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PHOTO ESSAY

Origins of Popular Dance

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Break dancing

Break dancer in New York City (2008). Courtesy of Andrew Tng.

Though intimately associated with the rise of hip-hop, break dancing—or "b-boying," to purists—actually took root in the disco era. In the period of isolated percussion between record changes (breaks), dancers began to perform highly stylized maneuvers "that emphasized the pause in rhythmic continuity" (Bennett). While the conventional role of the disco DJ was to minimize any gap between songs, before long DJs in New York City began lengthening the break in order to provide a backdrop for the new dance form. A distinctly modern synthesis, the dance incorporated elements of indigenous black dances such as the cakewalk, the Charleston, and the snake hips, along with influences from the Capoeira, the Afro-Brazilian martial arts dance, and kung fu caricatures. Though interest in disco dropped precipitously by the end of the 1970s, break dancing—which was birthed in the South Bronx—was expertly positioned to take its place. Street gangs began staging dance-offs in place of conventional battles, and as hip hop began to define itself, break dancing become more and more an integral part of the new music form. (Afrika Bambaataa, regarded as one of the founders of the genre, considered breaking one of the "four elements" of hip hop, in addition to deejaying, emceeing, and graffiti.) Within a few years of its inception, breakdancing had come to include outrageously acrobatic moves—well-illustrated by names such as "the helicopter"—and similarly distinctive clothing fashion. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the burgeoning style was quickly overcome by commercialization; the 1983 movie Flashdance, propelled by an extended break dancing sequence, grossed almost $100 million. As dilution continued apace, the dance form inevitably lost the attention of the mainstream, eventually returning back to a smaller group of devotees.

Bennett, Eric. "Break Dancing." In Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience. 2d ed. Edited by Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

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