Oct. 14, 2002
-- To most American radio listeners, even to casual fans of hip hop, breakdancing was a fad whose moment passed before the end of the '80s, tossed into the decade's time capsule along with acid wash and decent John Hughes movies.
And in some sense, they're right. Breakdancing burst onto the national scene in the early 1980s, fueled by a media obsession with hip hop, enjoyed a love affair with the spotlight that lasted a few years, and then fell out of the glare just as quickly as it had located it.
Breakdancing may have died, but the b-boy, one of four original elements of hip hop (also included: the MC, the DJ, and the graffiti artist) lives on. To those who knew it before it was tagged with the name breakdancing, to those still involved in the scene that they will always know as b-boying, the tradition is alive and, well, spinning.
For Morning Edition
, Mandalit Del Barco
talked with some the icons of hip hop's triumphant adolescence. As part of Present at the Creation
, NPR's ongoing series on the origins of American icons, she digs down to the roots of b-boy culture.
According to b-boy "Track 2", a.k.a. Louis Angel Matteo, the dancing began, in its earliest formal stages, as a way for rival gangs to mediate differences and set the location for upcoming rumbles. Bronx area gangs in the mid-1970s would meet on neutral territory for a party, the day before a rumble was set to take place. The dance-off, which pitted the gang leaders against each other, mirrored the upcoming confrontation and was used to determine whose turf would play host to the rumble.
"It was basically a lot of shuffles (with) stabbing or the punching or the hitting with a stick, and a chain swinging," Track 2 recalls, "but without any of the physicality. It's a lot of motions, a lot of gestures, what one person was going to do to another."
The winner was the one who could bust out moves that hadn't been witnessed before; who could do something the other guy couldn't match.
This was reason enough for b-boys to spend their free time working on their moves -- not that they needed the excuse. Hip hop and b-boying was quickly taking on a life of its own in discos and parties.
"When you're dealing with the b-boys and b-girls, you can take it... straight back to the Godfather of Soul," says DJ Afrika Bambaataa, who owns a place in the same musical lineage, as the Godfather of Hip Hop. He says that the song "Get on the Good Foot" inspired crowds to imitate the singer's dance moves.
"He was flipping his legs from side to side, and doing things with his hands," Bambaataa remembers. "It was a big dance, everybody was doing the Good Foot, and you was playing all the James Brown records... and then you expand on it."
The expansion from the Good Foot/gang battle style of dancing came when b-boys got down -- literally. Spinning on backs, heads and hands, dancers like Keith and Kevin Smith, the twins who get credit for first hitting the floor, turned breakdancing into a phenomenon all its own.
Soon after they did, the media came calling. Richie Colon, who is still known as b-boy Crazy Legs, experienced the explosion firsthand. He and other members of the Rock Steady Crew were featured in the movie Wild Style
, and Colon doubled for actress Jennifer Beals during her breakdancing scenes in the movie Flashdance
"Coming out of the ghetto and watching yourself on the big screen was mind blowing," he says. "And then everyone's treating you like you're a little star. You're above ghetto celebrity status."
Crazy Legs and other members of the Rock Steady Crew kept breaking, but the public's attention was turned elsewhere when economics entered the equation. Unable to find a way to sell the dancing, the burgeoning hip hop industry embraced the music as its primary focus. But b-boys have managed to stick around: The Rock Steady Crew celebrated its 25th anniversary last summer. Crazy Legs doesn't think it's an accident.
"This dance was born here, right here in the South Bronx, and how many other dances have been created over the past 25 years that have survived this long? It's a true American art form."
Listen to a 1991 NPR documentary by Mandalit del Barco on Latino hip hop
. The story features interviews with a number of early b-boys, including Crazy Legs and the Rock Steady Crew.
Listen to an All Things Considered
report on the growing revival of breakdancing
on college campuses. May 27, 2002.
Listen to a Morning Edition
report on a new urban tap dance show
that combines breakdancing, Brazilian martial arts, Haitian dancing and huge video screens. May 9, 2002.
Search for more NPR reports on hip hop
See video clips and photos from The Freshest Kids
, a documentary about the history of breakdancing.
Read more about Crazy Legs and the Rock Steady Crew
See behind-the-scenes photos and hear music from Wild Style, the classic hip hop movie.
Learn about Afrika Bambaataa
and read articles about hip hop music at the Zulu Nation Web site.