Physical Graffiti (The History of Hip Hop Dance)

This is a dope article  written by Hip Hop pioneer Jorge “Popmaster Fabel” Pabon of the Rocksteady Crew/ Universal Zulu Nation that gives us a brief outline on the history of Hip Hop dance. It was written in 1999 for the Rock-N-Roll Hall of Fame..

Preface: As we complete the third decade of what has been termed “hip-hop culture,” much has yet to be explored regarding its roots, history, terminology and essence. Deciphering theories from facts is a gradual, seeming endless process since many resources are scattered, leaving missing links in the chains of history. Nevertheless, it is safe to say that there are authentic facts, proven by sound testimony and evidence, regarding “hip-hop” history. These truths, unanimously agreed upon by the pioneers of the culture, should constitute the “hip-hop gospel,” whereas the questionable theories should remain as footnotes until proven to be fact.

In order to properly report the history of hip-hop dance forms, one must journey both inside and outside of New York City. Although dance forms associated with hip-hop did develop in New York City, half of them (i.e. popping and locking) originated and developed on the west coast as part of a different cultural movement. Much of the media coverage in the 1980s grouped these dance forms together with New York’s native dance forms (b-boying/girling and Brooklyn uprocking), labeling them all “break dancing.” As a result, the west coast “funk” culture and movement were overlooked and underrated as the public ignorantly credited “hip-hop” as the father of the funk dance forms. This is just one example of misinformation that undermines the intricacies of each dance form, as well as their origins and structure. The intent behind the following piece is to explore the past, present and future of these dance forms and their contributions to the performing arts worldwide.

Note: The facts in this piece were obtained through conversations with and/or public appearances by: Boogaloo Sam, Popin’ Pete, Skeeter Rabbit, Sugar Pop, Don Campbellock, Trac 2, Joe-Joe, King Uprock, Kool DJ Herc, Afrika Bambaataa and other pioneers. Information was also obtained from various interviews in magazines.

In the early 1970s, the unnamed culture known today as “hip-hop” was forming in New York City’s ghettos. Each element in this culture had it’s own history and terminology contributing to the development of a cultural movement. The common pulse which gave life to all these elements is rhythm, clearly demonstrated by the beats the DJ selected, the dancers’ movements, the MCs’ rhyme patterns and the writer’s name or message painted in a flowing, stylized fashion. The culture was identified in the early 1980s when DJ Afrika Bambaataa named the dynamic urban movement “hip-hop.” The words, “hip-hop,” were originally used by MCs as part of a scat style of rhyming, for example: “Hip-Hop ya’ll and ya don’t stop, rock on, till the break of dawn.”

At about the same time, certain slang words also became titles of the dance forms, such as “rockin’” and “breakin’,” used generally, to describe actions with great intensity. Just as one could rock the mic (microphone) and rock the dance floor, one could rock a basketball game or rock some fly gear (dress impressively). The term “break” also had more than one use in the 70s. It was often used as a response to an insult or reprimand, for example, “Why are you breakin’ on me?” Break was also the section on a musical recording where the percussive rhythms were most aggressive and hard driving. The dancers anticipated and reacted to these breaks with their most impressive steps and moves.

Kool DJ Herc, originally from Jamaica, is credited with extending these breaks by using two turntables, a mixer and two of the same records. As DJs could re-cue these beats from one turntable to the other, finally, the dancers were able to enjoy more than just a few seconds of a break! Kool Herc also coined the terms “b-boy” and “b-girl” which stood for “break boys” and “break girls.” At one of Kool Herc’s jams, he might have addressed the dancers just before playing the break beats by saying, “B-Boys are you ready?! B-Girls are you ready?!” The tension started to mount and the air was thick with anticipation. The b-boys and b-girls knew this was their time to “go off!”

Some of the earliest dancing by b-boy pioneers was done upright, a form which became known as “top rockin’.” The structure and form of top rockin’ has infused dance forms and influences from Brooklyn uprockingtaplindi hop,James Brown‘s “good foot,” salsa, Afro-Cuban and various African and Native American dances. There’s even a top rock Charleston step called the “Charlie Rock“! Early influences on b-boying/girling also included martial arts films from the 1970s. Certain moves and styles developed from this inspiration.

