Breakdancing a form of African American dance that emerged from the hip hop culture of the South Bronx, New York, during the mid-1970s. Drawing upon several African American dance forms, break dancing coalesced in the 1970s and reached its peak in popularity during the 1980s.
Breakdancing developed out of the Bronx, New York, disco scene. When disco DJs changed records, dancers would fill the resulting musical breaks, or “breakbeats,” with movements that emphasized the rupture in rhythmic continuity. These highly acrobatic interludes developed into a new genre that mixed Afrodiasporic dance styles, reflecting the influence of the lindy-hop, the Charleston, the cakewalk, and the jitterbug as well as the Afro-Brazilian martial-arts dance Capoeira and the antics of Kung Fu movies.
Breakdancing included “breaking” (flipping, spinning, pivoting on the head and hands), “up-rock” (a mock-combat style, often directed against an opponent), and “webbo” (fast footwork between other dance moves). When breakdancing spread to Los Angeles, California, dancers added the “electric boogie,” automaton-like dance moves that incorporated pantomime. In the beginning, breakdancers adopted a confrontational attitude, as “crews” met each other in fake rumbles that often turned into real fights. Even peaceful displays resembled the competitive toasting of Bronx musicians in concurrently developing rap music.
Like other facets of the hip hop movement, breakdancing met with commercial success and public notoriety in the early 1980s. Paralleling Soho’s embrace of Bronx graffiti art, Manhattan dance clubs welcomed breakdancers to their floors. And like rap, breakdancing appeared in a number of popular films, including Wild Style (1982), Breakin’ (1984), and Beat Street (1984), which featured the Rock Steady Crew, breakdancing’s most renowned posse. This publicity, which deemphasized breakdancing’s confrontational aspect, turned the dance into a national sensation among white as well as black youths; suburban schoolchildren donned hip hop fashions, and some white teenagers signed up for breakdancing lessons.
Widespread media attention diminished breakdancing’s power as a unique voice of self-affirmation for inner-city youth. Its influence, however, set the trajectory of subsequent dance trends. Black performers such as Michael Jackson, MC Hammer, and Missy Elliot draw from breakdance styles that never stop evolving. Even such breakdancing originals as Richard “Crazy Legs” Colón of the Rock Steady Crew, continue to innovate and perform.