What is Breakdancing?

Dana Hinders
Dana Hinders

The term breakdancing refers to a style of hip-hop dancing that first appeared in the 1970s. Sometimes known as b-boying, b-girling, or breaking, this style was made popular by African American and Latin American teens who used the activity to provide a more constructive alternative to the dangerous influences of street gangs.

Breakdancing began as an alternative to street gangs.
Breakdancing began as an alternative to street gangs.

Coordination, style, flexibility, and rhythm are the keys to successful breakdancing. It is one of the most improvisational dance styles, allowing for each dancer to customize his or her routine with athleticism and imagination. However, since many dancers have created moves that borrow from gymnastics and martial arts, upper body strength is often considered a necessity.

Breakdancing borrows many moves from gymnastics.
Breakdancing borrows many moves from gymnastics.

Music is an important element in breakdancing. Typically, a DJ compiles short samples from a variety of different songs into a unique composition that suits this fast-paced dance style. The music is often an impressive fusion of rap, disco, jazz, funk, soul, electro, and R&B. However, some dancers have even experimented with adding snippets of opera songs into their dance music.

Like other types of dance, breakdancing has developed its own costuming style. Baggy pants, bandannas, wristbands, nylon tracksuits, and low-weight sneakers with a good grip are often key elements of the fashion. Puma and Tribal remain the most popular clothing brands in the breakdancing community, although some small groups of dancers have adopted a goth rock style in an attempt to distinguish themselves from their peers.

The culture of breakdancing is very informal. Moves are often passed on by word-of-mouth and many dancers are largely self-taught. However, some larger cities do have clubs and organizations that provide a more structured approach to mastering this unique dance style.

Since breakdancing is a skill that requires a great time commitment to learn, dancers have created many opportunities to showcase their talents. Battles are competitions that allow dancers to perform quick-paced routines in either head-to-head duels or as part of a larger competition between opposing crews. Winners are determined based on technical proficiency and the complexity of the routine. A cipher is similar to a breakdancing battle, but the competitive aspect is less emphasized.

Today, breakdancing is an important part of pop culture, often appearing in popular movies and television shows such as South Park, Zoolander, Save the Last Dance, and You Got Served. It is also an element of video games such as Sonic the Hedgehog and Super Smash Bros. Melee. Even professional wrestlers such as Booker T frequently incorporate the moves into their performances.

Clubs may have event which feature breakdancing.
Clubs may have event which feature breakdancing.
Dana Hinders
Dana Hinders

Dana holds a B.A. in journalism and mass communication from the University of Iowa. She has loved being part of the wiseGEEK team ever since discovering the joys of freelance writing after her son was born. Dana also hones her writing skills by contributing articles to various blogs, as well as creating sales copy and content for e-courses.

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Discussion Comments


Do you think it is a good idea to learn breakdancing through an actual dance school, or is it better to just pick it up on your own?

A lot of my friends have been practicing breakdancing at a studio in our local gym and they have been doing pretty well at replicating a lot of the moves they see on TV. I worry about some of them though, as there has been more than a few hard landings.

Some of the moves I have tried have been fun and easy to pick up, but I don't think I would be confident enough to ever try some of the more extreme flips and spins. I wonder if having an actual teacher would make it easier to learn, despite most breakdancers being self-taught.


For those that love watching breakdancing in movies going to one of the larger b-boy competitions can be a real treat. It is really amazing the athletic ability breakdancers possess.

There is actually a world championship for breakdancers that showcases b-boy crews putting on amazing choreography. Usually crews are set up to battle one another, so a great deal of improvisation is also required. I am always amazed at how well the crews respond to one another. While I know that a lot of their dancing isn't planned it still flows together so well. I really wish that I had the kind of skill required to dance in an actual competition.


@amysamp - I have never heard of breakdancing lessons in school, but I think that is brilliant! Everyone is so worried about children not moving enough or exercising enough, breakdancing would reach quite a few of them I bet.

When I was in junior high we learned some swing dancing; which was probably better than your square dancing, and I thought it was great but difficult for me (I have two left feet)!

I have seen dance schools that offer breakdancing but that is about it. Maybe you should bring it up in the next PTA meeting!


Everyone can rest safely that breakdancing is alive and well. At our school's preschool music program, in the midst of the cutesy hand gestures that the class was doing in unison one of the little boy preschoolers pulled out his breakdancing flare.

This was, of course, rehearsed, but it was unforgettable, seeing a little kid in the middle of this music program breaking it down. I never had a chance to ask his teacher where he learned breakdancing!

Do schools ever teach breakdancing? When I was in elementary school in the nineties, we learned square dancing, but I would much preferred to learn breakdancing!


I used to be a high school dance teacher, and something that broke my heart was seeing incredible talent that just absolutely went to waste.

I worked with some very poor students in a very bad area; they didn’t know that there were many good things out there, but when they found something good they clung to it.

Bboy breakdancing and crumping were two of the kinds of dance that were predominate there. Many of these students were simply amazing.

But, because of where they lived and the way they’d been conditioned, nine out of ten of them would never think to expand on that kind of gift. They breakdanced to relieve stress and then that was it.

I always regretted not being able to reach them all, to tell them all that at least for some of them this kind of amazing gift could be a way out.


Good gracious, I remember the days when breakdancing was the thing to do – this was before it evolved into crumping and hip hop.

While everyone can’t do all breakdancing, it seemed like all of us could do at least some of it. Do remember the worm? It was a ton of fun.

The truth is, though, that it has transformed and grown into a real dance genre all its own and should be completely respected. I absolutely love to see people do it who really can do it well!

I myself might not be able to do it all anymore, but I bet I could still do a mean coffee grind. I’ll leave the spinning on the head and the belly flops to somebody else, though.


@Monika - That is a good idea. However, not just anyone can breakdance! Have you ever seen some of those moves?

Breakdancers hop around on their hands and spin on their heads! I don't think most high schoolers could do this. However, the idea of having some sort of contest to settle an argument is still a good idea.


@JessicaLynn - That does sound like an interesting experience. I know a little bit about breakdancing, and I think its origins are so interesting.

The article touched on it a little, but breakdance battles partly started out as an alternative to having a fistfight. So instead of fighting, they have a "battle" and whoever is the better dancer wins the battle and therefore the argument.

I think this is a great alternative! Whoever thought this up was definitely a problem-solver. Maybe we should institute something like this in high schools!


My boyfriend is a DJ, and he recently helped organize a breakdancing battle. I went along, and helped behind the scenes. Let me tell you, a lot goes into organizing an event like this!

First of all, you have to collect money from the breakdancers who are competing. This may just be hearsay, but breakdancers are notorious for being late and disorganized. So we still had people showing up after the battle started.

Second of all, someone has to decide who is battling whom. In this case, that someone was me. I decided completely at random, which I don't think is the proper way. Either way, it worked! Then while the battle was taking place I kept track of who won each round.

It was a lot of work, but it was very interesting. I'm glad I got to have the experience.

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