Capoera, a form of self defense disguised as a dance, was introduced to Brazil by African slaves. This form has some movements which are very similar to certain b-boy/girl steps and moves. Unlike the popularity of the martial arts films, capoera was not seen in the Bronx jams until the 1990s. Top rockin’ seems to have developed gradually and unintentionally, leaving space for growth and new additions, until it evolved into a codified form.

Although top rockin‘ has developed an identifiable structure, there is always space for individual creativity, often expressed through the competitive nature of the dance. The same is true of all dance forms associated with hip-hop and west coast funk; as long as dancers represent the root forms of the dances, the rest can be colored in with his/her own flavors.

As a result of the highly competitive nature of these dances, it wasn’t long before top rockers extended their repertoire to the ground with “footwork” and “freezes.” For instance, one dancer might start top rocking then drop to the ground, suddenly going into leg shuffles then a freeze before coming to his feet. His opponent might have to do twice as much floorwork or a better freeze to win the battle. The fancy leg movements done on the ground, supported by the arms, were eventually defined as “footwork” or “floor rocking.” In time, an impressive vocabulary of footwork, ground moves and freezes developed, including the dancers most dynamic steps and moves.

Top rockin’ was not replaced with floor rocking; it was added to the dance and both were key points in the dance’s execution. Many times one could tell who had flavor and finesse just by their top rockin’ before the drop and floor rock. The transition between top and floor rockin’ was also important and became known as the “drop”. Some of these drops were called: front swipesback swipesdips and corkscrews. The smoother the drop, the better.

Equally significant was the way dancers moved in and out of a freeze, demonstrating control, power, precision, and at times, humor. Freezes were usually used to end a series of combinations or to mock and humiliate the opponent. Certain freezes were also named, the two most popular being the “chair freeze” and the “baby freeze.” The chair freeze became the foundation for various moves because of the potential range of motion a dancer had in this position. The dancer’s hand, forearm and elbow support the body while allowing free range of movement with the legs and hips. From the chair freeze came thefloor tracback spin with the use of arms, continuous back spin (also known as the windmill), and other moves. These moves pushed the dance in a new direction in the early 1980s, the era of so-called “power moves.”

The first spins done in b-boying were one-shot head spins originally known aspencils; hand spins originally known as floatsknee spins; and butt spins. The first back spin came from a butt spin. Once a dancer gained momentum on his butt he could lie back and spin into a freeze. The next phase of backspin came from a squatted position tucking the arm and shoulder under the body onto the floor, then rolling onto the back and spinning. This spin developed from the neck move (a move in which the dancer rolls from one shoulder to the other). Finally, the backspin, from the foundation of a chair freeze, was developed.

Power moves” is a debatable term since it is questionable which movement requires more power: footwork and freezes or spins and gymnastics. One notable point introduced by B-Boy Ken Swift is that spins are fueled by momentum and balance which require less muscular strength than footwork and freezes. The laws of physics prove this to be true: spins require speed and speed creates momentum. The advent of “power moves” brought about a series of spins which became the main focus of the media and the younger generations of dancers. The true essence of the dance was slowly overshadowed by an over abundance of spins and acrobatics which didn’t necessarily follow a beat or rhythm. The pioneers didn’t separate the “power moves” from the rest of the dance form. They were B-Boys who simply accented their performance with incredible moves to the beat of the music.

In the late 1960s and early ’70s, Brooklyn, NY gave birth to another dance in Hip-Hop culture, known as “Brooklyn uprocking.” Inspired by similar or the same break beats used by b-boys/girls, this dance was more confrontational. Typically, two opponents faced each other and engaged in a “war dance” consisting of a series of steps, jerks, and the miming of weapons drawn against each other. There were also the “Apache Lines” where one crew stood in a line facing an opposing crew and challenged each other simultaneously. This structure was different from b-boying/girling since dancers in b-boy/b-girl battles took turns dancing while Brooklyn uprocking was done with partners. Brooklyn uprocking was also done to records played from beginning to end. In Brooklyn, DJs were mixing records and not cutting break beats. This allowed the uprockers to react to the song in its entirety, responding to the lyrics, musical changes and breaks.

Just as power moves became the focus of b-boying/girling, one particular movement known as “jerking” became the highlight of Brooklyn uprocking. Jerking is a movement which is used in direct battles, typically repeated throughout the break of the record. Today, Brooklyn uprocking consists almost entirely of jerking; the original from has been all but forgotten by the younger generation.

