address the social, economic, and political situation of nonwhite people against the mainstream.” (Rajakmar, xxvii) The worldwide movement continues to practice, teach, and live all things Hip Hop.


Hip Hop Dance In The Media

Hip Hop started being noticed by the media in the early 1980s. Films like Wild Style, Style Wars, Beat Street, and Breakin’ were significant in introducing Breaking and street dance culture to a wider audience.

what is hip hop dance

In 1981, a battle between Rock Steady Crew and the Dynamic Rockers at the Lincoln Center gained national exposure. It was covered by several New York Publications, and even National Geographic.

In 1983, the movie Flashdance featured dancers from Rock Steady Crew (Crazy Legs, Ken Swift, Frosty Freeze, and Mr. Freeze) in a cameo performance.

Graffiti Rock, though short-lived, was a show that bridged all the foundational elements of Hip Hop together. It is still “remembered as one of the pioneers of hip hop culture.” (Rajakumar, 35)

Soul Train, created in the 70s by Don Cornelius, also popularized Hip Hop social dancing along with Popping, Locking, and other styles.

Breakers went on to be featured in commercials for major brands such as Burger King, Pepsi, Coke, Panasonic, talk shows, news shows, and even the 1984 summer Olympics.

Charles “Cholly” Atkins and James Brown popularized several dance moves that would later influence the future Hip Hop generation (Durden).

The ”King of Pop” Michael Jackson drew inspiration from the dancers of this era – particularly the Lockers and Poppers he saw on Soul Train. In the legendary 1983 performance of Billie Jean on Motown 25, he did the Backslide (often misconceived as the Moonwalk) in front of a national audience. Michael Jackson continued to fuse the things he liked from generations of movers to create his own unique style – one that continues to resonate with dancers today.

what is hip hop dance

Movies like Step Up and shows like So You Think You Can Dance showcase choreography with a cast of studio-trained dancers. Elite Force, a dance crew from the 90s, was made of Hip Hop heads that also worked as professional dancers.

The dancers were getting more exposure and opportunities, but the style and culture were depicted in a watered-down and commercialized manner.

“Critics now find flaws in the films as examples of the early commercialization of break dancing diluting the intensity of the socioeconomic roots of the origins of breakdancing and hip hop culture – part athletic creativity and part struggle for meaning in the midst of poverty and social alienation.” (Rajakumar, 38)


Mainstream Media’s Effect On Hip Hop

It’s difficult to make anything appeal to a mass market while fully preserving its essence.

Mainstream media often inaccurately uses the label “Hip Hop” for marketing purposes. This distorts the value of the culture and meaning that it carries.

Modern shows like America’s Best Dance Crew, Dancing With The Stars, So You Think You Can Dance, and movies like Save The Last Dance, You Got Served, and the Step Up series further popularized urban movement to younger dancers, but depicted underground Hip Hop culture in a way that was more packaged, for the screen.

Because of the way the term was used in movies and shows, we started to see “Hip Hop” dance classes in studios teaching “Hip Hop” choreography (that was more ballet, modern, and jazz-based than Hip Hop based).

Documentaries like Planet B-Boy aim to depict the breaking culture in a more authentic way. Featuring Ken Swift of Rock Steady Crew, the film follows b-boys who are training for the Battle of the Year competition.


“Although b-boying is very popular and highly regarded in Europe and Asia, the majority of Americans just see it as a simple street dance that street kids do. Obviously, this is not the case and projects such as Planet B-boy continue to spread the word and culture in the proper light.”

– Johnny Lee, executive producer

What Hip Hop Dance Means To Us

The best way that we can pay tribute to Hip Hop’s rich cultural heritage is by educating ourselves, as dancers, on the real “why”s and “how”s behind our movement.

Though urban dance choreography is not technically classified as Hip Hop dance, we still draw inspiration from it.

When we learn, it’s important to keep in mind that it’s not just steps and counts. Moves were born from struggle, with a purpose, as an extension of the mover’s identity.

Hip hop and social dance are not moves to be mimicked; they are stories to be echoed.

So keep researching, studying, and talking about Hip Hop!

Did you learn something new and surprising about Hip Hop Dance from this article? Comment below and share with us!



Hip Hop, by Christopher A. Miller and Rebecca A Ferrell http://www.danceheritage.org/treasures/hiphop_essay_miller_ferrell.pdf
Hip Hop Culture,Emmett G. Price III, Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO 2006
Hip Hop Dance, Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar
Underground Dance Masters: Final History Of A Forgotten Era, Thomas Guzman-Sanchez
Hip-Hop Dance in Context Jazz Dance: A History of the Roots and Branches E. Moncell Durden