B-boying, often called “breakdancing“, is a popular style of street dance that was created and developed as part of hip-hop culture among African American and Latino youth in New York City. The dance consists of four primary elements: toprock, downrock, power moves, and freezes. It is danced to both hip-hop and other genres of music that are often remixed to prolong the musical breaks. The musical selection for b-boying is not restricted to hip-hop music as long as the tempo and beat pattern conditions are met. A practitioner of this dance is called a b-boy, b-girl, or breaker. These dancers often participate in battles, formal or informal dance competitions between two individuals or two crews.
This video features the Best B-Boys from around the world battling at the 2011 Notorious International Breakdance Event held in Heerlen, Holland.
Although the term “breakdance” is frequently used, “b-boying” and “breaking” are the original terms used to refer to the dance. These terms are preferred by the majority of the art form’s pioneers and most notable practitioners. Although widespread, the term “breakdancing” is looked down upon by those immersed in hip-hop culture. “Breakdancer” may even be used disparagingly to refer to those who learned the dance for personal gain rather than commitment to hip-hop culture.
The terms ‘b-boys’ (or break-boy), ‘b-girls’, and ‘breakers’ are the preferred terms to use to describe the dancers. The “b-boys” and “b-girls” were the dancers to DJ Kool Herc‘s breaks, who were described as “breaking”. The obvious connection is to the breakbeat, but Herc has noted that “breaking” was also street slang of the time meaning “getting excited”, “acting energetically” or “causing a disturbance”. B-boy London of New York City Breakers and filmmaker Michael Holman refer to these dancers as “breakers”. Frosty Freeze of Rock Steady Crew says, “we were known as b-boys”, and hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa says, “b-boys, [are] what you call break boys… or b-girls, what you call break girls.” The term breaker is gender neutral. In addition, Santiago “Jo Jo” Torres (co-founder of Rock Steady Crew), Mr. Freeze of Rock Steady Crew and hip-hop historian Fab 5 Freddy use the term “b-boy”, as do rappers Big Daddy Kane and Tech N9ne.
The dance itself is properly called “breaking” according to rappers such as KRS-One, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, and Darryl McDaniels of Run-DMC in the breaking documentary The Freshest Kids: A History of the B-Boy. Afrika Bambaataa, Fab 5 Freddy, Michael Holman, Frosty Freeze, and Jo Jo use the original term “b-boying”. Purists consider “breakdancing” an ignorant term invented by the media that connotes exploitation of the art.
The term “breakdancing” is also problematic because it has become a diluted umbrella term that incorrectly includes popping, locking, and electric boogaloo. Popping, locking, and electric boogaloo are not styles of “breakdance”. They are funk styles that were developed separately from breaking in California.
Elements of breaking may be seen in other antecedent cultures prior to the 1980s, but it was not until the 1980s that breaking developed as a street dance style. Street corner DJs would take the rhythmic breakdown sections (or “breaks“) of dance records and loop them one after the other. This provided a rhythmic base for improvising and mixing and it allowed dancers to display their skills during the break. In a turn-based showcase of dance routines the winning side was determined by the dancer(s) who could outperform the other by displaying a set of more complicated and innovative moves while maintaining to hit specific beats of the break.
B-boying was first introduced to South Korea by American soldiers shortly after its surge of popularity in the US during the 1980s, but it wasn’t until the late 1990s that the culture and dance really took hold. 1997 is known as the “Year Zero of Korean breaking”. A Korean-American hip hop promoter named John Jay Chon was visiting his family in Seoul and while he was there, he met a crew named Expression Crew in a club. He gave them a VHS of a Los Angeles b-boying competition called Radiotron. A year later when he returned, Chon found that his video and others like his had been copied and dubbed numerous times, and were feeding an ever-growing b-boy community.
In 2002, Korea’s Expression Crew won the prestigious international b-boying competition Battle of the Year, exposing the skill of the country’s b-boys to the rest of the world. Since then, the Korean government has capitalized on the popularity of the dance and has promoted it alongside Korean culture. R-16 Korea is the most well-known government-sponsored event, and is hosted by the Korean Tourism Organization and supported by the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism.
