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date: 17 November 2019

Hip-hop dancefree

  • Joseph G. Schloss

Group of related Afro-diasporic dance forms, characterized by a competitive orientation and a close relationship with hip-hop music and culture. Hip-hop dance generally falls into two categories: dance forms that have been continuously maintained as cultural traditions since hip hop’s birth in the 1970s, and relatively short-lived social or “party” dances. As befits a relatively young art form, these categories—and the dances themselves—are both still very much in flux. (See also Hip hop.)

Student Mandi Lewis breakdancing, University of Florida, 2004.

AP Photo/University of Florida, Kristen Bartlett

1. Traditional dances.

The four traditional dances of hip-hop are rocking, b-boying/b-girling, locking and popping, all of which trace their origins to the late 1960s or early 1970s. Each of these dances has been passed down continuously since that time through an informal apprenticeship system. These dance forms hold several qualities in common, including an explicitly competitive orientation, adherence to a set of abstract aesthetic principles, an emphasis on improvisation, and a relatively high level of difficulty that requires a substantial commitment on the part of practitioners. East coast and West coast traditional dances originated separately and only later came together under the hip-hop rubric. Significantly, each of the four major traditional dance styles continues to be associated with a specific repertoire of recorded music that was popular at the time the dance first emerged. None of the styles are solely associated with hip-hop music per se. In the mid-1980s, several of these forms became pop culture fads (see below), and their subsequent development has in many ways been an ongoing reaction against the perceived exploitation associated with that moment.

2. East Coast traditional forms.

East coast hip-hop dance forms developed in a reciprocal relationship with hip-hop’s musical practices. Early hip-hop deejays noticed that dancers were particularly enthusiastic about the “breaks” of popular funk and soul recordings, musical passages in which the rhythm section was highlighted and other instruments fell silent. (See Break (ii) ) In response to the dancers’ enthusiasm, deejays began to use two turntables to repeat these break sections, which in turn led the dancers to develop new moves to accommodate the increased emphasis on this aspect of the music. This then encouraged the deejays to continue their musical and technological experimentation. This ongoing mutual influence led to the development of both hip-hop dance and hip-hop music itself.

The first form of hip-hop dance to emerge on the East Coast was called rocking (also known as uprocking, the rock dance, and—in regional variants—Brooklyn rocking or Bronx rocking). Initially, the dance was primarily associated with Latinos, particularly Nuyoricans, though it is currently practiced by dancers of all ethnicities. Rocking is distinctive from other competitive hip-hop dances in that the opponents dance against each other simultaneously, rather than in alternating turns. Partially due to this directly confrontational orientation, the dance became associated with New York City gang culture early in its development, though this association is now more historical than contemporary.

Rocking consists of three types of movement: freestyle, burns, and jerks. The freestyle aspect of the dance consists of solo dancing that draws heavily on Latin dance traditions, including rumba, bomba, salsa and Latin hustle. Burns are pantomimed movements designed to insult the opponent, either by making fun of them or by mimicking physical attacks. The jerk is an aggressive, though stylized, movement in which the dancer charges forward then drops to a crouching position on the beat. Conceptually, rocking resembles a kind of sparring in which dancers are trying to outdo each other in real time through a combination of superior dance technique, physical intimidation, and specific burns.

Though the exact date of its emergence is unknown—and possibly unknowable, due to variations in the way the dance is defined—rocking’s origins are generally traced to the late 1960s and early 70s, predating hip-hop music by several years. In its earliest usage, “rocking” was mainly a generic term used by young Latinos in New York City to refer to the performance of Latin dances to soul, funk and especially rock music. As the dance spread among youth throughout the city, its elements (especially the jerks and burns) became more formalized. Rocking is considered to be a direct ancestor of b-boying, though the exact nature of the influence remains in dispute. Though rocking was largely subsumed into b-boying by the late seventies, it experienced a resurgence as a distinct dance in the 2000s, primarily among b-boys and b-girls who are interested in its historical significance to hip-hop dance culture.

Rocking is usually performed to a specific repertoire of recordings that blend elements from the rock and soul genres with Latin percussion and were recorded at the time that the dance first became popular (between approximately 1969 and 1974). This repertoire includes such songs as “The Mexican,” by Babe Ruth (1972), “Give It Up or Turnit a Loose,” by James Brown (1969), “Listen to Me,” by Baby Huey (1971), and “Yellow Sunshine,” by Yellow Sunshine (1973).

B-boying, also known as “breaking,” and “breakdancing” (though the latter term is almost universally rejected by dancers themselves [see below]), developed in New York City in the early 1970s. There is widespread disagreement as to what the “b” in the term stands for; possibilities that have been asserted include “Break,” “Bronx,” “Beat,” and “Battle”. Though dancers are referred to with the gender-specific terms “b-boys” or “b-girls”, the dance itself is usually called “b-boying” regardless of the gender of performers. Although b-boying was created by African-American and Latino dancers, dancers of many ethnicities and nationalities currently perform it.

