Encyclopedia of B-boying Moves 1975-1985
Summary of Method and Guide to Reading the Encyclopedia
I arrived at the entries in this encyclopedia by adapting similar entries in three how-to manuals; Breakdancing by Mr. Fresh and the Supreme Rockers (1984), Breakdance! by William H. Watkins and Eric N. Franklin (1984), and Break Dancing by Terry Dunnahoo (1985). For many of the entries I also incorporated primary source material from practitioners, as well as scholarly reflections on the movement. My personal experience as a practitioner—learning, performing, and observing many of the following moves—influenced my selection of existing descriptions and re-phrasing and rewriting of others. I hope this process has led to intelligible descriptions of the movement. For each entry I tried to give a larger picture of each move before describing it in a step-by-step fashion. However, unlike how-to manuals, this is not meant to be an instructional tool. Rather, this encyclopedia is a utility for identifying moves and placing them in their historical and aesthetic context.
The timeframe of this encyclopedia is 1975-1985. Where possible, I have provided whatever evidence I could find in order to date these moves chronologically. In addition to written descriptions in the articles by Sally Banes from 1981-1985, I also found dated photographic evidence of moves being performed in Hager (1984) and Fricke and Ahearn (2002), and the Joe Conzo Archive of photographs of the Bronx 1979-1981 housed in Cornell University Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections. There were a small number of moves captured in photographs in these books but not accounted for in the how-to manuals. I have entered these in the encyclopedia under the name by which they are currently known.
Documentaries and feature films about B-boying are another possible source of evidence for what moves were performed by whom and at what point in the development of B-boying. However, due to time constraints, I have not pursued that evidence. Because the temporal scope of this endeavor is limited, there are of course many contemporary B-boying moves which are not included. For the most complete, although poorly organized, up-to-date listing of moves in the global B-boy vocabulary, I refer the reader to various conjoined articles on Wikipedia starting with the umbrella article “List of Breakdance Moves.”
The headings that are capital and GOLD indicate the three co-existing and intertwined forms of dance found in the Bronx between 1975 and 1985: B-boying, Uprock, and Electric Boogie (Popping and Locking). Boldface headings in pink indicate the names of codified moves which are the terms defined and described in the encyclopedia; italicized entries subordinate to a boldface entry indicates a variation or specific style of the boldface move. For ease of identification, a move appears in italics the first time it appears in the main text of the entry.
A Backspin is “the spinning of your body balanced on your upper back, with your legs tucked up and held by your arms or hands” (Mr. Fresh et al. 1984:12). The B-boy starts this move lying on his side. To gain momentum for this move, he crosses the free leg over his body then kicks it to the back in a circular motion. At the same time, he pushes off the hand he is lying on. The combined energy turns him in the direction of the free leg’s motion, and starts to rotate the whole body. To maintain the spinning, the B-boy curls up into a ball, as Mr. Fresh et al. described. A variation of this move is the Buttspin, where instead of rolling onto his back to spin, the dancer is balanced on his butt, with the knees pulled into the chest, or extended vertically in a pike position. In contemporary B-boying, the Backspin, along with the Buttspin, is mostly a novelty move. It’s an impression of “old school” B-boying, where “old school” refers to the period of development discussed here: 1975-1985. Also discussed in Watkins and Franklin (1984:34-35), and Dunnahoo (1985:34). Photographic evidence dated 1983 in Hager (1984)
When performing Donkeys, the B-boy alternates between having his weight entirely on his feet and his weight entirely on his hands. This is accomplished by placing the arms on the floor and kicking the legs up behind. Once the body is almost vertical, the hands push off the floor. For a moment neither hands nor feet are touching the floor. Then, the feet reach the floor and the weight is replaced, after which the motion is repeated (Watkins and Franklin 1984: 50-53). The move looks like an imitation of a kicking, bucking animal, a quality its name hints at.
