New York City. The city of dreams—the city of talent. A place where some of the finest musical acts, legends, and prodigies have originated. If you have ever had the pleasure of living in or even visiting New York, then you are already well aware of the musical gifts that surround the Big Apple. It’s not uncommon for music to be blaring from cars, apartments, and bodegas, and it’s certainly not uncommon to see people dancing (even in the streets and subways). One of the most common forms of artistic expression to emerge from the city that truly never sleeps is breakdancing. Through the years we’ve seen breaking take on different names and forms mostly depending on which region you are in.
The History of Breakdancing and a Conversation With Red Bull Breakers
ONE37pm explored the history of breakdancing with Red Bull breakers
On the East Coast, the common term was “breakdancing,” whereas on the West Coast you may have heard “Pop Locking” or “Krumping.” Nowadays, the art form is referred to simply as “breaking,” and through the decades, we’ve seen the style evolve along with music and popular culture. Now “breaking” is elevating to an even higher level.
We’ve always heard the term “dancers are athletes,” and they truly are in every since the word. It takes a tremendous amount of skill and discipline to be an elite dancer, and oftentimes dancers use the same energy and muscles as athletes in other sports.
Think about it—from a breakdancing perspective, dancers often incorporate gymnastics (I.E. flipping), karate, or even Capoeira into their routines, along with heavy cardio, and bodyweight training (for example when they do headstands). So, this next step of breaking being recognized as an Olympic Sport was a long time coming.
Officially announced in December 2020, breaking will make its formal debut at the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, and to understand how we got to this moment, we have to rewind all the way back to the late 1960s and early 1970s.
When looking at vintage tapes of dancers from that time period, you can literally feel the magic from that era. Music as a whole was transitioning from the Motown sound that had pretty much dominated the entirety of the 1960s into the Funk and Disco sound that defined the 1970s (think Kool & The Gang’s “Hollywood Swinging.”)
In that aspect, the timing was perfect as breaking matched the heavy beats and live instrumentation that accompanied songs from the 1970s (which ultimately paved the way for the rap and hip hop beats that followed a decade later.)
As hip-hop continued to evolve, so did breaking, and we have consistently seen breakdancing go through many different variations in the last five decades. In the 1980s, breaking began to take on the pop-locking form as the music transitioned into heavily synthesized disco beats. The street dancing, Soul Train lines, and freestyles from the 1970s carried over into the earlier part of the 1980s, and it was a fun era where people expressed themselves creatively through dance and music. Of course, as the 80s progressed, we saw the emergence of hip-hop as a musical genre.
When looking back at the history of hip-hop, it’s important to understand that it was around long before its official “introduction,” as there was definitely an underground movement happening before it went “mainstream.” From a popular culture standpoint, however, “Rapper’s Delight” is culturally recognized as being the first hip-hop song. Gone were the days of “disco,” and hip-hop emerged as the defining musical genre for breaking with its heavier beats (which we now refer to as “hard”), and transitions.
New rappers such as LL Cool J burst onto the scene (think “Jingling Baby”), and new breakdancing styles were formed by the many different B-Boys and B-Girls such as Mighty Zulu Kings and the Lady Rockers, who told their stories and life experiences through their passionate dancing.
Now, this is where it starts to get interesting. For all of the breakdancing in the 1970s and 1980s, mainstream coverage of breaking slowed down considerably in the 1990s. Here are a possible few reasons as to why—for starters, the late 80s and early 90s brought in the New Jack Swing era.
New Jack Swing is hard to express verbally because it’s a specific sound that you instantly recognize (songs like “Motownphilly” by Boyz II Men are good examples), and while breaking moves like the running man, splits, etc. were incorporated into routines, the early 1990s mostly had its own style. The same could also be said for the 90s era of rap as well. Moves like the c-walk were introduced and later heavily incorporated into early 2000s breaking, and rap music became “harder” to dance in terms of a breakdancing perspective.
That largely remained the case until the early 2000s when breaking saw a resurgence. Again, that coincides with the musical change and style of rap and hip-hop. In the 90s, hip-hop was “darker,” but as breaking legend and Red Bull BC One judge Ericka “Baby Girl” Martinez points out, breaking never went away.
“For me, I feel like the 1990s was a golden era. I think there was a lot in the community of B-Boys and B-Girls within that time period. I remember being at events that were huge. There was a transition as we started getting closer to the 2000s, where it started to die down a little bit. I was really lucky enough to see Yo! MTV Raps, and all of the music videos. I saw Lady Champ when I was young, and she has since become a friend of mine. I think back then, it was huge, but we didn’t have as many platforms to showcase it.”
And while it may not have been as popular in the United States at times, that popularity never waned abroad, says Neguin, another breaking legend who judged Red Bull’s Red Bull BC One New York Cypher over the weekend.
“Maybe some places like New York weren't as big at the time, but places like Brazil and Korea were booming. I’m lucky enough to travel the world and see how much it has evolved over the years. For me, hip-hop is going to always be alive. Some might say people weren’t dancing as much, but it was always around.”
So, now we’re in the 2000s, a time period where at least from a mainstream standpoint, breaking began to experience a resurgence. We saw classic moves like the Harlem Shake and crip walk making a comeback, to go along with the popular early 2000s rap classics that we all know and love, but as B-Girl Sunny points out, breaking has continued to remain a staple through the remainder of the 2000s. Sunny herself was introduced to breaking in the mid-2000s, making her official debut in 2008.
“Funny enough, the interview was kind of new, and my brother showed me a clip of some B-Boy’s doing airflares. I remember thinking it was kind of “cool,” but I was a gymnast, so I also didn’t think it was that big of a deal. I didn’t think anything of it. When I went to college in Philly, I saw some people dancing late at night, and they invited me to a popping class. I was terrible at it, but they suggested different tips since I was a gymnast. I was basically addicted after that.”
So there you have it. The legends themselves say that breakdancing has always been here, and always will be. That was evident this past Saturday at the Red Bull BC One New York Cypher, where the B-Boys and B-Girls competed in a showdown to determine the finalists for the upcoming U.S. Red Bull BC One National Finals in Orlando.
The Red Bull BC One competition continues this weekend in Los Angeles, with additional regional qualifiers to follow in Boston and Houston before the U.S. Red Bull BC One National Finals, which take place in Orlando. One b-boy and one b-girl will represent the U.S. at the Red Bull BC One World Finals taking place in Gdańsk, Poland, on November 5 to 6.