Breakdancing, also known as B-boying, was an urban dance style born in the 70s that owed as much to mimes as to the music of Jamaican DJs spinning their discs in areas such as New York’s South Bronx. By the time the 80s rolled around, the look was parachute pants and track suits, and the movement went from the streets to suburbia and MTV.

Michael Jackson was impressing audiences with his robot-style dance moves with his hit “Dancing Machine” as early as 1974. In 1977, Shields and Yarnell, two Los Angeles mimes that graced many a 70s variety show, performed mechanical movements with a grace and style that made the robot seem to dance. When they appeared on the The Muppet Show in 1979, they brought their unique choreography to a large television audience and their influence soon spread to the dance community. Even Mr. Rogers took notice of this emerging dance craze.

Four kids in New York had been watching these mimes and used their style to start the Harlem Pop Rockers, a group that would take the ‘80’s by storm. They dressed in sweatsuits, sneakers, and sideways baseball caps, and they would battle rival gangs through dance competitions. When DJs fought for acclaim on the turntables, their elongated instrumental breaks provided a sonic backdrop for the breakdancers to take the stage and fight their own battles.

B-boys hit the streets with portable cardboard and linoleum pads on which they busted their moves. Dance, music, and fashion became a non-violent form of expression, and gangs competed on every street corner. Their rivalries spawned fashion dissention as well, with styles shifting from sweatsuits and military fatigues to track suits and sneakers with brand name labels.

The suburbs learned about breakdancing with the film Flashdance. Kids couldn’t get enough of the slick moves or the urban fashions. Michael Jackson introduced his iconic moonwalk, and a young dancer named Jeffrey Daniels became a regular favorite on Soul Train, with moves so outstanding that viewers were tuning in just to see him dance. Even “Rerun,” a character on the TV show What’s Happening, and an accomplished dancer, used the lock as his signature step with his own popular group, The Lockers. The group made a number of notable appearances on Soul Train, further popularizing the style.

Fashion was an innate part of breakdancing culture, and clothing companies took notice. The old school uniform consisted of sweatpants, t-shirt, an old pair of sneakers, a baseball cap and a bandana. Bugle Boy changed all of that with the introduction of slick nylon parachute pants in 1985, which soon replaced the sweats. Parachute pants’ slippery nylon made it easier to maintain the smooth propulsion necessary for the breakdancing moves. Fitted with zippered pockets and bright colors, parachute pants were one of the hottest clothing items in the ‘80’s.

The breakdancing fashion style was featured in films like Breakin’ and Krush Groove, and rappers Run-DMC sported huge gold “dukie” chains. This gave way to brands being at the center of b-boy fashion, and your track suits and sneakers weren’t worth much unless they were labeled with adidas and Nike.

Soon, the fashion eclipsed the dancin’. Urban style made breakdancing unrealistic – hard metal zippers weren’t practical to rock and spin on, and oversized, unlaced sneakers didn’t stay on your feet when you were kickin’ it. The style took off in another direction, but breakdancing remains a powerful art form and non-violent form of confrontation and expression that exploded in the 80s and continues to exert its influence on modern styles of dance.

If you busted a few moves of your own back in the 80s, maybe even had a few pairs of parachute pants hanging in your closet, we’d love to hear your recollections of the era in our comments section below.

One Response to “Breakdancing”

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  1. robin dickson says:

    with Ice T doing the rap

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