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What Is Hip Hop Dance? Learn the History & Moves at Home

Dance Culture

What Is Hip Hop Dance? Learn the History & Moves at Home

Jessie Ma
May 7, 2022
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The moves, the style, the music…

From where it all started until now, Hip Hop dance & culture has made, and is still making, a huge impact on our world.

And if you’re a dancer, studying Hip Hop’s undeniably raw and fascinating background should be considered a core part of your education!

To get you started, we’ve put together a Hip Hop dance crash course for you below. 

In this article we’ll cover:

  1. The definition of Hip Hop dance
  2. The 5 elements of Hip Hop
  3. The history of Hip Hop Culture
  4. Types of Hip Hop dance
  5. Mainstream media’s effect on Hip Hop
  6. Everything you need to know about Hip Hop dance classes

But first… if you’re looking to do more than read about Hip Hop dance, here’s a shortcut to our online Beginner Hip Hop dance program!

There, your instructor Buddha Stretch will teach you about Hip Hop history in real time, while also showing you the basic moves and foundations of the style, step-by-step.

All right, let’s dive into all things Hip Hop.

What Is Hip Hop Dance?

Hip Hop Dance is a style of movement characterized by bounces and rocks, executed to Hip Hop music. It has deep historical and social roots in African American culture, having emerged in Black communities living in 1970s New York. While frequently referred to as a singular dance style, Hip Hop dance is part of a whole culture of Hip Hop, that includes Deejaying, Graffiti, Emceeing, and Breaking.

The 5 Elements of Hip Hop

graphic showing the 5 elements of hip hop

Deejaying

Also known as turntabling, this is an art form in which music is made in real time using record players and DJ mixers. DJs in the Hip Hop community are responsible for creating/curating the music that gets people on the dance floor at parties.

Emceeing

MC stands for “Master of Ceremonies” and they’re basically the hype-man of the DJ! The MC gets the crowd going and will sometimes freestyle rap over the music.

Graffiti

This is the art of expressing oneself about everyday life using spray paint on walls/outdoor spaces.

Breaking

Breaking (often called breakdancing by popular media) is the original dance style that came out of the Hip Hop community. It started out with these 5 core movements: Top Rocks, Fast Footwork, Back Rocks, Freezes, and Power Moves. 

Knowledge

This element is the thread that weaves all the other elements together. “Knowledge of self” refers to the Afro-diasporic mix of spiritual and political consciousness designed to empower members of oppressed groups by portraying social change and giving back to the minority communities.

While some OG members of the Hip Hop community consider other elements to be part of Hip Hop’s core (such as Beatboxing) all agree – you must participate in the 5 elements above to be considered a member of authentic Hip Hop culture.

The History of Hip Hop Culture

The Bronx in the 70's was a rough, dangerous place to grow up. The youth were surrounded by drugs, crime, poverty, gang violence, and overall struggle.

Yet they, particularly the African American and Latino youth (minority groups), were neglected by mainstream institutions.

Desperate for a way to escape their everyday struggles, they invented their own art forms.

These art forms, which the youth embodied in the way they dressed, talked, moved, and expressed themselves, soon became a lifestyle. A way to live.

This lifestyle and culture became known as Hip Hop.

KRS-One defines the etymology of "Hip Hop" in this lecture below.


"Hip" = present, "Hop"= action.

So, Hip Hop is a movement that represents the freedom to learn, grow, and evolve.

Despite the negativity and tumult in the South Bronx, Hip Hop heads were able to rise above their environment and create a positive form of release.

Instead of substances and violence, their energy was redirected to values like originality, creativity, identity, respect, and community.

The same way that our religious, ethnic, and familial backgrounds inform our way of being in the world, Hip Hop was the way that people could be in a way that felt right to them.

Deejaying, Emceeing, Breaking and Dancing, and Graffiti weren't just hobbies – they were sanctuaries.


hip hop dj kool herc posing

Photo by The Guardian

DJ Kool Herc (AKA the “Father of Hip Hop”) used to start block parties in the West Bronx (AKA the “birthplace of Hip Hop").

He played music on his turntables and the community would come out to mingle and dance.

If you've ever heard of "1520 Sedgwick Avenue" that's the address of the iconic building where many of these first parties took place.

As Kool Herc watched the people party, he noticed that they got the most hype during the breakbeat of a song.

(The breakbeat is the instrumental, percussive section in funk and R&B records.)

And since his job as a DJ was to keep the energy of the party up, he found a way to extend the breakbeat by isolating it, then using two turntables to play it back to back on a loop.

Grandmaster Flash further innovated the art of DJing by using his headphones to pinpoint exactly where the beats started and ended.

This allowed him to “precue” the beats and make seamless transitions between the breaks. (Price 156)

As this happened, the Master of Ceremonies, or MC, or Emcee, would hype up the DJ and the crowd, keeping the energy going.

By the late 1970s, DJs and Emcees were getting together regularly to spin, scratch, cut, and mix for the community.


front of 1520 sedgwick ave. building

Photo by Voices of East Anglia

As much as the art forms within Hip Hop have evolved over the decades, the core tenants of the culture remain.

