“It’s about you and me, connecting one on one. That’s why it has universal appeal. It has given young people a way to understand their world, whether they are from the suburbs or the city or wherever.”
– DJ Kool Herc
Here’s a simple question: What do Tim Berners-Lee, Clive Campbell, and James Joseph Brown have in common?
Before you scream “Who the **** are these guys?”
Know that they’re the reason why you are here. Why you’re able to read this post right now.
These guys are the Father of the World Wide Web, the Father of Hip Hop (DJ Kool Herc), and the Godfather of Soul respectively.
Wait, why do you have to know these people, when there’s little to no practical value in such knowledge?
Let me ask you in return: Do you crave connection, and how do you satisfy that craving? Besides meet-ups, you go online. Social media and the web does a wonderful job of closing that space between people.
So what closes the time gap then? What brings you closer to people from 50 years, or 50 lifetimes ago, and how?
History! Specifically, history often gets packaged as stories and ideas. It gets weaved into a neat narrative about how you and the world came to be.
History isn’t just information. It affirms you with both knowledge AND identity.
In particular, your identity as a bboy or bgirl. As a budding member of our hip hop culture.
You don’t need to tick a bunch of boxes to qualify as a member of hip hop. But who would you notice and respect more: a person who bothers to show up and find out, or a person who doesn’t give a damn, who doesn’t participate?
What makes b-boying so different from a lot of other dances is that you cannot tear apart the culture from the dance. So with that…
Are you ready to take a step further into the world of b-boying? Are you ready to find out exactly what is b-boying?
NOTE: This is more of a post about perspective than history. Don’t worry, there won’t be a quiz at the end.
The B in Bboy: What does it stand for? What is bboying???
I wouldn’t be surprised if you already have your answer or guess.
But did you know there are a few answers to what bboy means? Or what we’re called?
History is never linear or one-sided. You could even say b-boying has histories.
To see what I mean, let’s see how many of these terms you already know:
At least one of these terms above will be familiar to you. At the same time, you might wonder how the other names came about!
Regarding the question, “What does the b in bboy stand for?”
“Break boy” is probably the most straightforward answer you’ll see.
It is the closest to an “official” answer too. And by “official” I mean it has been the tale shared most widely in our community.
Why 10,000 names for b-boying exist
So there are a few more terms that have been floating around. They are not as frequently mentioned either.
All we have are semi-reliable eyewitness testaments. And they date back to nearly half a century ago (damn, we’re getting old). People are going to give different answers based on what they saw and remember.
Some answers will complement each other.
Some answers are going to clash.
And that is the nature of a culture that grows spontaneously, without a concrete idea of what it will look like 50 years from now.
It doesn’t mean there’s less value in these older or less popular terms. How do I mean?
Just think back to high school where your friends gave you a nickname. It wasn’t your name in the birth certificate. Yet you responded to it! So these “side-names” still form a part of who you are.
It’s the same for this dance.
The “side-names” or nicknames may not go down in history textbooks. They may also not be part of most people’s “official answer” when questioned.
But staying true to the idea of cultural preservation… All given names form the different patches to the quilt that is our bboy story.
So let me tell you how it all started-
Wait! What on earth is a breakdancer?
“And isn’t it a bad word?” you ask.
Yes, the term “breakdancer” isn’t a pleasant one within the hip hop community.
Here’s the TL;DR version: a breakdancer is the last thing you want to call a bboy or bgirl, especially if the dance means a lot to them. It’s not a proud name, but one that has been associated with us nonetheless.
I’m actually glad you asked (sort of). There’s a story behind all that hatred and condemnation toward the term “breakdance”.
Here’s how the term became infamous…
*cues flashback with angelic harp music*
In the early 1980s, there was a period where the media (and hence public) were hyped about our dance.
A greater exposure was good for our culture. More opportunities, a growing community, more people willing to learn the dance. Hurray!
Unfortunately the same exposure shed bboys in a different light – a light that the public wanted to see through their lens, not ours. But the media didn’t have the same understanding of dance that we do. Boo.
The media went on to coin our dance as “breakdancing” – and it caught on up to today. As it turns out…
Our bboy community thinks it’s a name with negative connotations.
How so? Here’s one explanation:
Breakdance seemed to imply that a person was someone who focused on dynamic moves solely to impress the audience.
