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An elaborate social dance form originated by teenage African-American males in the South Bronx of New York City, breakdancing appeared during the early to mid-1970s. It began as a form of gang fighting, a mixture of physically demanding movements that exploited the daredevil prowess of performers and stylized punching and kicking movements directed at an opponent. A descendant of capoeira, the Brazilian form of martial arts disguised as dance, breaking developed as the movement aspect of rap music when breakdancers"B-Boys"filled the musical breaks between records mixed by disc jockeys at parties and discotheques. Breakdancing was part of a young urban culture built upon innovations in language, hiphop music, fashion (unlaced sneakers, hooded sweatshirts, nylon windbreakers), and visual arts (graffiti).

The elaborate spins, balances, flips, contortions, and freezes performed by breakdancers required extreme agility and coordination. Real physical danger surrounded movements such as the "windmill," in which dancers spun wildly, supported only by the shoulders, or the "suicide," in which an erect dancer would throw himself forward to land flat on his back. The competitive roots of breakdancing encouraged sensational movements such as multiple spins while balanced on the head, back, or one hand. Dancing "crews" met on street corners, subway stations, or dance floors to battle other groups with virtuosity, style, and wit determining the winner. Breakdancing came to be divided into several classifications of movement, including "breaking" (acrobatic flips and spins with support by the head and arms, with the shoulders as a point of balance), "uprock" (fighting movements directed against an opponent), "webbo" (extravagant footwork that connected breaking movements), and "electric boogie" (robotlike dancing movements borrowed from mime). The electric boogie style, reminiscent of a long tradition of eccentric African-American dances, developed in Los Angeles concurrent with electronically produced disco music. In this style dancers typically appeared to be weightless and rubber limbed, performing baffling floating walks, precise body isolations, and pantomimed robotic sequences. This form includes the "moonwalk," popularized on national television by Michael Jackson, in which the dancer's feet appear to be floating across the floor without touching it. Other boogie moves include the "wave," in which the body simulates an electric current passing through it, and "poplocking," a series of tightly contained staccato movements separated by freezes. An "Egyptian" style, which imitated ancient wall paintings, was also briefly popular.

Breakdancing found a mainstream audience through several films that cashed in on its sensational aspects and minimized its competitive format. Charlie Ahearn's Wild Style (1982), the first film to document emergent hip-hop culture, was eclipsed by a thirty-second breaking sequence in Flashdance (1983), which brought the form to international attention; Breakin' (1984), which starred Shabba Doo (Adolfo Quinones), an important breakdance choreographer from Chicago; and Harry Belafonte's Beat Street (1984), which featured the New York City Breakers. Breakdancing dropped out of the public limelight in the late 1980s, only to reemerge as a social dance form practiced by teenagers in nightclubs during the 1990s. By 2004 the form had become a component aspect of codified hiphop dance, practiced by teams in international competitions, popular in music videos, and once again featured in Hollywood films, including Chris Stokes's You Got Served (2004).

See also Capoeira; Hip Hop; Rap; Social Dance


Banes, Sally. "Breakdancing." In Fresh: Hip Hop Don't Stop, edited by Nelson George, Sally Banes, Susan Flinker, and Patty Romanovsky. New York: Random House, 1985.

DeFrantz, Thomas. "The Black Beat Made Visible: Body Power in Hip Hop Dance." In Of the Presence of the Body: Essays on Dance and Performance Theory, edited by André Lepecki. Middleton, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 2004.

Rosenwald, Peter J. "Breaking Away '80s Style." Dance Magazine 58, no. 4 (April 1984): 7074.

Thompson, Robert Farris. "Hip-hop 101." Rolling Stone (March 27, 1986): 95100.

thomas f. defrantz (1996)
Updated by author 2005