Participants compete at The Red Bull BC One New York Cypher at the Rock Steady Crew 40th Anniversary in New York, USA on 29 July, 2017.
© Carlo Cruz/Red Bull Content Pool

Local moves to worldwide grooves – here’s a brief history of breaking

Want to learn more about breaking? Then check out our comprehensive rundown on the history of the dance style and discover unique facts about the art form.
Written by Emmanuel Adelekun
6 min readUpdated on

What is breakdancing?

Breaking, which is also known as breakdance or breakdancing, is a dynamic, acrobatic street-born dance performed by individuals known as b-boys and b-girls. It's the first dance of the street culture of hip-hop, being one of its four elements; with the other three being DJ’ing, MC’ing/rapping and graffiti.

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How did breaking start and who created it?

Breaking was created by African-American and Latino youths in the Bronx borough of New York City in the 1970s when hip-hop culture was coming to life. A DJ called Kool Herc was throwing neighbourhood parties where he noticed young people would go off on the dance floor, moving with more sporadic and dynamic energy, whenever the break of the tracks he was playing would come in. The ‘break’ being the part of the song where all vocals and other instruments would drop out, only leaving the percussion section.
Seeing this, Kool Herc started to play two copies of the same record, mixing between them on two turntables with a technique called the 'Merry-Go-Round'. This was so that he could extend the break and the dancers would have more time to showcase their moves. This is what inspired the creation of the dance of ‘breaking,’ so-called because the b-boys and b-girls would dance to the break of the track.
Jazzy Jes poses for a portrait at The Red Bull BC One New York Cypher at the Rock Steady Crew 40th Anniversary in New York, NY, USA on 29 July, 2017.

Jazzy Jes from the Rock Steady Crew

© Carlo Cruz/Red Bull Content Pool


The music of breakdance

The main music genres that breakers dance to are break beats, funk, rap and soul. Some classic tracks synonymous with breaking are:
  • Apache by the Incredible Bongo Band
  • Just begun by Jimmy Castor Bunch
  • The Mexican by Babe Ruth
  • Give it up or turn it loose by James Brown
But, because break beats can be found in songs from all genres, some famous breaks come from very unexpected tracks, one of which is the break from the rock opera song, Overture (Jesus Christ Superstar).
Skeme Richards on the ones and twos at the US national finals of Red Bull BC One.

DJ Skeme Richards rocking the turntables

© Carlo Cruz/Red Bull Content Pool


How breaking amassed media attention and worldwide exposure

All through the 1970s, breaking spread throughout the New York City boroughs. Soon promoters and the media started to take notice of the b-boys and b-girls they saw dancing at parties, in parks and in clubs. Breaking then started to get exposure to the world through a number of means and opportunities that the breakers were presented with.
In 1982, Rock Steady crew went on the Roxxy European Hip Hop tour, performing on stages in London and Paris. They also appeared on the popular American talkshow, Letterman, in 1983.
The New City Breakers appeared on a TV show pilot called Graffiti Rock in 1984 and performed in Washington D.C. for President Ronald Reagan – during the 1984 Kennedy Center Honours – which was broadcast nationally.
B-boys and b-girls also appeared in music videos and Hollywood movies, which greatly increased breaking’s exposure to the world. Classic movies people first saw breaking in were: Flashdance (1983), Breakin’ the Movie (1984) and Beat Street (1984), which opens with an iconic crew battle in the Roxxy club.

25 min

Remake of the legendary Roxy battle from Beat Street

The Red Bull BC One All Stars and Dream Team France clash in a remake of the legendary Roxy Battle from the movie Beat Street.


Why breakdancing is the incorrect term for the dance

The original name for the dance is breaking. Breakdancing was a term mistakenly coined by the media, reportedly when the manager of Rock Steady Crew, Cool Lady Blue, referred to it as breakdancing during the Roxxy European hip-hop tour.
Roxrite posing on one hand with his legs in the air and the second hand touching his cap

Roxrite performing a freeze

© Lea Duval/Red Bull Content Pool


The basic elements of breaking

The basic elements that make up the dance of breaking and that breakers perform while following the snare of the music are:
  1. Toprock: When breakers are dancing while standing before they go to the floor. Some basic top rock steps are Indian step and Cross step.
  2. Go downs: The moves breakers use to go from top rock down to the floor. Some basic go downs are knee drops or spin downs.
  3. Footwork: When breakers are dancing on the floor, using their hands for support as they move their legs through a variety of footwork steps and patterns. Some basic footwork steps are six-step, three-step and CCs.
  4. Freezes: When breakers go into and hold a solid shape with their body for a few seconds. Some basic breaking freezes are the baby freeze, chair freeze and elbow freeze.
  5. Power moves: When breakers dynamically propel their whole body into a continuous spinning move with rotational force. Examples of power moves are head spins, air flares and windmills.
  6. Tricks: When breakers take a conventional breaking step, freeze or power move and add an unconventional dimension and twist to it. Examples of this are the hopping air chairs, or leg threading while doing hand hops.
  7. Transitions: Transitions are the movements breakers use to connect their footwork, freezes, tricks and power moves. Some basic transitions are sweeps, pretzels and spins.
Ami on the floor pointing fingers at Kate.

Kate vs Ami at Red Bull BC One 2018

© Dean Treml/Red Bull Content Pool


What is a cypher and why is it important in breaking?

Cyphers are circles breakers form and dance in any time they are getting down together, going one after another with one person in the cypher at a time. These circles can form anywhere and everywhere breakers are dancing – at parties, in clubs and even outside on the concrete. Breakers will also call each other out to battle in a cypher, when there is no time limit or a winner, but just breakers battling until someone decides the battle is over.

Organised competitions in breaking

Breaking has gone from being a party dance to a worldwide competitive art form with hundreds of events all over the world. These competitions can take on many formats, but the main ones are one-on-one solo battles and crew competitions (with at least two members per crew, all the way to eight members on either side). Battles have DJs spinning the music, a host on the microphone and three to six judges (usually well-known breakers) who vote at the end of each battle and decide the winner.
Breaking crew Flooriorz doing a synchronised routine at a Battle of the Year event.

Taisuke with his crew Flooriorz at Battle of the Year

© Little Shao/Red Bull Content Pool

Long standing and well-known competitions on the international breaking scene include:
  • Battle of the Year (the longest running event on the breaking scene)
  • Freestyle Session (USA)
  • The Notorious IBE (Netherlands)
  • Red Bull BC One (worldwide)
  • The UK B-Boy Championships (UK)
  • The Legits Blast Series (Slovakia, Czech Republic and USA)
  • BBIC (Korea)
Breaking is now set to join the biggest sports event in the world in Paris and there is no sign of the hype cooling off. Watch how Alien Ness and Busta Rhymes comment on its evolution in Pushing Progression: Breaking.

26 min


Uncover the evolution of breaking as it progressed from Bronx backyards to global stages like Red Bull BC One.

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Pushing Progression

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