Because that was media’s impression of what our dance was about. Street gymnastics. Showy moves.
But on another level, our community of dancers saw the media’s breakdancer as distant and removed from the hip hop culture and community. The breakdancer was judged to be a total sellout.
The breakdancer twisted our art of b-boying into a mere tool for self-serving ends – fame, impressing the girls, money, and so on.
Or so it seems.
To be fair, the idea of a breakdancer is demonized.
It’s done to the point of being portrayed as a classic villain: He’s one-dimensional and oozing with badness. He stands against everything a bboy values. He doesn’t keep it real. Also, he twiddles his evil moustache sometimes.
So breakdancers exist, generally speaking.
Some people I know use the moves in b-boying to perform and earn. And they admit they aren’t keen on battles, cyphers, jams. Some combined other funk styles (pop, lock, etc.) with bboy moves. And then there are those who borrow bboy moves for other genres of dance.
Poe One shares his insights in his short interview here on what distinguishes a bboy from other dancers.
What can be taken away from that interview?
Essentially, just because someone can do our moves doesn’t mean they’re a bboy or bgirl. To Poe, it’s the breaking spirit that separates us from the rest.
Meanwhile, to these breakdancers, it’s their dance. They may be shunned by the bboy community. They may reinterpret everything the bboys have been doing. They may use bboy moves in a completely different way.
But hey, if they are aware of what a bboy is, and don’t claim to be a bboy… That’s a fair line drawn!
And if anyone is worried about the unenlightened media’s portrayal of the breakdancer image…
We’ve come a long way since that day.
Bboys appearing in dance movies (some are not worth watching but that’s besides the point). We’ve got large competitions backed by even larger corporations. And by sheer number, our community is expanding. It’s all thanks to exposure from the high speed internet.
The idea of a breakdancer is not gone, but it’s not as reinforced as before. We’re making some progress here.
And though the whole breakdancer saga was an ugly side, it’s part of our history nonetheless.
Now, let’s dive into the actual accepted term “break boy”. This name has its origin story too (just like Hugh Jackman)…
All you need to know about breaks as a bboy
Yes. ALL of it will be shared with you with enough depth..
So buckle up.
First, what’s a break?
The breaks refer to the instrumental part of funk and soul songs, emphasized by the drum rhythm.
And it’s the part that gets us all HYPED UP!
The breaks were reinvented about 43 years ago…
Saturday. August 11, 1973.
1520 Sedgwick Avenue.
It was a bright and sunny day but everything wasn’t in HD yet. So imagine the next scene with a grainy VHS tape look…
Clive Campbell, a man of Jamaican descent, arrived at a party while lugging his powerful sound system and turntables.
Peers nicknamed him “Herc”, because he towered over most of them like the mythological Hercules.
Yes, this man was Kool Herc, the DJ of that history-making day. Together with the (speculated) first ever MC, Theodore Puccio, they brought their creativity full force to the party!
What did they do?
On one end of the stage, Puccio showed the crowd how he could rhyme to the rhythm. Some sources claim he was one of the prototype rappers around.
Meanwhile, Herc stood behind his decks. And he used two copies of the same vinyl record – to loop a segment we now know as the breaks.
And the party people went batshit crazy.
Of course, the story above is a simplified account of what happened.
Kool Herc actually first discovered that people reacted more to the breaks. Bet you didn’t know that! It wasn’t as if he knew magically that the breaks made people go wild.
People were having a ball of a time when the breaks played. And it was only then that he decided to extend the crowd-hyping parts. Hence he developed the “merry-go-round” technique of looping breaks.
(For a detailed historical account, I’d refer you to the book Can’t Stop Won’t Stop by Jeff Chang. It’s a tad academic, but for the b-bookworms, you’d gain a ton of knowledge from it!)
BUT the “break” in “break boy” did not refer to the breaks of the song.
Apparently, it was a reference to how the young teens would break wild on the dance floor. They’d get so excitable that whatever fixed dance moves they knew would lose its conformity.
And it’s a feeling you’d be familiar with when you break to your favourite funk tracks!
Let’s take a step back from the picture now.
Do you see how one simple word has multiple meanings? It can get a little confusing without context and explanation. And you want to be someone who knows what the hell he’s talking about.
Aren’t you glad you’re reading this post now?
Will somebody explain these secret bboy terms?
Yes we will. And as mentioned before, we won’t be giving a purely historical fact sheet here.