Flips, most commonly Backflips, were one of the gymnastic Power Moves added in second wave B-boying. This type of move did not appear in any of the three how-to manuals, this may be in part because of liability issues: all of the books caution many times that B-boying can be dangerous and that the reader should be very careful. Perhaps they did not want to even mention a move which could be so potentially damaging. But in her 1985 article Banes mentions “Acrobatic transitions such as […] flips” (1994: 146), and there is photographic evidence dated 1981 in Hager (1984). Because the images capture the B-boy high in mid-air, all that can be absolutely stated is that they were in the air. There is no evidence for how they got there. As such, I am using the term loosely, as it is quite possible the move is actually a Handspring, a gymnastic move that would look similar in the air but is easier to accomplish.
In a Backflip, the dancer begins standing with his arms raised, then lowers the arms quickly, and bends the knees deeply. Raising the arms quickly in an arcing motion towards the sky, the dancer pushing off through the legs and jumps into a cannonball position, rotating backwards. When he completes the rotation in the air, he lands on his feet in the spot where he started. In a Handspring, the preparation is the same, but instead of rotating back to the feet in the air, the B-boy first lands on his hands in a handstand position, from where he continues the motion and ends back on his feet.
In a Float, the B-boy is parallel to the floor, with all his weight resting on his arms. The elbows of each arm are stuck into his body below the ribs such that the hands are supporting the weight with the forearms perpendicular to the floor. The B-boy leans forward slightly to free up the legs, which are held bent and lifted behind the body. By shifting the weight slightly from one elbow to the other and picking up and moving the free hand, the B-boy can turn in a circle or move forward or back (Watkins and Franklin 1984: 44-47).
The term Floor Rock “describes any dancing you do while you’re down on the floor, with one or both hands acting as supports” (Mr. Fresh et al. 1984: 11). Floor Rock, also called Down Rock and Footwork, includes specific moves like Six-Step, Three-Step, and different kinds of Techs, many with their own names. (There is no evidence that these specific terms were used yet in the time period of investigation, but the movement was already being performed.) Basic Floor Rock moves involve the hands planted on the floor and staying mostly in one place while the legs walk quickly around the hands. The dancer either keeps the body facing the hands or alternates facings. The entire body including the pelvis is kept low and close to the hands allowing the greatest amount of freedom for the legs. Mr. Fresh et al. specify that “original Breaking, often called old-style Breakdancing”—what I have referred to as second-wave B-boying—was comprised mostly of Floor Rock and not the more acrobatic Power Moves, which were added later (1984: 13). Photographic evidence dated 1981 in Fricke and Ahearn (2002: 117, 303).
Techs are variations and add-ons to the basic Floor Rock moves. Techs involve a frequent transfer of weight between the hands and intricate motions of the free legs. A lot of innovation takes place in developing and performing new Techs, and this is related to developing one’s own style. Because they are complicated, the mastery of many Techs is prestigious. In general, crisp, fast movement with an attention to transitions is valued in Floor Rock, and Techs are good moments to display these abilities. Mr. Fresh et al. compare this category of move to traditional Russian dancing (Mr. Fresh et al. 1984:13). B-boy Alien Ness actually asserts that one Tech, referred to most commonly as cc’s, should be called Russian Taps because they arose from imitating Russian dancing (Schloss 2009: 77).
One well known Floor Rock step is the Helicopter. In the Helicopter, the dancer begins in a squatting position with one leg extended. The dancer takes weight into both hands in front of the body so that the extended leg can swing around the crouching leg. The crouching leg then jumps over the swinging leg, and the dancer returns to the beginning pose to complete it again (Watkins and Franklin 1984: 30-33). This move is also known by some as Coffee Grinders. But B-boy Anthony Colon directly disputes this name, firmly declaring Helicopter to be the correct one, and specifically recalling an instance in 1983 when he performed them. From this we know that Helicopters were used at least as early as 1983 (Schloss 2009: 77).
The element of surprise is highly valued in the composition of a set, and in the final moment of the set the Freeze is an important opportunity to showcase timing and strength. There are many categories of Freezes including Baby Freezes, mimetic Freezes, and Air Freezes (discussed briefly in the Post-1985 entry below), and each category contains many variations.