Shortly after the Rock Steady Crew came to Japan, b-boying within Japan began to thrive. Each Sunday b-boys would perform breaking in Tokyo‘s Yoyogi Park. One of the first and most influential Japanese breakers was Crazy-A, who is now the leader of the Tokyo chapter of Rock Steady Crew. He also organizes the yearly B-Boy Park which draws upwards of 10,000 fans a year and attempts to expose a wider audience to the culture.
A separate but related dance form which influenced breaking is Uprock also called Rocking or Brooklyn Rock. Uprock is an aggressive dance that involves two dancers who mimic ways of fighting each other using mimed weaponry in rhythm with the music. Uprock as a dance style of its own never gained the same widespread popularity as breaking, except for some very specific moves adopted by breakers who use it as a variation for their toprock. When used in a b-boy battle, opponents often respond by performing similar uprock moves, supposedly creating a short uprock battle. Some dancers argue that because uprock was originally a separate dance style it should never be mixed with breaking and that the uprock moves performed by breakers today are not the original moves but poor imitations that only show a small part of the original uprock style.
It has been stated that breaking replaced fighting between street gangs. On the contrary, some believe it a misconception that b-boying ever played a part in mediating gang rivalry. Both viewpoints have some truth. Uprock has its roots in gangs. Whenever there was an issue over turf, the two warlords of the feuding gangs would uprock. Whoever won this preliminary battle would decide where the real fight would be. This is where the battle mentality in breaking and hip-hop dance in general comes from. “Sometimes a dance was enough to settle the beef, sometimes the dance set off more beef.”
There are four primary elements that form breaking. These include toprock, downrock, power moves, and freezes/suicides.
Toprock generally refers to any string of steps performed from a standing position. It is usually the first and foremost opening display of style, though dancers often transition from other aspects of breaking to toprock and back. Toprock has a variety of steps which can each be varied according to the dancer’s expression (ie. aggressive, calm, excited). A great deal of freedom is allowed in the definition of toprock: as long as the dancer maintains cleanness, form and the b-boy attitude, theoretically anything can be toprock. Toprock can draw upon many other dance styles such as popping, locking, or house dance. Transitions from toprock to downrock and power moves are called drops.
Downrock (also known as “footwork” or “floorwork”) is used to describe any movement on the floor with the hands supporting the dancer as much as the feet. Downrock includes moves such as the foundational 6-step, and its variants such as the 3-step or other small steps that add style. The most basic of downrock is done entirely on feet and hands but more complex variations can involve the knees when threading limbs through each other.
Power moves are acrobatic moves that require momentum, speed, endurance, strength, and control to execute. The breaker is generally supported by his upper body, while the rest of his body creates circular momentum. Notable examples are the windmill, swipe, and head spin. Some power moves are borrowed from gymnastics and martial arts. An example of a power move taken from gymnastics is the Thomas Flair which is shortened and spelled flare in b-boying.
Freezes are stylish poses, and the more difficult require the breaker to suspend himself or herself off the ground using upper body strength in poses such as the pike. They are used to emphasize strong beats in the music and often signal the end of a b-boy set. Freezes can be linked into chains or “stacks” where breakers go from freeze to freeze to the music to display musicality and physical strength.
Suicides, like freezes, are used to emphasize a strong beat in the music and signal the end to a routine. In contrast to freezes, suicides draw attention to the motion of falling or losing control, while freezes draw attention to a controlled final position. Breakers will make it appear that they have lost control and fall onto their backs, stomachs, etc. The more painful the suicide appears, the more impressive it is, but breakers execute them in a way to minimize pain.
See these techniques broken down in the video “B-boy Battle Tactics”
There are many different individual styles used in b-boying. Individual styles often stem from a dancer’s region of origin and influences. Although there are some generalities in the styles that exist, many dancers combine elements of different styles with their own ideas and knowledge in order to create a unique style of their own. B-boys can therefore be categorized into a specific, broad style which generally showcases the same types of techniques.
- Power: This style of b-boying is what most members of the general public associate with the term “breakdancing”. Power moves comprise full-body spins and rotations that give the illusion of defying gravity. Examples of power moves include headspins, backspins, windmills, flares, airtracks/airflares, 1990s, 2000s, jackhammers, crickets, turtles, hand glide, halos, and elbow spins. Those b-boys who use “power moves” almost exclusively in their sets are referred to as “power heads” or power movers.