Brooklyn Uprocking also depended on quick wit, humor and finesse as opponents attempted to humiliate each other. Winning meant: displaying the swiftest steps; being receptive to the rhythms and counter rhythms of the music and the opponent; catching the opponent off guard with mimed assaults, humor, and endurance. Brooklyn uprocking consisted of quick arm and leg movements, turns, jumps, drops, and freezes. This dance was similar in spirit to b-boying/girling, yet different in form. Some pioneers believe top rocking’s first inspiration was Brooklyn Uprocking. The two forms developed simultaneously from similar inspirations yet kept their own identities.

The west coast was also engaged in a cultural movement throughout the 1970s. This scene was nourished by soul, R&B and funk music at outdoor functions and discotheques.

In Los Angeles, California, Don Campbell, also known as Don Cambellock, originated the dance form “locking.” Trying to imitate a local dance called the “funky chicken,” Don Campbell added an effect of locking of the joints of his arms and body which became known as his signature dance. He then formed a group named “The Lockers,” who all eventually shared in the development of this dance. The steps and moves created by these pioneers were named and cataloged. Some of these include: the lock,pointsskeetersscooby doosstop n’go,which-away and the fancies. Certain members of The Lockers” incorporated flips, tucks, dives and other aerial moves reminiscent of the legendary Nicholas Brothers. The main structure of the dance combined sharp, linear limb extensions and elastic-like movement.

The “lock” is a specific movement which glues together combinations of steps and moves similar to a freeze or a sudden pause. Combinations can consist of a series of points done by extending the arms and pointing in different directions. Dancers combined fancy step patterns with the legs and moves done in various sequences. The Lockers also jumped into half splits, knee drops, butt drops, and used patterns which would take them down to the ground and back up to their feet. This dance gained much of its popularity through The Lockers’ various televised performances which include: the “Johnny Carson Show,” the “Dick Van Dyke Show,” the “Carol Burnett Show” and “Saturday Night Live.”

In 1976, The Electronic Boogaloo Lockerswas formed in Fresno, California by Sam “Boogaloo Sam” SolomanNate “Slide” Johnson and Joe “Slim” Thomas. Since the group’s inception, Sam has continued to recruit and help each member master his individual form. Some of Sam’s early inspirations were Chubby Checker‘s “Twist;” a James Brown dance called “the Popcorn;” “the Jerk;” cartoon animation and the idiosyncrasies of everyday people. From these many influences, Sam combined incredible steps and moves conceiving a dance form which he named “Boogaloo.” This form includes isolated sharp angles, hip rotations and the use of every part of the body. Sam’s brother, Timothy “Popin’ Pete” Soloman, described Boogaloo as a dance which was done by moving the body continuously in different directions.

He also compared the body to a musical instrument in which the movement was as varied as the notes. Originally, “popping” was a term used to describe a sudden muscle contraction executed with the triceps, forearms, neck, chest and legs. These contractions accented the dancer’s movement causing a quick, jolting effect. Sam’s creation, popping, also became known as the unauthorized umbrella title to various forms within the dance, past and present. Some of these forms include: boogaloostrutdime stopwaveticktwisto-flex andslides. The transitions between steps, forms, and moves were fluid, unpredictable, precise, and delivered with character and finesse. Various forms were clearly showcased throughout the dancer’s solos and group routines. Eventually, popping was also misrepresented and lost its purity as younger generations strayed from its original forms.

The titles, “Electric Boogie” and “Boogie” were given, in ignorance, to the dance, in New York, after the Lockers and Electric Boogaloos performed on the television program, “Soul Train.” Unaware of the dance’s history, New Yorkers attempted to name the dance after The Electric Boogaloos (derived from the Electronic Boogaloo Lockers).

