The origins of Hip Hop – Dance History You Need to Know!

By Heidi Williams / Edited by Samantha BelleroseB.Ed, Dip.Dance(Performing Arts)

When we use the term Hip Hop it is often in reference to music or dance, but what needs to be emphasized and understood is that Hip Hop is a culture, “a way of life,” as many put it. What we often see on TV or social media today when Hip Hop dance is being performed is the commercialized, streamlined, and often diluted form of what it was at its origination.

Asking when did hip hop dance begin is a hard question to pinpoint with an exact answer because it is like asking what came first the chicken or the egg – or what came first the music or the culture?

Many love to take part in Hip Hop and its various forms of expression, but few are willing to understand the culture, and the struggle that gave birth to what has literally become a worldwide phenomenon. It is a complicated story that is still being written, and for so many people of color, the struggles that birthed this multi-faceted movement are still a very real thing to this very day.

WHAT IS HIP HOP?

Hip Hop can be said to be made up essentially of five essential elements: Deejaying (turn tabling), Emceeing (rapping), Graffiti (writing/art), Breaking/Bboying/Bgirling (dance) and Knowledge

“Hip” = present “Hop”= action. Hip Hop is a movement that represents the freedom to learn, grow, and evolve. It is still the same movement it was in the 70’s – the one that gave the inner-city youth the motivation to live a better life.

KRS-One (AKA Lawrence “Kris” Parker) definition of Hip Hop.

Where and When did Hip Hop Dance Begin?

Hip-hop dance was born in the 1970s.

The subcultural art movement of Hip Hop, which started in the Bronx in New York City in the 1970s, began in the predominantly African-American, Puerto Rican, and Caribbean immigrant neighborhoods that were hardest hit by the city’s economic decline –a result of red-lining, white-flight and city government negligence.

As businesses and job opportunities left the area, poverty increased, as well as crime. Those who couldn’t afford to leave stayed and struggled to make the best of it.

The city government continued to funnel funding to wealthier areas while ignoring and abandoning areas in dire need, not to mention closing most of the areas firehouses, not repairing fire hydrants, not performing building code inspections, etc.

This abandonment lead to decay, which increased to the point where parts of the South Bronx were declared disaster areas by politicians.

“The Bronx is Burning” was a physical daily reality for those who lived there. And yet, out of the rubble, something began to rumble.

Out of the Rubble

Maybe having nothing left to lose is an open door for innovation and creation. Maybe when all you have left is what you can make, you end up creating greatness. Despite the backdrop of daily dangers, gang violence, and burning blocks, the youth of the South Bronx began to rise up in various ways.

The city was ignoring their suffering, so they were finding new outlets, and ways to be seen, heard, and acknowledged.

Abandoned brick walls became canvases for vibrant works of graffiti art, empty parking lots became neighborhood block parties where DJs spun records giving rhythm for the dancers and the emcees to freestyle.

It is said that at one of these parties Hip Hop was born –August 11th, 1973 at 1520 Sedgwick Ave South Bronx, when DJ Kool Herc used two turntables to extend the break (the instrumental part of the song that the crowd and dancers went wild to) so the emcee could hype the crowd and the dancers could do their thing and battle.

These separate forms of expression like pieces of the puzzle came together, and the result was magic. This is also how it is believed the term ‘breakers’ (bboys and bgirls) earned its title, as the break beats portion of the song was their time to cypher, battle, show off, freestyle, etc.

And so bboying/bgirling/breaking/breakdance is the first original form of Hip Hop dance.

WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF HIP HOP DANCE?

The 3 original styles and most well-known are Breaking, Popping, and Locking.

Within these types of Hip Hop, labels and names were given to different elements within them such as TopRock, Footwork or DownRock, Freezes, and Power Moves.

You also have Party Dances which you might know as the cabbage patch, the running man, or the Harlem Shake.

You can read all about these in more detail in our article about the different types of hip hop dance here!

CHARACTERISTICS OF HIP HOP DANCE

What all types of Hip Hop Dance have in common is the element of freestyle.

If you can’t feel the music and freestyle to it, you aren’t dancing Hip Hop, you’re merely playing a sophisticated game of copycat.

Whereas other genres of dance are focused from the outward (seen) than inward(felt) for example in ballet, creating a line or depicting a fictional character, Hip Hop and other funk-related styles have to be felt first, and then seen. It comes from a feeling within, from matching those feelings to the rhythm that you hear and then expressing those emotions through your movement. That is what true freestyle is all about. How can you expect your audience to feel you if you don’t feel you? How can they feel the beat if you don’t?