- Abstract: A very broad style of b-boying which may include the incorporation of “threading” footwork, freestyle movement to hit beats, house dance, and “circus” styles (tricks, contortion, etc.).
- Blowup: A style of b-boying which focuses on the “wow factor” of certain power moves, freezes, and circus styles. Blowups consist of performing a sequence of as many difficult trick combinations in as quick succession as possible in order to “smack” or exceed the virtuosity of the other b-boy’s performance. This is usually attempted only after becoming proficient in other styles due to the degree of control and practice required in this type of dancing. The names of some of the moves are: airbaby, airchair, hollow backs, solar eclipse, reverse airbaby, among others. The main goal in blowup-style is the rapid transition through a sequence of power moves ending in a skillful freeze.
- Flavor: A style that is based more on elaborate toprock, downrock, and/or freezes. This style is focused more on the beat and musicality of the song than having to rely on “power” moves only. B-boys who base their dance on “flavor” or style are known as “style heads”.
In edition to the styles listed above, certain footwork styles have been associated with different areas which popularized them.
- Traditional New York Style: The original style of b-boying from the Bronx, based around the Russian trepak dance, this style of footwork focuses on kicks such as CCs and foundational moves such as 6-steps and variations of it.
- Euro Style: Created in the early 90’s, this style is very circular, focusing not on steps but more on glide-type moves such as the pretzel, deadlegs, undersweeps and fluid sliding moves
- Canadian Style: Created in the late 90’s, also known as the ‘Toronto thread’ style. Based upon the Euro Style, except also characterized by elaborate leg threads
Multiple stereotypes have emerged in the breaking community over the give-and-take relationship between technical footwork and physical power. Those who focus on dance steps and fundamental sharpness are labeled as “style-heads.” Specialists of more gymnastics-oriented technique and form—at the cost of charisma and coordinated footwork—are known as “power-heads.” Such terms are used colloquially often to classify one’s skill, however, the subject has been known to disrupt competitive events where judges tend to favor a certain technique over the other.
This debate however is somewhat of a misnomer. The classification of dancing as “style” in b-boying is inaccurate because every b-boy or b-girl has their own unique style developed both consciously and subconsciously. Each b-boy or b-girl’s style is the certain attitude or method in which they execute their movements. A breaker’s unique style does not strictly refer to just toprock or downrock. It is a concept which encompasses how a move is executed rather than what move is done.
The musical selection for breaking is not restricted to hip-hop music as long as the tempo and beat pattern conditions are met. Breaking can be readily adapted to different music genres with the aid of remixing. The original songs that popularized the dance form borrow significantly from progressive genres of jazz, soul, funk, electro, and disco. The most common feature of b-boy music exists in musical breaks, or compilations formed from samples taken from different songs which are then looped and chained together by the DJ. The tempo generally ranges between 110 and 135 beats per minute with shuffled sixteenth and quarter beats in the percussive pattern. History credits DJ Kool Herc for the invention of this concept later termed the break beat.
Like the other aspects of hip-hop culture, graffiti writing, MCing, and DJing, males are generally the predominant gender within breaking. However, this is being challenged by the rapidly increasing number of b-girls. Critics argue that it is unfair to make a sweeping generalization about these inequalities because women have begun to play a larger role in the breaking scene.
Despite the increasing number of female breakers, another possible barrier is lack of promotion. As Firefly, a full-time b-girl, says “It’s getting more popular. There are a lot more girls involved. The problem is that promoters are not putting on enough female-only battles.” More people are seeking to change the traditional image of females in hip-hop culture (and by extension, b-boy culture) to a more positive, empowered role in the modern hip-hop scene. The lower exposure of female dancers is probably caused not by any conscious discrimination, but simply by the fewer number of female breakers compared to the number of male breakers. However, both males and females do practice this art form equally together and are competitively judged only by skill and personal expression, not gender.
B-boys are amazing at showing off their skills. Watch a videodance comedy featuring breakdancing by Kaio. Enjoy the short film “Don’t Show Off” by FalCrow Production.
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By Dawn Paap