Breakdancing is just one element of hip hop culture that can trace its origins to the low-income areas of the Bronx. It was started by Black and Puerto Rican youth in the 1970s. I was born and raised in Queens, New York during the early 1980s. Though Queens was not an area where hip hop culture dominated, I still have faint memories of my first introduction to hip hop and breakdancing.
My older siblings initiated me into the 1980s hip hop culture. My brother would play rap songs for me and tell me everything about the different rappers. I can still remember him playing Slick Rick’s 1988 album, The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, for me when I was only seven.
My siblings also introduce me to the classic films of the 1980s. Before I was 10 years old, I had seen almost every American pop-culture film of the 80s. This included Flashdance (1983), Footloose (1984), Revenge of the Nerds (1984), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), and Teen Witch (1989). Each of them contained a scene (however short) with some form of breakdancing. But it was the global phenomena Flashdance however, that The Rock Steady Crew was credited with bringing breakdancing to mainstream pop culture.
(Flashdance – Rock Steady Crew Cult Scene)
People were so struck by the breakdancing in Flashdance that they would go back to watch the movie multiple times, just for the scene featuring the Crew. But the Flashdance filmmakers were not the first ones to discover the Crew. The Rock Steady Crew formed back in 1977 in the Bronx, and by the time they performed in Flashdance, they had already created a buzz on the ground. This was in large part due to Richard “Crazy Legs” Colon. Crazy Legs moved to Manhattan sometime around 1979 and started a chapter of the Crew there. Manhattan held more opportunities for visibility than the Bronx. After the move, the Crew began to catch the attention of people outside the hip hop world. They were invited to perform at various events around the city, even in a few films, but none resulted in much mainstream appeal. In the early 80s, The Rock Steady Crew got their break and managed to book a tour, The Roxy Tour, which brought musicians, graffiti artists, and the b-boys of the Crew to perform in London and Paris. Shortly after, the Crew performed in Flashdance.
My introduction to breakdancing came before I was cognizant enough to process what I was seeing. I did not connect breakdancing with hip hop because it had been significantly appropriated by mainstream American pop culture. The majority of the protagonists of the films that introduced me to breakdancing were White and hailed from middle to high income backgrounds. The music they danced to, and the cultural experiences shown, (especially in the latter films) were greatly removed from the lower-income, inner city youth of color that started hip hop. It was not until I was older and watched the first movies The Rock Steady Crew were in, movies such as Wild Style (1983), Style Wars (1983), and Beat Street (1984), that I began to understand the importance of breakdancing as a part of hip hop culture. It was then that I put together how breakdancing’s pop culture appeal affected the mainstreaming of hip hop culture.
By Michele Louis