The History of Street Dance

Denise Page
Category: Group Exercise

Street dance

Co-authored by Katie Page & Lincoln Bryden

Hip-hop as a cultural movement began in the Bronx in New York City in 1976, mostly among the African-American and Latino population. During the early 1980s, certain aspects of this culture – for example, the clothes, language and music – began spreading into the mainstream population of the USA and, by the 1990s, hip-hop culture had spread throughout the world. This was mainly due to more groups using videos to promote their music, which were then viewed by a wider audience through music channels. Some consider beat boxing to be the fifth element of the genre; others might add fashion, slang, Double Dutching (an urban form of rope skipping, demonstrated in Malcolm McLaren’s video to the song Double Dutch in the early 80s), or other elements as important facets of hip hop. In mainstream spheres, the term “hip-hop” typically refers only to the music produced by the MCing and DJing aspects of hip-hop culture.

The four main aspects, or elements, of hip-hop culture are:

  • MCing (rapping)
  • DJing
  • Graffiti
  • B-boying (known to the mainstream as break-dancing).


The various factors that influenced hip-hop culture are complex and numerous, and they can provide valuable stimuli for your street dance choreography. Although the majority of influences can be traced to African culture, the multicultural society of New York City resulted in diverse musical influences finding their way into hip-hop music. One of the many influences for both hip-hop culture and music was Jamaican dub music, which arose as a sub-genre of reggae in the 1960s. Dub music saw producers such as King Tubby creating instrumental versions of popular reggae records for the purpose of clubs and sound systems; they had discovered that dancers often responded better to the extended, isolated beats of the records, often featuring intense percussion and heavy baselines. The DJs became cult figures, fighting duels that were based on turntable skills.

In 1977, the Bronx was divided into three main spheres of influence: Afrika Bambaataa in the southeast, DJ Kool Herc in the west, and Grandmaster Flash in the centre. These spheres also corresponded to the influences of different gangs. It was Afrika Bambaattaa, leader of the Universal Zulu Nation movement, who encouraged warring gang members to come together at local neighborhood block parties.


Break-dancing, also known as b-boying or b-girling by its practitioners and followers, is a dynamic style of dance. The term “break-dancer” originates from the dancers at DJ Kool Herc’s parties, who saved their best dance moves for the break section of the song. Breaking is one of the major elements of hip-hop culture, commonly associated with, but distinct from, popping, locking, hitting, ticking, boogaloo and other funk styles that evolved independently during the late 20th century. Hip-hop dance comes from break-dancing but does not consist wholly of break-dancing moves. Unlike most other forms of dance, which are often at least moderately structured, hip-hop dance has few (if any) limitations on positions or steps.

Top Rocking

Some of the earliest dancing by b-boy pioneers was done upright, and became known as top rocking. The structure and form of top rocking has infused dance forms and influences from Brooklyn uprocking, tap, Lindy hop, James Brown’s Good Foot, salsa, Afro-Cuban and various African and Native American dances.

Footwork and Freezes

As a result of the highly competitive nature of these dances, it wasn’t long before top rockers extended their repertoire to the ground with footwork and freezes. For instance, one dancer might start top rocking, then drop to the ground, suddenly going into leg shuffles, then a freeze, before coming to his feet. His opponent might have to do twice as much floorwork or a better freeze to win the battle.

The fancy leg movements done on the ground, supported by the arms, were eventually defined as footwork or floor rocking. In time, an impressive vocabulary of footwork, ground moves and freezes developed, including the dancers’ most dynamic steps and moves. Top rocking was not replaced with floor rocking; it was added to the dance and both were key points in the dance’s execution. Many times one could tell who had flavor and finesse just by their top rocking before the drop and floor rock. The transition between top and floor rocking was also important and became known as the drop. Some of these drops were called front swipes, back swipes, dips and corkscrews-–the smoother the drop, the better.


The west coast was also engaged in a cultural movement throughout the 1970s. This scene was nourished by soul, R&B and funk music at outdoor functions and discos. In Los Angeles, Don Campbell – also known as Don Cambellock – originated the dance form locking. Trying to imitate a dance called the funky chicken, Don Campbell added an effect of locking the joints of his arms and body, which became known as his signature dance. The lock is a specific movement that glues together combinations of steps and moves, similar to a freeze or a sudden pause. Combinations can consist of a series of points done by extending the arms and pointing in different directions. Dancers combined fancy step patterns with the legs and moves done in various sequences.


Originally, popping was a term used to describe a sudden muscle contraction executed with the triceps, forearms, neck, chest and legs. These contractions accentuated the dancer’s movement, causing a quick, jolting effect.

New School Hip-Hop

New school hip-hop originated around 1986. It is a form of hip-hop dance that has different moves from breaking. These moves originated as hip-hop music evolved. Old school music had fast beats that matched breaking moves. As the music changed, people realized that breaking did not fit with the new school style of music. New styles come from everywhere. People take moves from martial arts, reggae, locking and even 70s soul train steps. Even now, classic hip-hop moves have been fused with other dance styles to provide a more complete and vast range of dance material to choose from.

Hip-hop as a movement has many different influences on street dance in terms of its background, style and type of clothing. Each of these elements can provide us with stimuli to help choreograph our dances.