It’s not history class anyway.
And since it’s virtually impossible to track the origins of who said what and why, we’ll make the best sense of the terms with whatever information we have.
By the way, here’s my theory:
Maybe some of the terms came out after the term “bboy” was coined. People gave their own meaning to the term, and changed the B as they saw fit. Perhaps some created their terms subconsciously doing so, and mashed up their own opinions with facts.
Regardless, the terms below are still meaningful, even if they cannot be 100% verifiable.
We’re going to delve into the interpretations and meanings – how they make sense, how they reflect us, how they add up to what we know as b-boying.
At first, the term “Bronx boy” referred to where the person came from. But later on, more people picked up this dance. It spread to other cities – at first like a slow bonfire – Queens, Harlem, Brooklyn. And decades later, b-boying spread like wildfire.
To the bboys dancing in other countries and continents… It made more sense to imply that “Bronx” is where the dance originated from.
The term “Boogie” came from Rhythm and Blues, referring to the repetitive groove of the beat. There’s also a musical style called “Boogie-Woogie” which originated in 1870s and had African American roots.
Much later on the term “boogie” came to refer to the concept of dancing. So far there’s no explicit claim on how the term “boogie boy” was coined.
We can guess that there would be a literal meaning here – boogie boys are boys who dance. I’d safely guess that boogie associates itself closest to African American culture.
Similarly, the term “beat boy” was used to refer to someone dancing to the beat. And it is pretty easy to infer that. Straightforward definition.
The term “boyoing” or “boioing” apparently originates from an African language that means bounce. This bounce possibly referred to two things:
- The bouncing of the fuzzy ball on a beanie/bobble hat and
- The style of movement when people moved to funk beats.
Originally, I found this information under the Spartanic Rockers page, and later on it was also mentioned in Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop.
At one point before the term “breakdancing” went rampant, b-boying was also referred to as burning.
Let me explain the whole context.
In b-boying, you have seen people throwing what’s known as “burns” to each other when they battle.
Well, it turns out that b-boying has roots in another dance form called “uprocking”.
The whole gesturing-burning thing was actually carried over from uprocking to b-boying. And the idea of doing burns in both dance is similar.
To burn is to throw a gesture (to the beat) which represented that one was dissing/making fun of/insulting his opponent.
For instance, throwing a cock (through hand signals) would be an attempt to humiliate the opponent. It came from prison lifestyle, where one male prisoner would whip his dick out in front of another prisoner. The latter would then be considered of lower status within prison (due to his submissiveness), labelled as a “bitch”.
You may think, “Ugh, I want nothing to do with this whole repressed male homoeroticism disguised as a socially accepted dance.”
Hate to break it to you, but even the most dignified civilizations has had a bloody, nasty history at one point.
Still, it doesn’t mean you’ve got to be a bad-ass hardcore prison-hardened motherfucker to enjoy b-boying. You probably know that.
And let me tell you what the wonderful thing about b-boying is.
It doesn’t give a damn about where you came from, what skin colour you have, how much income you make.
It’s a socially neutral dance. Skills speak! As we say, it’s about what you’ve got, not where you’re from.
The few times skills don’t speak is when politics do. But politics is ubiquitous anyway… So I wouldn’t worry too much about politics.
Personally, it’s the process of dancing, improving, enjoying time with friends, having another colourful aspect to your life – those things make b-boying worth every moment.
Dyzee mentioned that (as what I interpret to be a symbolic gesture) the original B stands for “bad”.
Because that’s how we were. Or still are.
B-boying had a background in gangsterism. The generations before us started off in the streets. And while some people thought (or still think) bboys and bgirls = gangsters, it’s quite the contrary.
What people mostly fail to realize is that the dance became an outlet, a channel for youths to bring their excess energy into something constructive.
We didn’t change in the way we learned b-boying. And still, we challenged tradition at the same time.
We didn’t change in the way we hold some primitive aggression. And still, we learn to embrace our opponents.
We are bad. In a good way.
Till today, bboys and partying often come together as well.
Even the most saintly, docile looking nerd who picks up b-boying learns how to present themselves as a cooler version of themselves.
Now you know how b-boying first started. You know what b-boying means.
What you don’t know (yet) is how b-boying has gotten from Point A to Point Wherever-We’re-At.
And that’s what I’ll share with you now.
