The History of Breaking
by Peggy Shinn
In late September, at the 2023 WDSF World Breaking Championships, Victor Montalvo, also known as B-Boy Victor, out-dueled No. 1 ranked B-Boy Phil Wizard from Canada and claimed his second world title. With the win, 29-year-old Montalvo, ranked fifth in the world, became the first American breaker to qualify for the Olympic Games Paris 2024.
“Officially won my spot for the Paris Olympics 2024!!” Montalvo posted on Instagram, along with a photo from the world championships podium. “History was made and I’m glad I got to be a part of it.”
In early November, at the Pan American Games Santiago 2023 in Santiago, Chile, Sunny Choi became the first b-girl to qualify her spot for Team USA in Paris 2024.
By the time the Games start next July, 32 athletes total will have earned the right to participate in breaking’s Olympic debut. It’s an urban dance style characterized by stylized footwork and acrobatic floor moves — once referred to as breakdancing — that’s rooted in the New York City borough of the Bronx. With athleticism, style, grace and personal flair, the b-boys and b-girls could steal the show in Paris.
Breaking is a core element of hip-hop, a culture based in DJing, MCing, breaking and graffiti. And by many accounts, it has a birthplace and birthdate.
On Aug. 11, 1973, a DJ, named Kool Herc, MC-ed his sister’s dance party in the rec room of an apartment building on Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx. She had asked Herc to play the music, and he debuted a new DJing technique. He had found that if he extended a song’s percussive breaks (by using two turntables), a few in the crowd would “break” or start dancing, energized by the percussion.
“How the break thing happened, I was seeing everybody on the sidelines waiting for particular breaks in the records,” Herc said in a 1999 interview with Red Bull Music Academy.
These dancers would battle, trying to one-up each other in style and moves. Breaking was a form of dance combat that became a positive outlet at a time when gang tensions rattled New York City.
“People were dancing, but they weren’t calling it b-boying,” continued Herc, who became known as the original godfather of hip-hop. “That was just the break, and people would go off. My terms came in after I started to play – I called them b-boys. … Right then, slang was in, and we shortened words down. Instead of disrespect, you know, you dissed me.”
Breaking was rooted in a variety of dance moves — from those of musician James Brown, to the Nicholas Brothers’s acrobatic dance techniques (famous in the mid-20th century), to traditional dance moves from Africa. Initially, the b-boys did top rock, or footwork moves. Then b-boying or breaking hit the floor. Some credit Keith and Kevin Smith — two of the original b-boys who became known as The Legendary Twins — with taking breaking to the floor.
Now, breaking consists of top rock (footwork) and down rock, which consists of dynamic power moves (twists and spins) and the freeze, where breakers hold still for a few seconds, normally off the floor with only their hands (or heads) for support.
As hip-hop spread, more communities embraced it, with kids bringing their own heritage and flair to their breaking moves and forming crews that would battle each other. Impressed by the athleticism and creativity of breaking, Michael Holman gave up his Wall Street career and started running a hip-hop revue in a downtown Manhattan club.
“Breakers would watch other breakers saying: 'Wow, that's wild, the way you're bringing in Kung Fu moves from the Chinese community, I'm gonna incorporate your Kung Fu and put it with my African cakewalk dance, or incorporate it with a Puerto Rican gymnastics aesthetic,'” Holman told the BBC last March. “And all this while dancing to old James Brown records mixed on Jamaican-style sound systems. That’s the culture of b-boy dance."
Rather than breaking as just a dance performance, Holman encouraged crews to continue their battles on the stage. Breaking crews like the Zulu Kings and Rock Steady Crew were two of the first to battle at the club, along with Dynamic Rockers and New York City Breakers.
The media took notice — and dubbed it breakdancing, a word that’s now considered pejorative.
In 1983, the movie Flashdance introduced breaking to the world. Rock Steady Crew members nicknamed Crazy Legs, Mr. Freeze, Frosty Freeze, Prince Ken Swift, and Normski did short breaking moves in the film. Crazy Legs (aka Richard Colón) also served as Jennifer Beals’s double in her 90-second dance audition in the film’s climatic conservatory audition.
“It was our little ghetto game; we didn’t know it was going anywhere,” Colón told the New York Post in 2015.
Soon, the Rock Steady Crew was traveling the world, performing for the Queen of England and at Lincoln Center. And other breaking-focused movies followed Flashdance, including Beat Street, which featured a battle between Rock Steady Crew and the New York City Breakers.
Breaking peaked in the mid-1980s, then began losing popularity, with many declaring it a fad. But not the faithful. As the 1990s neared, a few b-boys came out of retirement to help activate the breaking scene again, this time with judged competitions.
The international Battle of the Year (BOTY) was created in 1990, and it was the first large-scale judged breaking competition. Sometimes referred to as the world cup of b-boying, it has become so large that crews can now only reach it through qualifier events. Other large-scale breaking events followed, like the World DanceSport Federation’s world championships, which started in 2013.
But breaking is more than just a form of competition. It has evolved into a global cultural art form. The athletic side of breaking helped put it on the IOC’s radar (the IOC recognized the World DanceSport Federation in 1997), and it was added to the Summer Youth Olympic Games Buenos Aires 2018. In 2020, the IOC voted to include breaking on the Olympic Games Paris 2024 program.
Next summer, 16 b-boys and 16 b-girls will compete for Olympic medals outdoors at the iconic Place de la Concorde in the heart of Paris. Breakers will battle head-to-head in round-robin competition, with judges scoring them on six criteria: creativity, personality, technique, variety, performativity and musicality.
While B-Boy Victor has already qualified for Paris, Team USA’s Vicki Chang (B-Girl La Vix), Grace Choi (B-Girl Sunny), Jeffrey Louis (B-Boy Jeffro, currently ranked fourth in the world) and Miguel Rosario (B-Boy Gravity) are competing at the 2023 Pan American Games in Santiago, Chile, for their chance to qualify for the 2024 Olympic Games. The winner of the b-boy and b-girl competitions in Santiago will each earn an Olympic berth.
Olympic qualifiers continue in 2024, with up to four athletes per country able to qualify for the Paris Games.
Breakers around the world are starting to embrace their opportunity to introduce both their countries and their culture to the world.
As B-Boy Jeffro wrote on Instagram after the first Team USA breaking camp last winter, “We’re representing ... A dance, Art, Sport, Culture and the USA.”