A Baby Freeze entails one arm’s elbow anchored into the abdomen perpendicular to the floor and body. The weight of the body is balanced on that hand, on the top of the side of one’s head, and the free arm, which is bent at a right angle. The legs are either rested on the free elbow or suspended in the air in a variety of positions. Mimetic Freezes were especially prominent in early breakdancing, as Rose says:
to stop time was only one part of the freeze. In the freeze, the dancer also took on an alternative identity and served as a challenge to competitors. Dancers would freeze-pose as animals, superheroes, business men, GQ models, elderly or injured people and as female pin-up models. The freeze pose embodied an element of surprise that served as a challenge to the next dancer to outdo the previous pose. (1994: 48)
More than one Freeze might be utilized in a set, as was the case in a duet routine recounted by the B-boy JoJo where the dancers “both spin down to a baby freeze, [then] end it in a backspin to a bridge” (Fricke and Ahearn 2002: 112). Also discussed in Watkins and Franklin (1984:60-61).
A Handglide or Flow is characterized by “the horizontal spinning of your body while it is balanced on one elbow stuck between your hips” (Mr. Fresh et al. 1984: 11). To picture this, imagine that the B-boy is in the position of parachuting, except that the body is supported by the single hand whose elbow rests perpendicular to the floor and body in the B-boy’s abdomen (this is a similar position to the one described for Baby Freezes). As Mr. Fresh et al. say, the balance for this move “comes from the legs which are bent and spread apart” (1984: 11). In Floor Rock the mark of excellence is speed while still maintaining precision. However, for a glide, while initial speed is good, the mark of a great glide is a slow, maintained position which continues until there is no choice but to stop. This sustaining quality is one of the many elements of contrast inherently built into a B-boy set. Also discussed in Watkins and Franklin (1984: 48-49), Dunnahoo (1985: 38). Photographic evidence dated 1981 in Fricke and Ahearn (2002: 305), Hager (1984).
To do a Headspin, the B-boy starts in a headstand. His arms are placed on either side of the head, helping to support his bodyweight and provide stability. He gains momentum by propelling himself around with his hands. The legs may also help to gather momentum, opening in a circular path before closing quickly. Once the B-boy has gained speed, he brings his hands up from the floor so that only his head is touching. Once the spin has started, the legs may be spread or tight depending on the B-boy’s balance and style. Many people these days wear helmets for safety or hats that make it easier to spin, but the B-boys in the time period we are looking at spun right on their afros! Also discussed in Watkins and Franklin (1984: 62-63) and Dunnahoo (1985: 41). Photographic evidence dated 1981 in Fricke and Ahearn (2002: 112), Hager (1984: cover).
According to Mr. Fresh et al. Lofting is a broad term that describes dives and dive rolls ending in Handstands and other Freezes and poses. None of the other sources mentioned it, but this seems like it would be a later addition to the movement vocabulary, as dive rolls are common in gymnastics (1984: 12).
Scissor Kicks is a Power Move done in a Handstand position. Once in a Handstand, the B-boy bends his arms slightly and pushes off of the ground slightly before touching again. While these small jumps happen, the legs kick back and forth into narrow splits, crossing each other like scissor blades. Photographic evidence dated 1981 in Fricke and Ahearn (2002: 304).
A Suicide is a “no-hands forward flip where you land flat on your back. […] If you do it right, you don’t hurt yourself” (Mr. Fresh et al. 1984:12). Suicides can also be done rotating in the air parallel to the floor, or landing on the butt in a similar move. Suicides, like Freezes, play into the theatricality and mimetic aspects of a set, and also have a unique rhythm because their movement ends so abruptly.
Swipes are “a flip of the weight from hands to feet that also involves a twist in the body’s direction” (Banes 1994: 146). Starting in a crab-walk position, with weight on both bent legs and arms positioned behind the body, the B-boy flips over to face the ground, and returns to the beginning position. If the B-boy is turning to the right, this is accomplished by raising the right arm and swinging it forcefully from the left side of the body back to the right to bear weight on the ground. At the same time, the left leg lifts off the ground and weight is put onto the right leg, which pushes off the floor. The move is completed when the left arm whips around, freeing the legs to turn in the air, and the body’s weight is completely on the hands. As the legs come around, the B-boy returns to the original position. Also discussed in Watkins and Franklin (1984: 54-55), Dunnahoo (1985: 46). Photographic evidence in Fricke and Ahearn (2002: 111,116), Hager (1984).