A snapshot of bboy history: 50 years in a page
As I’ve mentioned, this won’t be a history lesson. But I’ve compressed about half a century of bboy history into a timeline.
This isn’t an exact representation of our roots. But it will be enough for you to start exploring more in the right direction.
What I’ve included here are milestone events for the bboy community.
Once again, if you strongly feel that something else should be included, drop me a message at email@example.com!
Let’s zip back to more than 50 years ago…
1960s to 1977 – New York was going through a period of strife
1973 – The year this dance was labelled as “b-boying”.
1983 – Style Wars the graffiti documentary was released. It featured some segments on b-boying.
Early 1980s – Breakdancing was featured in various films (and got really popular BUT as a fad)
- 1983 – Flashdance (with RSC and Jennifer Beal)
- 1983 – Wild Style
- 1984 – Beat Street
- 1984 – Breakin’
- 1984 – Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo
- 1984 – Body Rock
Late 1980s – Post-media exploitation period: where breaking was seemingly at an all time low – the bboy community went back underground in USA
1990 – Year that Battle Of The Year started
1996 – Year that UK Bboy Championships started
1997 – Year that Freestyle Session started
1998 – Year that Notorious IBE started
2002 – The Freshest Kids released
2004 – Year that Red Bull BC One held its inaugural event
2005 – Year that Can’t Stop Won’t Stop was published
2005 – Chelles Battle Pro started
Late 2000s – Year that Red Bull BC One started becoming more “recognized” by the bboy scene
2007 – Year that R16 Korea started (R stands for Respect BTW)
2007 – Planet Bboy documentary film released
2009 – B-Girl released
2010 – Outbreak Europe started
2013 – Battle Of The Year movie released (and flopped)
2014 – Silverback Open Championships started
2014 – Undisputed Championships started
2015 – The Crew Code series started on YouTube
On top of milestone events, you need to know certain figures in b-boying. Like what I said at the very beginning.
Specifically, it’s time for you to…
Know the legends who built a legacy
Most soccer fans know who Pelé or Alex Ferguson are. Basketball lovers know Michael Jordan, and what NBA stands for. Hockey people know Wayne Gretzky and his famous quote.
Likewise, we have our people that we all owe our respect and a thank you to, because they helped to make this dance possible.
The Godfather of Hip Hop. He founded the Zulu Nation and is known for organizing hip hop as a unified culture with 4 elements inside – b-boying, MCing, graffiti, turntablism.
DJ Kool Herc
The Father of Hip Hop. He’s the one who helped kickstart the breaks thing and named the dancers as breakboys or bboys.
The Godfather of Soul. The Hardest Working Man in Show Business. He helped to pioneer the funk music as a genre, and his stage performance of “Get On The Good Foot” inspired many to start moving with high energy. In other words, he inspired b-boying.
Rock Steady Crew
One of the more popular and influential crews around since 1977. They even helped to define and evolve breaking in the earlier years. Featured in a few documentaries and movies, including Beat Street and Flashdance. It was partly thanks to Bambaataa that they pressed on as he saw that the bboys were on to something. Their current president and vice-president are Crazy Legs and Ynot respectively.
Ken Swift was another legendary member who has left the crew, but still deserves a shoutout here. He was once considered the epitome of b-boying in the 1970s because his style was full of finesse, and redefined what a bboy looked like.
MZK (used to be known as Mighty Zulu Kingz/Kweenz)
Used to be the official bboy chapter of Zulu Nation. Now they stand alone as a crew under the name of MZK. They were also influential and helped to spread the hip hop culture with members all over the world. Their president and vice-president are Alien Ness and Tyquan respectively.
AKA The Legendary Twins. 1st generation bboys from the crew “The Herculoids”, who were bboys breaking and travelling with DJ Kool Herc. Most active in the early 70s. They were known for taking b-boying down to the floor – where footwork was done.
A legendary bboy hailing from Battle Squad, Germany. He was a key figure in shaping what’s known as the “Euro Style” of b-boying. You need to check out his footage from way before. Cool thing about Storm? He is good at ALL 3 main funk styles – breaking, popping, locking. Most of us aren’t even proficient in one yet. Hmm.
The only female on this list. Nope, she isn’t a bgirl, not in the conventional sense anyway.