Dancers in Los Angeles also distorted the name by calling it “pop-locking,” while in France, it was called “The Smurf.” Elements of pantomime were merged with the dance, diluting its original essence. Miming creates illusions of the body without a rhythmic structure whereas popping and boogaloo create movement synchronized to rhythmic patterns. Most of the time, this fusion was done unsuccessfully since one would stray from the beat of the music. Other townships in central California are credited for creating original forms of dance as well. Each region was identified by its style: San Jose was known for “flying tuts” and “dime stopping;” San Francisco had the “chinese strut;” “Filmore strutting” originated obviously in the Filmore area. Oakland became known for “Frankenstein hitting” and “snake hitting.” East Palo Alto was also known for “snake hitting.” “Roboting” and “bopping” were popularized in Richmond. Sacramento had its own dances called “Oak Parking,” “Bustin’,” and “Sac”-ing (pronounced ‘sacking’). Dime stopping, strutting and hitting all predate popping and have their own histories within the west coast funk movement. In summary, all of these dance styles have contributed to the evolution of phenomenal forms of expression!

A connection between the east and west coast movements are certain records which are danced to by b-boys/girls, Brooklyn uprockers, and lockers. One example is “Scorpio” by Dennis Coffey and the Detroit Guitar Band. For the most part, each dance form had a different musical influence, dress code and terminology (all of which were mismatched and misrepresented during the 1980’s media coverage of these dance forms).

As relatively new dance forms, b-boying/girling, Brooklyn uprocking, locking and popping are rarely seen in a theatrical setting. They are usually performed in music videos, commercials or films for just a few seconds revealing very little of their full potential. In many cases, the filming of these dances has been poor where only part of the body is captured, taking away from the full impact of the steps, moves, and illusions. The film editing of these dances also deprives the audience of transitions and composition, since the editors are usually unfamiliar with the structures of the dance forms. Proper consultation with the dancers concerning filming and editing can remedy this recurring problem.

Another challenge related to the commercialization of the dance forms is the loss of spontaneous performance. In a cipher, a circular dance space which forms naturally once the dancing begins, the dancers can direct their performance in various directions, uninhibited and free from all counts and cues. This freedom is the key to creativity since the dancer is constantly challenged with variations in music, an undefined dance space and potential opponents among the audience. The transition from cipher to stage has had its effects on the dancers and their craft.

What was once improvisational forms of expression with spontaneous vocabulary became choreography in a staged setting. A stage performance creates boundaries and can restrict the free flowing process of improvisation. The dancers are challenged in a different way. Nailing cues and choreography becomes the objective.

Another major difference between the original dance forms and staged versions is the positioning of the audience, since most traditional theaters have the audience facing the stage in one direction. Having to entertain an audience in one general location requires the dancer or choreographer to consciously space the performance allowing the best viewing of the dance. In order to preserve the true essence and dynamics of these dance forms, they should exist as a social and cultural reality celebrated in their natural environments i.e.: jams, events, clubs, etc. Theatrical film and video productions can be used as vehicles for their preservation as long as the essence of the form isn’t compromised and diluted in the process.

The same concern applies to the storylines and scripts pertaining to the dance’s forms and history. The mixing and blending of popping, locking, b-boying/girling, and Brooklyn uprocking into one form destroys their individual structures. Unfortunately the younger generations of dancers either haven’t made enough effort to learn each dance form properly, or lack the resources to do so. However the outcome is the same: hybrid dances with unclear form and structure.

In addition, each of the dance forms are performed best with their appropriate musical influences. Intermixing dance forms and their music forms dissolves their structures and ultimately destroys their identities. Dancing on beat is most important. Riding the rhythm makes the difference between dance and unstructured movement. The formula is simple, submission to the music allowing it to guide and direct equals dancing.

Finally, the best way to preserve the dances is by learning from the earliest available sources or a devoted practitioner of the form. The pioneers of these dance forms hold the key to the history and intentions of the movement. They remain the highest authorities regardless of other opinions or assumptions.

Unraveling the history of locking, popping, b-boying/girling and Brooklyn uprocking takes us towards a true understanding of their essence and significance in the world today. Many other genres of dance have borrowed without giving credit to their rightful owners. Hopefully, we will see the day when these dances are clearly distinguished and given their due respect. Every so often, the dance world is introduced to innovations which revolutionize the arts. In summary, the hip-hop and west coast funk movements have succeeded in replenishing the world with new exciting dance forms which entertain and change the lives of many people worldwide.

This article was commissioned by the Rock-N-Roll Hall of Fame and originally appeared on this website in 1999
For more information on Hip Hop Pioneer Popmaster Fabel contact him at