Though competitive in orientation, b-boys or b-girls do not face off directly; rather they take turns in the “cypher”, a circle of dancers. Each turn lasts approximately twenty to thirty seconds, and proceeds through four types of moves: “toprock”, upright rhythmic dancing derived from rocking; a “go down” or “drop”, a transition between toprock and the floor; “floorwork”, dancing in a more lateral position where both hands and feet may contact the floor, and the “freeze”, a concluding pose. Floorwork is further divided into several subcategories, including - but not limited to - footwork (intricate rhythmic movements on the ground), air moves (acrobatics), and power moves (movements intended to demonstrate physical strength). Different styles of b-boying are often defined by which of these aspects is emphasized.

In 1983, the dance was introduced to the public at large via a brief performance by the Rock Steady Crew (the dance’s preeminent crew to the present day) in the film Flashdance. B-boying quickly emerged into popular culture through televised performances (including at the closing ceremonies of the 1984 Olympic Games) as well as through a series of low-budget feature films, including Breakin’ (1984), Beat Street (1984), and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo (1984). These popular culture portrayals almost without exception conflated b-boying with other forms of urban dance under the general rubric of “breakdancing.” As a result, that term took on connotations of disrespect and exploitation of the culture, which it still holds to the present day.

After going out of fashion with the general public in the late 1980s, b-boying continued primarily as an underground phenomenon that spread internationally through the 1990s. In the 2000s, international competitions such as Battle of the Year (based in Germany), R-16 Korea (based in Korea), and Red Bull BC One (international) led to the dance’s re-emergence as a global phenomenon. This perception was reinforced by the independent documentary Planet B-Boy (2007), which followed crews from South Korea, France, Japan and the United States as they competed in the 2005 Battle of the Year in Braunschweig, Germany. At this time, dance-oriented reality television programs such as So You Think You Can Dance? and America’s Best Dance Crew also began to showcase b-boying along with other hip-hop dance styles.

The musical repertoire to which b-boying is performed consists primarily of uptempo Latin-influenced soul and rock songs, and overlaps significantly with repertoire of rocking. This repertoire has remained stable from its origins in the early seventies to the present time. These songs include “Apache,” by the Incredible Bongo Band (1973), “It’s Just Begun,” by the Jimmy Castor Bunch (1972), and the previously mentioned “Give It Up or Turnit a Loose,” by James Brown (1969).

3. West Coast traditional forms.

West Coast styles of hip-hop dance, also known as “Funk Styles” (a term coined by the dancer Popin Pete [Timothy Solomon]), developed separately from hip-hop music but were later integrated into the larger hip-hop culture. The two main styles of traditional West Coast hip-hop dance are locking and popping, which are often mistakenly portrayed as a single dance called “pop-locking.”

The first style of West Coast hip-hop dance was locking, which was created in Los Angeles in 1969 by Don “Campbellock” Campbell. Locking is organized around variations on the “lock” movement, which was initially a variation on the social dance “the funky chicken.” In its most general form, the lock movement consists of hunching forward, contracting one’s body, and briefly freezing on the beat. The form as a whole emphasizes expansion and contraction, with the dancer moving out from a central point in various, often acrobatic, ways, then drawing their limbs in to “lock” to the rhythm. Another important aspect of locking is the expression of “character”, which often involves an exaggeratedly sunny disposition and outsized gestures. This goal is often facilitated by the adoption of distinctive clothing, which traditionally includes floppy hats (which emphasize the bounciness of the dance), knickers and striped socks.

As a Los Angeles-based dance form, locking was among the first hip-hop dances to appear on television, popularized via programs like Soul Train and the situation comedy What’s Happening?, on which one of the main actors, Fred “Rerun” Berry, was a real-life member of Don Campbell’s dance crew, the Lockers. Locking is traditionally performed to a repertoire of funk music that was produced in the late 1960s and early 70s, by such artists as Sly Stone and James Brown.

The other major form of West Coast traditional hip-hop dance is popping. Like locking, the dance is built around a specific type of movement—popping—but the term itself is used to refer to both the specific movement and the dance form as a whole. The specific popping movement is simply a sharp muscle contraction, usually of the tricep, but often of other muscles as well, which is used to emphasize significant beats of the music. The desired effect is that of a dancer whose body virtually explodes with a mysterious internal energy to the rhythm of the song.

The popping technique can be applied to a variety of different styles of movement. Among the first styles of popping to develop was “boogaloo style,” often credited to Fresno, California-based dancer Boogaloo Sam (Sam Solomon), though it has deep roots in older styles of African American dance associated with the San Francisco Bay area. This style is characterized by broad, sweeping gestures and pivots that are set off by pops. Popping was also combined with an earlier party dance—the robot—to create the popular robotic style that is most associated with popping by the general public. Poppers tend to wear loose, flowing clothing, because the natural swirling of the fabric serves to emphasize the popping movement while simultaneously obscuring the way it is produced. The traditional musical repertoire of popping centers primarily around late-1970s and early 80s synthesizer-based funk.