Without her, Rock Steady Crew – and thus b-boying – wouldn’t have been as famous as they are now. Without her and Henry Chalfant, many graffiti artists wouldn’t have known what graffiti was in the first place.
Her real name is Martha Cooper, sometimes known as Marty. She’s a Hip Hop legend in her own right, next to Henry Chalfant.
Martha’s a photographer who – through her photographs – gave hip hop culture way more exposure than anyone could expect it to have. And therefore she deserves mention as a person who was accidentally instrumental to spreading our dance.
How our bboy beginnings evolved into today’s scene
So you know what happened back in the US. You are familiar with some faces. You know the events that took place.
But what made b-boying an international phenomenon?
Here’s my two cents:
Also, we slowly opened ourselves up for money and business opportunities without losing our identity.
B-boying went underground in the 80s in USA. Yes.
But don’t forget that at the same time, the media that came from the USA went international.
People all over the world were watching movies that featured breaking (or a caricature of it).
Documentaries were screened.
Photographs were spread.
Music was getting discovered.
And the OGs of other countries were watching the same bboy stuff that came from USA.
In the meantime, competitions were organized more and more. In the 90s up till early 2000s, competitions organized by external organizations were still in their early stages. There was even backfiring and some bad rep in the early years of Red Bull BC One.
Organizers eventually got their shit together, got more feedback and involvement with bboys. Events slowly evolved to stay true-r to the culture we’ve upheld. Prize money got bigger too.
High-speed internet definitely accelerated the growth of b-boying in the last 5 years too. Anybody has access to tutorials and battles nowadays.
We’re also getting featured more and more on screen. We have a few movies featuring famous bboys. Also, Cloud is Shakira’s dancer, Brahim dated Madonna… Uhh, you get the point.
Where do I go next as a budding bboy/bgirl?
You’ve just read a mixbag of history, sprinkled with mainstream and alternative opinions.
And as a person keeping up with BreakDance Decoded’s material, I believe you’re smart enough to question and be aware of what you read.
So question the information you receive here too, and information from anywhere else. That’s the most basic thing you can do for yourself. Questioning. That’s a form of learning and growing.
So for you, keep learning and don’t stop. Don’t ever stop.
Even if you’re at the top of the game someday, don’t dispose that learning mentality. You learn in skills, in knowledge, in experience. It’s a mentality I have never dropped from day 1 either.
I’m still watching tutorials, exchanging knowledge and know-hows with people – even after dancing for close to 10 years. Put it this way…
The worst thing you can do to yourself is to think you’re already a master at whatever you do. And that becomes the downfall of your improvement and your sense of self. You lose yourself.
So here’s a few ACTIONABLE ways to keep learning in breaking:
- Get more involved with your dance community.
You can start practicing at public spots. It doesn’t matter if it’s filled with people whose skill are better than you. If think you’re not good enough, then that’s a good sign. You won’t learn if you’re the smartest person in the classroom. Also, if you show up regularly enough, people will take notice and may even start to give you the respect you earn.
- Join a battle. Or a public cypher.
This is the scariest thing to do on this list BUT it gives you a kickstart to getting involved with the dance – and not just to practice alone in the dark. After all, your dance will have an audience… Otherwise, who’s going to know you’re a bboy or bgirl?
- Check out interviews!
This is as close as you can get to the original sources of information (unless you actually know these people personally)
- Practice regularly.
Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither will your progress. It’s impractical to practise really hard for 3 days straight and not appear for 2 weeks straight.
- Watch videos…
BUT DON’T JUST WATCH FOR THE SAKE OF IT. Watch to understand what makes a move look good. What makes a winner a winner in battle. What you would do if you were a judge. These form YOUR collective understanding of the dance – and you begin to mature as a bboy.
Starting with ANY of these will help you further your understanding of b-boying. And it’s an understanding that goes beyond written articles or how-to videos. I encourage you to just start off with one thing that you’ve not tried before (from above).
I’ve shared with you my understanding of b-boying as a community, as a dance, as a culture.
Now I want you to share with me via firstname.lastname@example.org:
- Your understanding of breaking, AND
- How you intend to pick up any of the practical suggestions above to improve
Oh yes. Last thing.
As a bonus, you can download the ebook version of this post right here. Keep it with you so you can read it whenever you like.
P.S. If you find this post useful, go ahead and share it with your fellow bboys and bgirls! I’m sure they can appreciate and gain something from this post like you did.