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
August 5, 2021
Sharing is caring.
Copied to clipboard
You're in.
Try that again...

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 several sub-styles of dance, including Breaking.

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 at best 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.

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, 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.

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

What does "Hip Hop" mean?

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

"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.

He stresses that in order for you to be Hip Hop, you must actively participate in the culture by means of...

Deejaying (turn tabling)

Emceeing (rapping)

Graffiti (writing / art)

Breaking (dance)


These are the 5 elements of Hip Hop.

Hip Hop music and Hip Hop dance

Hip Hop DJs

what is hip hop dance

Photo by The Guardian

The first form of Hip Hop was turntablism, or deejaying.

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 party people, 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)

Afrika Bambaataa also expanded turntabling techniques.

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, mix for the community.

what is hop hop dance

Photo by Voices of East Anglia

Hip Hop dancers

Breaking, later known as "breakdancing," is a style of dance that was born through these parties.

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

Early Breaking also incorporated steps from a standing position and drops to the ground.

It also involved gestures associated with mock-battle forms, and movement on the ground including spins and freezes.

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.

So imagine this scene – a DJ playing breakbeats, dancers (young and angsty) looking to release emotion or assert their dominance or just be somebody.

The intertwined nature of the DJs and MCs trying to keep the dancers moving on the dance floor with innovations in music as well as the efforts of the dancers to “one up’ each other contributed to flexible and organic creativity. (Dimitriadis 181)

*Note: Uprocking, also alled Rocking, is a whole dance in itself that came before Breaking.

Dancers that Uprock were called Rockers.

The culture of Breaking

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

B-boys and b-girls would dance against each other, trying one-up their opponent with each round.

They earned pride, respect, and a sense of identity and purpose from entering and winning battles. Dance battles can be seen as a non-violent alternative to violence.

Instead of asserting themselves with weapons or violence, they did so through dance.

The dancers, DJs, and emcees all created an environment where everyone was respected for who they were and how they expressed themselves.

Hip Hop party dance

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

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

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

The Happy Feet was an iconic move in the 1980s, always danced to the rap song “The Show” to get the party started.

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

You can learn all these Hip Hop party dance moves with Jade "Soul" Zuberi's Hip Hop classes on STEEZY Studio.

hip hop dance

Click here to try it out for free.

Hip Hop culture and dance reminded those in the city that their differences – the color of their skin, their background, their socioeconomic status – didn't matter.

That music and dance were for anyone and everyone.

Other “Hip Hop” styles?

Styles like Popping/Boogaloo, House, Locking, and Waacking 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.

hip hop dance

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.

It 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, Panasonic, 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).

The ”King of Pop” Michael Jackson drew inspiration from the dancers of this era – particularly the Lockers and Poppers he saw on Soul Train.

In 1983, he did the Backslide (often mislabeled as the Moonwalk) in front of a national audience during his performance of Billie Jean on Motown 25.

Michael Jackson continued to fuse the things he liked from multiple generations of movers to create his own unique style – one that continues to resonate with dancers today.

what is hip hop dance

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

The dancers were getting more exposure and opportunities, but the style and culture were depicted in a watered-down and commercialized manner.

“Critics now find flaws in the films as examples of the early commercialization of break dancing 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)

Universal Zulu Nation is an organization dedicated to the preservation and education of Hip Hop culture.

Afrika Bambaataa was an early promoter of political consciousness in Hip Hop as a means to address the social, economic, and political situation of nonwhite people against the mainstream. (Rajakmar, xxvii)

The worldwide movement continues to practice, teach, and live all things Hip Hop.

Mainstream media’s effect on Hip Hop

It’s difficult to make anything appeal to a mass market while fully preserving its authenticity.

Mainstream media often inaccurately uses the label “Hip Hop” for marketing purposes. This distorts the value of the culture and meaning that it carries.

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 urban movement to younger dancers, but depicted underground Hip Hop culture in a way that was more packaged, for the screen.

Because of the way the term was used in movies and shows, we started to see “Hip Hop” dance classes in studios teaching “Hip Hop” choreography (that was more ballet, modern, and jazz-based than Hip Hop based).

Documentaries like Planet B-Boy aim to depict the breaking culture in a more authentic way.

Featuring Ken Swift of Rock Steady Crew, the film follows b-boys who are training for the Battle of the Year competition.

“Although b-boying is very popular and highly regarded in Europe and Asia, the majority of Americans just see it as a simple street dance that street kids do. Obviously, this is not the case and projects such as Planet B-boy continue to spread the word and culture in the proper light.”

– Johnny Lee, executive producer

What Hip Hop dance means to us

Though  Urban Dance Choreography*is not Hip Hop dance, we can trace some of its movements and techniques to Hip Hop and street styles.

*I would more accurately describe "Urban Dance" as "Choreography" – or come up with any other label that might be more fitting than "Urban."

But whatever we're calling it, it's not so much a style as it is an act, or its own sub-culture within dance.

Anyway – the choreography that you see on your Instagram feeds or in dance studios or competitions is a mix of any and all styles, sometimes including Hip Hop (Breaking or Party Dance influences).

Choreography mostly depends on the the training that the choreographer of that piece draws from, and how they interpret the music.

There are no real rules in "choreography," as there are no real rules in "freestyle" – unless it's specified to be a "House freestyle" or "Waacking choreography."

So most of the choreography you see can be a combination of whatever.

You can find out more about the differences between "Urban Dance" and Hip Hop here.

As a part of our jobs as dance educators and because of our personal understandings 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.

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

Soul's Hip Hop Dance Program (Beginner)

Boogie Frantick's Popping Program (Beginner & Advanced)

Jojo Diggs' House Program (Beginner & Intermediate)

Lorena Valenzuela's Whacking Program (Beginner)

Tango Leadaz' Dancehall Program (Beginner)

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 me ( 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. And at least now we're talking more.

That's what this is really about, anyway.


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