Now that we’re familiar with the history of Hip Hop culture, let’s take a closer look at the two major Hip Hop dance styles – Breaking and Party Dances.

Types of Hip Hop dances

Breaking

Breaking (often referred to by mainstream media as "breakdancing”)" is a style of dance that was born through Hip Hop block parties. It’s an athletic dance style that allows skilled dancers to engage in good-natured battles and displays of one-upmanship.

DJ Kool Herc originally called these dancers break boys (b-boys) and break girls (b-girls) – because they danced to his breakbeats that he looped.

“Standard” techniques include fast footwork, freezes, powermoves, downrocks and toprocks.

Footwork and toprock both require being able to think in three dimensions, the ability to create your own moves, and the originality to imbue every individual movement with style, flavor, and originality. (Rajakumar 19)

The early b-boys and b-girls came from all kinds of backgrounds of movement.

They brought salsa, Cuban mambo and rumba, Brazilian samba, Jazz dance, as well as martial arts like Kung-Fu and Capoeira to influence Breaking.

Breaking battles became tests of athleticism, attitude, originality, and dominance.

Through these battles, dancers earned pride, respect, and a sense of identity and purpose.  And instead of asserting themselves with weapons or violence, they did so through dance.

Hip Hop Party Dances

But not everybody could do the athletically demanding moves of Breaking, nor were they interested in competition.

And different types of Hip Hop music prompted people to move a different way – a way that is social, light-hearted, and fun.

With the advent of dancers like Buddha Stretch, Hip Hop party dances were born!

Some examples of these social or party dance moves include the Snake, Chicken-head, Cabbage Patch, Harlem Shake, and Running Man.

As the dance scene expanded, multiple Hip Hop clubs sprang up all over New York. Two popular ones were Latin Quarters and Union Square.

The dances that emerged during this era are usually what people think of when you say “old school Hip Hop” dances.

Then, as we entered the late 90s and early 2000s, Hip Hop music evolved to include different instruments and rap flows, which led to new dances.

The Whip, Nae Nae, Dougie, Cat Daddy are examples of new school party dances that came from recent songs. (Brandon Allen Juezan)

P.S. You can learn all these Hip Hop party dance moves on STEEZY Studio too! Learning single moves can be a great way to delve into Hip Hop in a short amount of time.

Click here to take the classes for free.

Other “Hip Hop” styles?

Styles like Popping/Boogaloo, House, Locking, and Whacking are often incorrectly grouped under the Hip Hop “umbrella.”

However, these are not Hip Hop styles, but their own individual styles of dance with their own techniques, vocabulary, and origin.

The social dances that developed in the 1980's like Locking and Popping are more accurately described as "West Coast Funk" styles.

Hip Hop dance in the media

Hip Hop started being noticed by the media in the early 1980's.

Films like Wild Style, Style Wars, Beat Street, and Breakin’ were significant in introducing Breaking and street dance culture to a wider audience.

elite force dance crew

In 1981, a battle between Rock Steady Crew and the Dynamic Rockers at the Lincoln Center gained national exposure.

It was covered by several New York Publications, and even National Geographic.


In 1983, the movie Flashdance featured dancers from Rock Steady Crew (Crazy Legs, Ken Swift, Frosty Freeze, and Mr. Freeze) in a cameo performance.

Graffiti Rock, though short-lived, was a show that bridged all the foundational elements of Hip Hop together.

"[Graffiti Rock] is still “remembered as one of the pioneers of hip hop culture.” (Rajakumar, 35)

Soul Train, created in the 70s by Don Cornelius, also popularized Hip Hop social dancing along with Popping, Locking, and other styles.

Breakers went on to be featured in commercials for major brands such as Burger King, Pepsi, Coke, and Panasonic, as well as talk shows, news shows, and even the 1984 summer Olympics.

Charles “Cholly” Atkins and James Brown popularized several dance moves that would later influence the future Hip Hop generation (Durden).

Elite Force, a dance crew from the 90s, was made of Hip Hop heads that also worked as professional dancers.

michael jackson doing the backslide

Elite Force, a dance crew from the 90s, was made of Hip Hop heads that also worked as professional dancers.

All of these Hip Hop dancers were getting more exposure and opportunities, but the style and culture were depicted in a watered-down and commercialized manner when it was performed for the masses.

“Critics now find flaws in the films as examples of the early commercialization of breakdancing diluting the intensity of the socioeconomic roots of the origins of breakdancing and hip hop culture – part athletic creativity and part struggle for meaning in the midst of poverty and social alienation.” (Rajakumar, 38)

After all, it’s difficult to make anything appeal to a mass market while fully preserving its authenticity.

Many dance and fitness studios use the term “Hip Hop” to describe their classes, despite the fact that the movements are not based on Hip Hop’s foundational grooves or culture.

