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Hip Hop Dancing: Everything You Need to Know

Published on Apr 4th 2022
hip hop dancing

Do you find yourself fascinated by hip hop dancing and curious to know more? After all, it looks incredibly impressive, but also super fun, to break it down and bust some moves to the epic beats being spun by DJs.

If you’re interested in learning more about the art form of hip hop dancing, including what it is and how to dance it, then you’re in the right place. This guide will explain everything you need to know about hip hop dancing so you can build a better understanding of this intriguing and expressive art form and maybe even start practicing some moves yourself.

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How Do You Dance Hip Hop?

Hip Hop Dance Classes

The best, and arguably most fun, way to learn all about hip hop dancing is from live instructors. They’ll teach you everything from the basics to more advanced moves of this style of dancing in a welcoming and lively environment.

Browse dance classes in Houston, dance classes in Seattle and dance classes in Las Vegas, which include hip hop dance for kids, to find some of the best hip hop dancing instruction out there. No matter what you’re skill level, you can easily improve your hip hop skills with one of the many dance classes near you.

Online Hip Hop Dance Classes

Another great way to learn hip hop dancing, especially if you prefer to learn on your own or in the comfort of your own home, is with online dance classes or other online resources! Participating in an online hip hop dance class is a great way to receive direct instruction (either group or private) from a knowledgeable dancer. 

Benefits of Dancing Hip Hop

Why should you learn how to dance hip hop? Besides it being an impressive skill to bust out at parties and social gatherings, Stanford Dance states that frequent dancing has been shown to help protect against dementia and increase cognitive sharpness at all ages!

Additionally, hip hop dance can help build self-confidence, increase athleticism and foster a spirit of self-empowerment. Keep reading as we break down some of the key characteristics and basic moves of hip hop dancing!

guy breakdancing on dance floor
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What is Hip Hop Dance?

At the most basic level, hip hop dance is a style of street music, a series of bounces and rocks performed to the beats of hip hop music.

Compared to other dance styles, hip hop dancing is less constrained and does not necessarily have set rules or limiting characteristics that must be followed. Instead, hip hop dancing is better understood as a distinct stylistic approach to choreography and improvisation set to the beats and rhythms of hip hop music. 

Hip hop dancing is actually a mix of many different dance styles and includes elements from salsa, Cuban mango and rumba, Brazilian samba, jazz, ballet and even some martial arts influences like Kung-Fu. 

Most importantly, hip hop dancing is a part of the greater hip hop culture and reflects freedom to learn, grow and express oneself through movement.

Hip Hop Dance History

African-American Roots

Hip hop dancing is largely rooted in African-American culture and first emerged as a style of improvised street dancing in black and Latin NYC neighborhoods in the 1970s. In particular, the West Bronx is considered the birthplace of hip hop dancing.

Seeking to escape the struggles of life as a minority, the youth of these neighborhoods turned to art as a means to express themselves, creating a unique and culturally blended art form of street dance now known as hip hop dancing. 

The Father of Hip Hop

It was during these early formative years that DJ Kool Herc, known as the Father of Hip Hop, first figured out how to isolate the backbeat of a song and spin it back on loop. Pretty soon his West Bronx parties were routinely combining deejaying and emceeing with this new style of street dance, firmly establishing the beginning of hip hop dancing culture.

Hip Hop in the Media

Hip hop dancing continued to spread and gain popularity during the coming decades and was notably showcased in multiple films and commercials during the 1980s. Breakdancing in particular was featured in ads for Pepsi, Coke, Panasonic and Burger King. In the 1990s, the “Elite Force” dance troupe helped bring exposure to hip hop dancing. 

Hip Hop Today

As hip hop dancing grew in popularity within mainstream art and media culture, it further developed and evolved. Today, hip hop continues to be featured on modern dance shows and is a popular style of dance taught across dance studios and organizations. Importantly, though, the term “hip hop” is sometimes misused or misapplied in attempts to mass market. 

woman hip hop dancing in studio
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Most Famous Hip Hop Dancers

The OG hip hop dance group, NYC-based Rocky Steady Crew, contained some of the most famous and founding hip hop dancers, including Richard “Crazy Legs” Colon and Steffan “Mr. Wiggles” Clemente.

Dan Cornelius, creator of Soul Train in the 1970s, helped to popularize hip hop social dancing, especially popping, locking and other styles.

Similarly, Charles “Cholly” Atkins and James Brown were dancers who helped introduce and popularize dance moves that would eventually find their way into hip hop dancing.

Toni Basil is another famous hip hop dancer, a classically trained ballerina who helped bring hip hop dancing to a broad audience during the 1980s.

There are also plenty of other famous artists and singers who many consider to be hip hop dancers. The names at the top of this list include Michael Jackson, Ciara, Beyonce and Chris Brown.  

hip hop dance crew on stage
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Types of Hip Hop Dance Styles

There are a few different hip hop dance styles, especially since it borrows from so many other styles and disciplines of dance.