4. Social dances.

Social dances associated with hip hop are similar in most respects to social dances associated with other forms of African American popular music, and in fact many of the specific dance forms in this category are not exclusively performed to hip-hop music. (See Social dance.) Generally speaking, these dances are fads, and thus tend to be relatively easy to perform, requiring no special training or long-term commitment. The social dance category is primarily solo in its orientation. Even when performed as partner or group dances, there is little direct interaction between the participants. These dances also often appear in choreographed form in hip-hop music videos.

Social dance was a major aspect of hip-hop culture from its birth until the early 1990s. At that time, the tempo of hip-hop music slowed down and its lyrics became more self-consciously artistic and serious-minded. These factors led to an increased perception among fans that hip-hop music was inconsistent with dancing. Even those who still wished to dance moved away from up-tempo, named, dances built around specific movements (e.g. “The Running Man,” “The Cabbage Patch,” “The Pee Wee Herman”) and towards more generic movements. The performance of named dances came back into fashion in the 2000s, largely driven by the Internet. The first significant example of this trend was the “Chicken Noodle Soup” dance, which was designed to accompany the song “Chicken Noodle Soup” by DJ Webstar featuring Young B. The dance was popularized primarily via the website YouTube in 2006, which allowed multiple videos of amateurs performing the dance to spread internationally in a matter of days. Since that time, other such dances—each associated with a specific song—have spread through similar channels. Examples include the “Crank That” dance, designed to accompany the song “Crank That (Soulja Boy)” by Soulja Boy (2007), and the “Dougie,” associated with the song “Teach Me How To Dougie,” by Cali Swag District (2010).

5. Emerging styles.

New competitive dances associated with African American youth clearly overlap in many ways with hip-hop culture, though the exact nature of the relationship has yet to be defined. This is partially because, as hip-hop culture becomes more diffuse, the question of whether any given dance form falls under the hip-hop umbrella becomes increasingly difficult to answer. These dances include jerkin’, a Los Angeles-based dance unrelated to the “jerk” movement in rocking; flex dancing, a Brooklyn-based dance that blends movements from popping with West Indian popular dances; turf dancing, an Oakland-based dance related to popping; krumping, a Los Angeles-based dance popularized by the 2005 film Rize; and many others. Each of these new dances is primarily based on one-on-one competition, and all draw on specific movements associated with older forms of hip-hop dance. It remains an open question which, if any, of the established hip-hop categories these dances will come to be associated with, or even if they will ultimately come to be considered hip-hop at all.

6. Issues and controversies.

Given the competitiveness of hip-hop dance, and the emotional investment that dancers make in that competition, it should come as no surprise that many aspects of hip-hop dance culture and history are hotly contested. Although this has long been the case, the rise of the Internet has led these debates to increase exponentially. Arguments tend to focus on three general areas: terminology, credit for specific historical innovations, and general historical issues.

Two instructive examples of the first variety of debate are the previously mentioned disavowals of the terms “breakdancing” and “pop-locking.” In both cases, the terms represent the dances’ association with popular culture, and their rejection thus indicates a kind of artistic purism on the part of dancers. These arguments take a variety of forms, from rejecting the terms themselves as historical inaccuracies to actually using the terms to refer to dance styles that are perceived as inauthentic.

A second subject of debate concerns who should receive credit for specific innovations. Since few if any of hip-hop dance’s innovators ever derived a significant economic benefit from their work, many dancers have sought recognition and social status within the hip-hop community as an alternative form of remuneration. This has resulted in historical status as a dance innovator becoming a form of cultural capital that is covetously sought and jealously protected. These debates tend to be particularly difficult to resolve for two reasons. First, the question of what constitutes a “new” dance movement (versus a variation on an existing movement) is extremely subjective even under the best circumstances. In the highly contentious world of hip-hop dance, this issue is magnified substantially. Second, due to the underground nature of hip-hop dances’ roots, and the general unavailability of video equipment in the 1970s, virtually no documentary evidence exists from the period in question. Issues thus tend to be determined by the perceived credibility of claimants.

Finally, there are numerous debates over general historical issues, particularly with regard to the way the boundaries of specific dance forms should be defined, and how these boundaries may reflect different understandings of the form’s development and significance. As three of the four traditional dance forms originated previous to—and separately from—hip-hop music, their inclusion under the hip-hop umbrella in the first place is primarily a retroactive statement of cultural unity, rather than a self-evident historical reality.


  • J. Chang: Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop (New York, 2005)
  • The Freshest Kids, video, dir. Israel, QD3 Entertainment (USA, 2002)
  • J. Pabon: “Physical Graffiti: the History of Hip-Hop Dance,” Total Chaos, ed. J. Chang (Cambridge, MA, 2006), 18–26
  • Planet B-Boy, video, dir. B. Lee (USA, 2007)
  • Rize, video, dir. D. LaChappelle (USA, 2005)
  • J. Schloss: Foundation: B-boys, B-Girls, and Hip-Hop Culture in New York (New York, 2009)