The Lost Art Form of Breaking

Depending on your age, you may have witnessed the art of breaking, or b-boying, at a New York block party, on the Venice beach strip, or in movies such as Wild Style (1983), You Got Served (2004) and even in the parody film Zoolander (2001).

Due to the longevity of hip hop transcending multiple generations since its inception in the early 1970’s, various aspects of the culture have come and gone as trends changed. Breaking is one of the four essential pillars of hip hop culture; alongside emceeing, DJing and tagging. Despite this, breaking has become, for the most part, a dying art form despite being a significant aspect of the foundation of hip hop.

Nowadays, most popular hip hop songs have specific dances that either the artist created or fans have adopted (i.e. Bobby Shmurda’s “Shmoney” dance or We Are Toonz’s “Nae Nae” dance). They are specific movements to the rhythm of their respective song usually aimed at getting the party or club on the same page. Hip hop dance has not always existed as such.

Back when hip hop originally emerged in the South Bronx, people complimented the music at block parties with the art of breaking. These people, known as b-boys and b-girls, assembled crews that would compete with other crews. They would conduct these battles to settle beef and territorial rights or to prove athletic dominance and boost egos. People would crowd around in circles to bring focus to the talented street performers. All in all, the battles elicited respect and safely solved disputes between butting heads.

B-boying traditionally includes a freestyle of “bodily enactments that bring conscious intent and purpose to the physical execution of rhythmically patterned movement” (Osumare 2002). Over DJ breakdown loops, b-boys string together a series of moves such as the worm, top rock, 6 step, head-spins and many more. The act typically ends with a “freeze”, in which he or she stops all body movement in an unusual pose to elicit either applause, laughs or both. The crews then take turns battling in a group cypher method; one crew finishes and the other begins, and vice versa. The unbiased judges choose the winner and the party proceeds.

Majority of hip hop has pushed breaking into the background of the culture; although various schools have b-boy clubs, and many dance instructors lead breaking classes. In addition, the lesser prevalent art form is easily one of the most recognizable dance types. Breaking is now seen as more of an “old school” technique, but its importance to hip hop culture remains as significant as ever. One does not simply observe breaking without at least knowing its name.

To watch breaking at its finest, I recommend watching Beat Street (1984, clip below) or walking through New York in search of street performers.

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