There are two variations of the Spider, one which travels and the other which is stationary. They both have the same basic position: the body is crouched close to the floor with most of the weight on the hands. The legs are draped over the shoulders so that the backs of the knees touch the back of the shoulders (Dunnahoo 1985: 42). In the stationary variation, the weight is taken exclusively in the hands and the legs are lifted and lowered in the air on alternating sides. To travel, the B-boy uses all four appendages: both hands and both feet, to walk forward or to travel in a circle (Watkins and Franklin 1984: 36-41). Photographic evidence in Hager (1984), dated 1982 in Fricke and Ahearn (2002:116).
The inclusion of Top Rock in this encyclopedia, named as such, may be anachronistic. It is not mentioned in the description of B-boying moves in any of the three instructional books I used to compile the Encyclopedia; nor does Pabon mention it in his “Physical Graffiti.” Banes also does not mention Top Rock by name, but in her 1981 article in the Village Voice, she does refer to “a stylized walk into the ring for four or five beats to the music” which B-boy Frosty Freeze “stuffs a Charleston into” (Banes 1994: 124). This is a description that sounds suspiciously like Top Rock. In addition, several pictures of B-boys dated 1981-82 in Fricke and Ahearn (2002) and Hager (1984) as well as from 1980-1981 in the Joe Conzo Archive show still images of what today would absolutely be called Top Rock.
This portion of the set is the earliest version of B-boying; it is built off of the upright dances of the first wave, African American B-boys. So perhaps when these texts were written, at a time when Floor Rock and Power Moves had already been added, this part of the set was de- emphasized to save energy, or was devalued in the face of showier moves. Or perhaps at the timethese texts were written the upright portion of the set was mostly composed of moves borrowed from Uprock and Electric Boogaloo, and a distinguishing name was not yet necessary.
Both of these options seem possible, but unlikely, as Top Rock has a specific rhythm and role in the set. Top Rock emphasizes the already heavy beats 2 and 4 of a measure, and has the additional task of establishing rhythm and dominance of the space; B-boys often use their Top Rock time to carve out space in the circle—physically and in terms of attention—in which to perform. The most likely explanation as to why the category of moves called Top Rock had not yet acquired a title is two fold. First, this upright portion was the original core of the dance, and has the most in common with other upright popular dance forms, so it does not require the step- by-step instruction that a move like the Spider does. Second, there are many individual Top Rock steps, and a great deal of variety and room for innovation, so perhaps these manuals could not deal with this.
One of the most popular Top Rock steps is the Indian Step, and it is this one that seems most common in the photographs mentioned above. In the Indian Step, the B-boy starts in a neutral standing position, then crosses the right foot over the left foot and puts weight on the right toe. Then, the foot returns to neutral and the process is repeated to the other side. The weight is placed on the extended foot on the beats 2 and 4, emphasizing these beats visually (Schloss 2009: 32).
Windmills are one of the most difficult moves of the moves in this encyclopedia, and the learning process creates a lot of bruises on the shoulders. The Windmill involves the B-boy alternating between lying on his back and facing the floor, where he is supporting himself on both hands with the elbows tucked in close to the body. The difficulty of this move is in successfully completing the transitions, and doing so smoothly, especially from the back returning to supporting oneself on the arms. The name of the move comes from the movement of the legs which help propel the body around and create momentum. It is sometimes performed without the help of the hands at all, such that the weight of the body is simply being transferred from the back of the shoulders to the front (Mr. Fresh et al 1984: 12). Also discussed in Watkins and Franklin (1984: 56-59), Dunnahoo (1985: 42).
The Worm starts with the body lying on the ground face down, with forearms lying on the floor. The body moves forward incrementally by lifting in the pelvis, kicking the legs, and pushing off of the forearms. Starting at the legs, each part of the body is lifted off of the ground, sending a wave through the body, until part of the body returns to the floor, now slightly forward of where it began (Watkins and Franklin 1984: 78-81). There is also a variation, called the Dolphin, which moves from head to toe and therefore moves backwards (Dunnahoo 1985:34).
