hip-hop choreographer ysabelle capitule dancing in front of a busy street corner

A History of Hip-Hop

Hip-hop has changed a lot over the years, coming to encompass a wide variety of styles and moves which all fall under the aegis of the genre. Pinpointing down such a broad category can be difficult, and in doing so spark many debates about what is and what isn’t hip-hop dance. We’ve put together a brief history of hip-hop dance in the hope of providing some clarity…or at least start a conversation.

Pillars of the Streets

Hip-hop dance developed hand in hand with hip-hop music and culture, and it all began in New York City in the 1970s. Early rappers and DJs started codifying the styles and sounds of the beat-driven music and in the process created what would become the four fundamentals of hip-hop: emceeing (or rapping, wordsmith), deejaying (spinning records, deckcraft, scratching, fading, and dropping beats), graffiti, and break dancing. Break dancing was so named by Jamaican-born Bronx hip-hop pioneer DJ Kool Herc, who dubbed the dancers b-boys and b-girls as a shortened version of break boys and girls. This was a reference to the tracks which he played that contained many deliberate drum breaks to get people dancing. It’s important to note that while break dancing was extremely influential to the development of hip-hop dance, it is considered to be its own separate genre of dance. Many such street dances at the birth of the New York City hip-hop scene would go on to influence the development of hip-hop dance

Taking Over

As hip-hop culture grew and became more visible in the 1980s, so too did hip-hop dance. Break dancing had already gained the attention of Hollywood with movies such as Breakin, Flashdance, and Style Wars and through the work of dance troupes like the Rock Steady Crew. The new emergence of music television as a popular medium brought with it highly stylized commercial portrayals of hip-hop dancing that would break off into a separate genre called jazz funk. So as things got bigger and grander with its peers, hip-hop dance turned to the clubs for inspiration, and new moves started developing based on less frenetic action. Instead of just focusing on the competition aspects of breaking or the large group choreography of jazz funk, hip-hop dance became more playful and culturally referential. Individual dances and fads sprung up, with names like the Robocop, the Humpty Dance, and the Cabbage Patch that all gave hints to their origins. hip-hop heads tightened the definition of the genre to allow for these new emerging styles to be brought under hip-hop’s umbrella without explicitly defining the genre. In that sense it was developing as a fusion process that constantly took on new elements without being pigeonholed into stale repetition. The music was growing, and with it, the dance moves themselves. Established dance styles like popping and locking contributed to the expanding artform and the dance moves multiplied as the genre took on more urban trends and made them its own.

Lights, Camera, Style

As the new styles and dances contributed to the evolution of the movement, so too did style and fashion start to make its mark. Designers started producing clothing that was loose and baggy, allowing for a range of motion to compliment the dancers while still looking extremely fresh. The television show In Living Color debuted in 1990 and with it came The Fly Girls, an all-female dance troupe whose hip-hop and jazz funk stylings, under the careful choreography of actress Rosie Perez, exponentially expanded the audience of hip-hop dance into the mainstream. With the new clothing and exposure came the final step for hip-hop dance: studio choreography that took hip-hop dance from the streets and into theaters and classrooms around the world. A constantly evolving mix of the freshest styles, cutting-edge dance moves often built on hit club tracks several months before the mainstream caught wind of them, and an ability to redefine itself while still being married to its street roots has made hip-hop dance into a uniquely powerful cultural juggernaut. From runways to pop concerts to television contests to backstreet galas, hip-hop dance is a dominating force in the new century.

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