And all of these misuses of the term “Hip Hop” have led people to believe that any choreography danced to Hip Hop, Rap, and R&B music is considered Hip Hop dance, which 

Modern shows like America’s Best Dance Crew, Dancing With The Stars, So You Think You Can Dance, and movies like Save The Last Dance, You Got Served, and the Step Up series further popularized street style movement to younger dancers, but depicted underground Hip Hop culture in a way that was packaged to be palatable for the screen.

Today, dance organizations and community groups around the world are working to reverse this appropriation by practicing, teaching, and living all things Hip Hop as authentically and preserving the culture in its purest form.


Hip Hop Dance Classes

As we previously mentioned, coming across an authentically taught Hip Hop dance class can be tough – especially if you live in smaller cities where that culture never had the chance to take root.

However, while you search for a class, you can always start your training by building your knowledge – it’s one of the 5 elements of Hip Hop after all!

We recommend that you train all of the background dance skills that’ll aid you in an in-person Hip Hop class by reading this article: How To Dance Hip Hop For Beginners

And for a deeper dive on all the things you might wanna know before taking any street style class, our post How To Start Dancing will give you info on everything from freestyling to getting involved in your local dance community.

Now, let’s talk about how to actually find a good Hip Hop class in your area.

  1. Start simple by Googling. Look up “Hip Hop dance classes near me” and check out dance studios or events that have great reviews.
  2. Once you find a few solid-looking studios, check out their social media (Instagram, YouTube, and Facebook tend to be best) to get a sense of what the classes actually look like.
  3. Check out the studio websites.

As you’re doing all of this digging, you should be looking for a couple of things!

First, you should be making sure that the classes are truly Hip Hop, not a mix of styles that has been artificially labeled. 

To do this, look for classic moves listed in their website descriptions/executed in their videos. Also look for language about “bounces and rocks,” “old school,” or “new school” dance moves.

Lastly, research the instructor! Does it seem like they’re a member of the wider Hip Hop community? Do they talk about the culture and history like we’ve done in this article? Or do they talk mostly about superficial, commercialized things?

Use your best judgement!

And if you can't find Hip Hop dance classes near you, or you just wanna learn in the comfort of home,  we have plenty of authentically taught classes and programs for you on STEEZY Studio.

Our Beginner Hip Hop program is taught by OG Hip Hop dancer Buddha Stretch. Step-by-step, he’ll guide you through the basics of rhythm, technique, performance skills, and more.

Click here to start the Beginner Hip Hop Program on STEEZY.

If you’re looking for something a little more bite-sized, check out our FREE classes with Brandon Beastboi Juezan! Each class covers a classic Hip Hop move or one of the more recent viral moves of the 2000s. 

Lastly, if you’re an intermediate/advanced dancer, you might be ready to explore Hip Hop in a more personal way. 

Check out these 5 tips on how to find your own flavor in Hip Hop dance.  

And as for choreography?  

Though Open Style Choreography (once referred to as Urban Dance) is not Hip Hop dance, we can trace some of its movements and techniques to Hip Hop and street styles.

If choreography is what you’re actually looking for, STEEZY made it a priority to give that style of movement its own category! 

You can check out our Open Style Choreography classes here, and you can find out more about the differences between "Urban Dance" and Hip Hop here.

What Hip Hop dance means to us

As a part of our jobs as dance educators and because of our personal understanding of how deep dance cultures root back, STEEZY does everything we can to preserve and share the right information – especially with the younger generation of dancers.

In all of our styles programs on STEEZY Studio, whether it's:

Slim Boogie’s Beginner  Popping Program

‍Jojo Diggs' Beginner House Program 

‍Lorena Valenzuela's Beginner Whacking Program

‍Tango Leadaz' Beginner Dancehall Program

Mr. YouTube’s Beginner Lite Feet Program 

Bboy Machine’s Beginner Breaking Program 

we make sure to

  1. Work with dope dancers/teachers who are also respected ambassadors of each dance culture
  2. Include History as a part of teaching the dance moves (because the moves came from the history)

‍Head over to STEEZY now to try our Hip Hop classes from home, and learn about the style from authentic educators in the Hip Hop community.

This article about Hip Hop Dance is far from perfect, and I fantasize of one day writing one all-inclusive piece that accurately, thoroughly covers every little thing about Hip Hop.

But Hip Hop's story contains so many moving parts (some of which conflict), stories of several people's personal lives, and so many details that are still being uncovered to this day...

It's nearly impossible to capture all of that in one package...

Unless it's a package of Encyclopedias?

Alas, I accepted that I can't write the perfect story, and instead embraced the opportunity to simply create dialogue.

If you disagree with something, then write to me (jessie@steezy.co) and let me know.

Or if you have something to add, can connect me with people to interview, have any questions to ask, please don't hesitate to reach out.

We're all learning together. That's what this is really about.

Sources:

‍Hip Hop, by Christopher A. Miller and Rebecca A Ferrell  

Hip Hop Culture, Emmett G. Price III, Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO 2006

Hip Hop Dance, Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar

Underground Dance Masters: Final History Of A Forgotten Era, Thomas Guzman-Sanchez

Hip-Hop Dance in Context Jazz Dance: A History of the Roots and Branches E. Moncell Durden