Hip Hop Dance is a style of dance with deeply rooted historical, social, cultural contexts that trace back to the African and Afro-Caribbean diaspora.

In this article, we’ll talk about Hip Hop’s history from the 1970’s in the Bronx, New York.

We’ll also examine how Hip Hop culture, specifically Hip Hop dance, influences our lives in the present day.

 

The History of Hip Hop

The Bronx was a rough place to grow up in the 70’s. Kids were surrounded by drug use, crime, gang violence, and a general air of defeat.

Restless, yet refusing to be a victim of their circumstance, the youth started to dabble in different kinds of art.

These art forms – whether it was music, dance, graffiti, fashion – soon became a lifestyle. A lifestyle known as Hip Hop.

They embodied Hip Hop in the way they dressed, talked, expressed themselves, and treated their community.

The values of Hip Hop are still alive and powerful.

In whatever form, Hip Hop is characterized creativity, identity, self-expression, originality, and respect.

 

What does “Hip Hop” mean?

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

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

Hip Hop is a movement that represents the freedom to learn, grow, and evolve.

It is still the same movement it was in the 70’s – the one that gave the inner-city youth the motivation to live a better life.

And in order for you to be Hip Hop, you must actively participate in the culture.

How do you participate?

 

The four main elements of Hip Hop culture are:
Deejaying (music)
Emceeing (rapping)
Graffiti (writing / art)
Breakin’ (dance)

 

Hip Hop music and Hip Hop dance

Okay okay, I know – you came here to learn about Hip Hop dance…

But in order to understand Hip Hop dance, it’s important to have a base understanding of Hip Hop culture as a whole.

And now that you have that, let’s talk about the history of HIP HOP DANCE!

Which, can really be summarized in 2 words:

“Dance parties”

But who threw these parties? And who came and danced?

 

Hip Hop DJs

what is hip hop dancePhoto by The Guardian

DJ Kool Herc (AKA the “Father of Hip Hop”) used to start block parties in the West Bronx (AKA the “birthplace of Hip Hop”).

If you’ve ever heard “1520 Sedgwick Avenue” that’s the address of the iconic building where most of these parties took place.

Kool Herc played music there and the community would come out to mingle and dance.

As he watched the party people, he noticed that they got the most hype during the breakbeat of a song. (The breakbeat is the instrumental, percussive section in funk and R&B records.)

Kool Herc’s mission was to keep the energy of the party up, so he extended the breakbeat by 1. isolating it 2. using two turntables to keep playing it back to back, in a loop. 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 community.

what is hop hop dancePhoto by Voices of East Anglia

Hip Hop dancers

Breaking, later known as “breakdancing,” was a style of dance born through these parties.

Herc originally called these dancers break boys (b-boys) and break girls (b-girls) – because they danced to his breakbeats. Ohhh.

Early Breaking incorporated drops to the ground 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)

The early b-boys and b-girls came from all kinds of backgrounds of movement.

They brought salsa, Cuban mambo and rumba, Brazilian samba, Jazz dance, as well as martial arts like kung-fu and Capoeira to influence Breaking.

So imagine this – a DJ playing breakbeats, dancers (young and angsty) looking to release emotion or assert their dominance or just be somebody – imagine that exchange.

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)

The culture of Breaking

The birth of Hip Hop dance came from an experience particular to these DJs, these dancers, and their environment.

Every single move in the Breaking vernacular has some sort of story or meaning, because in that setting – everything meant something.

Overall, 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.

In this way, battling can be seen as a non-violent alternative to gang violence.

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

 

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 was.

People danced so they could be a part of the culture without having to learn crazy Breaking moves.

As the dance scene expanded, multiple Hip Hop clubs sprang up all over New York. Two popular ones were Latin Quarters and Union Square.

They called the moves that they did “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)

Wanna learn these? Bianca teaches a bunch of old school Hip Hop grooves on STEEZY Studio! Try it out now. 

hip hop dance

Other “Hip Hop” styles?

Styles like Popping/Boogaloo, House, Locking, and Waacking are often 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 1980’s 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.

Moves weren’t just steps and counts. They were born from struggle, with a purpose, as an extension of the mover’s identity.

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. Dancers started to form crews, 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 1980’s.

Films like Wild Style, Style Wars, Beat Street, and Breakin’ were significant in introducing Breaking and street dance culture to a wider audience.

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 1983, he did the Backslide (often mislabeled as the Moonwalk) in front of a national audience during his performance of Billie Jean on Motown 25,

Michael Jackson continued to fuse the things he liked from multiple generations of movers to create his own unique style – one that continues to resonate with dancers today.

what is hip hop dance

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

Though urban dance choreography is not Hip Hop dance, we can clearly trace back movements and techniques to Hip Hop and street styles.

Dance is dance, after all.

In our world of “international choreographers” and “select group,” it’s easy to overlook the significance of how this all came to be.

But that’s why STEEZY continues to make active efforts to bridge the gaps of knowledge between what we’re doing, and where it came from.

So let’s 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!

 


Editor’s note:

Hi, I’m Jessie. I wrote this article. And I’m not satisfied with it.

I sometimes fantasize about creating the one, perfect, all-inclusive piece that accurately and thoroughly covers every little thing there is to know about Hip Hop. But I realize that Hip Hop’s history contains so many moving parts, so many (sometimes conflicting) stories of several peoples’ lives, so many details that are still being uncovered to this day… It’s nearly impossible to capture all of that in one package.

But that’s okay – I think it’s less important to get the story perfect (does the perfect story even exist?), and more important to encourage the continuing dialogue. We need to ask questions. To be open to listening. We need to stay curious about our “Who, what, when, why, how’s.”

I mean, I personally wasn’t born in the 70’s in New York – these aren’t my stories. In fact, I started dancing in the world of ~Urban Dance Choreography~ (a separate post about the failings of the “Urban” label, coming later). But I, and the rest of the STEEZY team, understand that none of what we do would exist without our roots. As a younger, newer company aiming to serve even younger, even newer dancers – we’re doing the best we can. 

That said, if you have any feedback about this article, resources that would be useful, or even connections to OGs that would be willing to share their stories – please email me at [email protected]

Thank you so much for your help.


Sources:

Hip Hop, by Christopher A. Miller and Rebecca A Ferrell 
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