Hip-Hop Cyphers and Battles

Another characteristic of Hip Hop Dance that goes along with freestyle is taking part in cyphers and battles. This is a common thread that has been braided through Hip Hop since the beginning:

“1) Use skills and whatever resources are available to create something new and cool; 2) Emulate and imitate the genius of others but inject personal style until the freshness glows. Competition was, and remains, a prime motivator in the Hip Hop realm” KennedyCenter.

In this day and age as the talent of dancers continues to skyrocket, it’s easy for them to be able to execute hip hop choreography the way a choreographer demonstrates it, but without the knowledge of the History of the movement, without the groove that comes from feeling the rhythm, without the soul that weaved those beats together musically.

It’s just empty moves, and it takes the light away from those who struggled to make it first shine when they had nothing left they could do but shine. To dance Hip Hop is to understand and respect the struggle of the culture from which it came. Respect in this community has to be earned and requires giving back to the community and supporting the culture in any way you can. Hip Hop is not just a dance style, it’s a lifestyle.

Many aspects of its origin are still being debated, and it’s a sensitive topic. One certain thing is that Hip Hop proves that you can make something from nothing, and that imagination and creativity can help us transcend our circumstances.

Note from the writer…

*This short article and the others I have written about Hip Hop dance is in no way meant to be a full description, list, or conclusive text. There are many, many other styles of Hip Hop or related to Hip Hop that aren’t even mentioned here, and for the sake of brevity, couldn’t be mentioned.

Instead, I stuck to the original few elements that came out of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. The research I have done is based on first-hand accounts of people from the time, or from what seems to be the general consensus from the pioneers of Hip Hop, to the best of my knowledge. I am learning, just as we all are, and hope to one day be able to tell a more in-depth story. Much love and respect to all the pioneers out there, and all the people in the culture.

Blessings. ~Heidi

Resources I recommend to further your knowledge and understanding of Hip Hop Dance

Price, Walter, and By. “In His Own Words: Krs One – Definition of Hip Hop ⋆ Global Texan Chronicles.” Global Texan Chronicles, 4 June 2017, globaltexanchronicles.com/words-krs-one/.

Clemente, Stefan Wiggles. What Are Hip Hop Dances, wigzee.biz/blog/?post=what-are-hip-hop-dances.

Pabon, Jorge. Physical Graffitti…the History of Hip Hop Dance BY Popmaster Fabel, of the RockSteadyCrew, Zulu Nation. https://www.daveyd.com/historyphysicalgrafittifabel.html

Adelekun, Emmanuel. “These Are the Basic Elements of Breaking.” Red Bull, Red Bull, 2 July 2021, https://www.redbull.com/us-en/understand-the-basic-elements-of-breaking

Rajakumar, Mohanalakshmi. Hip Hop Dance (The American Dance Floor). Greenwood Publishing Group, 2012 (Find this book on Amazon through out Affiliate Link here)

 Ma, Jessie. “What Is Hip Hop Dance? Learn the History & Moves at Home.” STEEZY Blog, www.steezy.co/posts/what-is-hip-hop-dance

Trina. “A Brief History of Locking: The Lock and Short of It.” Hiphop.org.au, 2 Apr. 2021, https://hiphop.org.au/a-brief-history-of-locking-the-lock-and-short-of-it/

PacificRimVideoPress, director. YouTube, YouTube, 9 Aug. 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v=qROnQORvHHc

“Hip-Hop: A Culture of Vision and Voice.” Hip-Hop: A Culture of Vision and Voice, www.kennedy-center.org/education/resources-for-educators/classroom-resources/media-and-interactives/media/hip-hop/hip-hop-a-culture-of-vision-and-voice/.

“Popping.” LA Street Dance, blogs.uoregon.edu/jerkrumpop/popping/.

More articles about Hip-Hop on Dance Parent 101

About the Author

Heidi Williams

Heidi Anna Williams has over 17 years of professional experience as a dance instructor, educator, coach, and choreographer. In addition to her training in the dance dept. at WMU, she has received instruction from many of the industry’s top choreographers/teachers and trained frequently in LA, California. Her choreography has been awarded frequently on both regional and national levels, often winning national titles. In addition to being nominated for Best Choreography, several of her pieces were chosen to be performed at Disney in Orlando, Florida.