B-boying or breakdancing dates back to DJ Kool Herc and the birth of Hip Hop in the Bronx during the 1970’s. The style is unique to Hip Hop because it plays off what initially made Hip Hop different from the genres earlier instrumental samples. Good Foot was an early precursor to B-boying based off of a song by James Brown in the late 60’s. However, it wasn’t until DJ Kool Herc mastered the break that the style matured into something more.
DJ Kool Herc was the first to sample drum loops or “breaks” by using a double disc turntable. This kept the people in the crowd dancing, as it was a way to perpetuate the most rhythmic part of the music (More on this in 9 Elements: DJ-ing). This is also how B-Boys or Break Boys earned their moniker, by creating a new style of dance to match Herc’s innovative music. While styles of dance before DJ Kool Herc similar to B-Boying did exist, none spread as virally as this essential piece of early Hip Hop culture. By the late 70’s, competitive b-boying began to spread as a way of not only further growing and innovating the art form but also to deter the use of violence in settling conflicts. As a result, the names of the best became commonplace in the streets of New York’s Bronx.
The Rock Steady Crew became one of the first dominant b-boy groups, eventually gaining respect in all of New York’s boroughs. The crew’s founders were Jimmy D and Jimmy Lee but later came to include b-boy legends like Crazy Legs and Frosty Freeze. Today the group has a multitude of members including honorary inductees Mos Def, Grandmaster Caz, and DJ Premier.
B-boying as a style of dance comprises itself of four different dance elements, each ingredient building a recipe that had the potential for almost complete uniqueness from crew to crew. Toprocking is the aspect of b-boying that involves moves performed from a standing position and can draw from other styles of standing dance as well. This style is freeform in nature, executed with a wide variety of moves and attitudes. Next is downrock, the inverse of toprock, that formed from the ubiquitous 6-step. The 6-step is essential to any downrocker or b-boy’s arsenal, using the arms instead of legs to support the body while dancing. Utilizing power moves while downrocking requires an athleticism that is apparent in windmills and headspins that demand momentum to execute. Freezes are the final component of b-boying, consisting of a variety of poses, typically as a finishing move to end a performance. When all of these connect b-boying comes to life as a truly historic form of artistic expression.
Dance has been part of culture for millennia and b-boying is to the African American and Puerto Rican American youth of New York’s Bronx as Flamenco is to the Spanish. We learn from the past to shape the future; this is key to cultural innovation. While b-boying may not be as popular as it once was its influence on the way people live and express themselves is undeniably apparent in modern dance, Hip Hop, and pop culture.
In order to properly report the history of hip hop dance forms, one must journey both inside and outside of New York City. Although dance forms associated with hip hop did develop in New York City, half of them (i.e. popping and locking) originated and developed on the west coast as part of a different cultural movement.
In the early 1970s, the unnamed culture known today as “hip hop” was forming in New York City’s ghettos. Each element in this culture had it’s own history and terminology contributing to the development of a cultural movement. The common pulse which gave life to all these elements is rhythm, clearly demonstrated by the beats the DJ selected, the dancers’ movements, the MCs’ rhyme patterns and the writer’s name or message painted in a flowing, stylized fashion. The culture was identified in the early 1980s when DJ Afrika Bambaataa named the dynamic urban movement “hip hop.” The words, “hip hop,” were originally used by MCs as part of a scat style of rhyming, for example: “Hip Hop ya’ll and ya don’t stop, rock on, till the break of dawn.”
At about the same time, certain slang words also became titles of the dance forms, such as “rockin’” and “breakin’,” used generally, to describe actions with great intensity. Just as one could rock the mic (microphone) and rock the dance floor, one could rock a basketball game or rock some fly gear (dress impressively). The term “break” also had more than one use in the 70s. It was often used as a response to an insult or reprimand, for example, “Why are you breakin’ on me?” Break was also the section on a musical recording where the percussive rhythms were most aggressive and hard driving. The dancers anticipated and reacted to these breaks with their most impressive steps and moves. As DJs could recue these beats from one turntable to the other, finally, the dancers were able to enjoy more than just a few seconds of a break! Kool Herc also coined the terms “bboy” and “bgirl” which stood for “break boys” and “break girls.” At one of Kool Herc’s jams, he might have addressed the dancers just before playing the break beats by saying, “BBoys are you ready?! BGirls are you ready?!” The tension started to mount and the air was thick with anticipation. The bboys and bgirls knew this was their time to “go off!”