While some might consider locking and popping to be styles of hip hop dance, they are better defined as moves used within hip hop dance. In fact, these styles have their own techniques and origin. Many popular social dances sometimes called hip hop dance styles are actually “West Coast Funk” styles instead.

So what are the types of hip hop dance styles? 

Breaking Competitions

One of the most important stylistic components of hip hop dance is breaking, also known as breakdancing. It’s an acrobatic style of dance involving lots of fast footwork and quick-paced technique.

Dancers who perform breakdancing are known as b-boys or b-girls. Although breaking is its own style of dance separate from hip hop dance, breaking competitions are a particular style of hip hop dancing, where b-boys and b-girls engage in back-and-forth dance battles, challenging one another to see who can be more creative, original or dominating in their moves.

Party Dances

In addition to the dance styles incorporated within hip hop dancing, there are also hip hop party dances. This style is much more relaxed than breaking competitions and instead focuses on light-hearted social connection and fun. 

You may be familiar with some popular hip hop party dances, like the Snake, Chicken-Head, Cabbage Patch, Harlem Shake and Running Man; these are now referred to as “old school” hip hop dances. New school party dances come from more recent songs, such as The Whip, Nae Nae, Dougie and Cat Daddy. 

friends hip hop dancing at a party
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Five Characteristics of Hip Hop Dance

Hip hop dance involves the five characteristics of hip hop culture: deejaying, breaking, graffiti, emceeing and knowledge of self. 

Deejaying

DJs are the ones who create hip hop music in live time for people to hip hop dance to. This art form, also known as turntabling, involves using record players (or in more recent years, electronic DJ mixing technology and electronic devices) to isolate the breakbeat of a song and play it back on loop in new or creatively integrated ways. 

Breaking

Most people naturally associate breaking, or breakdancing, with hip hop dancing, but it’s important to note that breakdancing in itself is not hip hop; it is merely a component of hip hop dancing.

Breaking is its own unique style of dance involving five core movements: top rocks, back rocks, fast footwork, freezes and power moves. There is usually lots of spinning and contorting, but it all comes down to the dancer moving to the “breakbeat” provided by the DJ spinning tracks. 

Check out the hip hop moves in the hip hop dance video below!

Graffiti

Sometimes called “street art,” graffiti is a visual form of self-expression in which artists use spray paint to transform walls, buildings and other outdoor spaces into vibrant and colorful displays. 

Emceeing

The “MC,” or “Master of Ceremonies,” functions as the overall director of the hip hop party, hyping up the DJ and the crowd, as well as occasionally freestyle rapping with the music.

Knowledge of Self

This is arguably the most important characteristic, as it is this philosophy that binds all these separate elements together into a single hip hop culture. Coming from the Afro-diaspora, “knowledge of self” refers to a mix of political and spiritual consciousness portraying social change and designed to empower members of oppressed social groups.

three women hip hop dancing
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Most Popular Hip Hop Dance Moves

Freestyling

A common style of hip hop dance is freestyle improvisation, in which the dancer creates a creative flow of moves in the moment. The more experienced one is at freestyling, the easier it usually is from them to come up with fluid and natural-looking freestyle sequences.

Krumping

This move draws from African-American culture and is largely a powerful and forceful expression of emotion. It involves powerful, energetic movements, especially chest bumping.

Popping

Popping is achieved by quickly contracting certain muscles to create a jerking effect. Almost any part of the body can be “popped” and this technique is often used to make robotic movements.

Locking

Another popular hip hop dance move, locking, requires the dancer to quickly freeze their body in different positions as they dance. It’s similar to popping, except the dancer holds the frozen positions for longer periods of time.

graffiti behind hip hop street dancer
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Top Hip Hop Dance Songs

While hip hop dancing is often performed as DJs spin tracks in live time, there are also lots of pre-recorded hip hop style dance songs, many of which you will probably recognize either by name or when you hear them.

Here are just a few popular hip hop dance songs:

  • “Stanky Leg” by GS Boyz
  • “It’s Goin Down” by Yung Joc
  • “Crank That” by Souldja Boy
  • “You’re a Jerk” by New Boyz
  • “Tootsee Roll” by 69 Boyz
  • “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)” by Silento
  • “Snap Yo Fingers” by Lil Jon

You can also check out Spotify's Hip Hop Playlist for some more current hip hop song recommendations.

group of friends listening to hip hop boom box
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Now that you know the basic history and characteristics of hip hop dancing, it’s time to start exploring this art form yourself. Whether you sign up for a dance class or simply begin practicing moves on your own, have fun as you learn to express yourself in new ways through movement with hip hop dancing.

Most important of all, remember to fully embrace all aspects of hip hop culture if you can and try to approach this style of dance with a “knowledge of self” philosophy!

For even more creative ideas and inspiration, check out other experiences happening on Classpop!