To the list above, which represents the arsenal of B-boying moves which came from and were used by the first, second, and third waves of New York B-boys, other Power Moves have been added. Examples include Crickets, Flares, Air Flares, 1990s, and 2000s, and many more. There have also been more variations invented in the category Freezes, as well as a demanding brother category, Air Freezes. Air Freezes are all variations on Handstands or elbow stands, and common examples include Nikes, Pikes, Inverts, (blow up)Air Chairs, Hollow-backs, Kicks and more. Further research needs to be done on the development and practice of these contemporary moves in the United States and globally.
The description of Uprock given by Mr. Fresh et al. is so compelling it is repeated virtually in toto here:
Uprock is a dancing fight, in which the dancers are very close but do not actually touch. It is extremely fast and looks like a kung fu battle, but with more continuous movement and more rhythm. Every move means something: ‘I cut your throat,’ or, ‘I dismember you.’ […] There are Uprock moves where you grab a part of your opponent’s anatomy and smell it as a sign you have taken it. (1984: 13)
Whereas Top Rock puts emphasis only on the already musically emphasized beats 2 and 4, Uprock utilizes all of the whole beats as well as the half beats of a measure. Typical Uprock steps have the distinct rhythm 1-and-2, 3-and-4 or perhaps 1, 2, 3-and-4, with a move on almost every count and half count. These steps typically are done with a rocking motion of the pelvis from front to back and an emphatic descent to crouching, on the beats 3-and-4 known as the jerk (Schloss 2009:134-135). Uprock is typically performed concurrently by two opponents who face each other. Their arms move in opposition to their pelvises and mime punching or stabbing motions, all of which creates the effect of stage-fighting. Uprock is judged on is rhythmic accuracy; “you lose if you’re out of sync with the music” (Mr. Fresh et al. 1984: 13), as well as endurance, variety of movement, and attitude in relation to the opponent. Also discussed in Watkins and Franklin (1984: 24-25). Photographic evidence dated 1983 in Fricke and Ahearn (2002:115).
In general, the movement involves isolation of body parts, illusion, or mimetic narrative combinations. Mr. Fresh et al. list Popping and Lock It (Locking) as distinct moves within the category Electric Boogie, but at the present, with the exception of Locking, most people would put all of the styles or moves mentioned in this section under the category Popping. It is probably the case that certain moves, like Tutting, were developed after Popping had spread to New York, and were later absorbed into Popping because of their aesthetic similarity. As such, some of the names for the moves described below delineated by Mr. Fresh et al. are now names of techniques or options within Popping, and not distinct dance forms.
Possibly because the Electric Boogie moves tend to be characteristic of popular club dancing, and appear more accessible (although virtuosic Popping and Locking is very difficult and requires just as much effort and rehearsal as breaking, if not the exact same physical demands), these are the forms and characteristics which have been the most universally adopted, and their influence can be seen in many contemporary, mostly upright, Hip-Hop dance forms.
Floats “are old mime tricks, and are the standard way of getting around the floor when doing the Electric Boogie” (Mr. Fresh et al. 1984: 15). Floats can move back, side, or front, and the specific movement of the feet is particular to each direction. What is important about performing Floats is that they are meant to create an illusion; the dancer gives the impression that he is gliding across the floor as if being pulled by an external force (Dunnahoo 1985: 26-30). This illusion is accomplished by never removing the foot from the floor, but rather pushing through the ball of the foot and sliding it in the correct direction. The weight is then transferred to the other foot. The Moonwalk, or Back Float, is the most well known example of this, and was made famous by Michael Jackson (Watkins and Franklin 1984: 68-69).
King Tut (Tutting)
In Tutting, the dancer moves between poses that might be seen in ancient Egyptian paintings, with a particular emphasis on hands bent at right angles to the forearm and on bent elbows. As with most of the Electric Boogie dances, the transitions from pose to pose must be motivated, and the progression must seem somewhat logical. That is to say, a dancer must move stepwise through many motions before getting to a pose that is very distinct from a previous one. In an Electric Boogie set, Tutting can be used as an opportunity to dis an opponent. For example, a dancer might mime making an opponent’s head into a sandwich between the ‘bread’ of his hands, then turn the sandwich so that he is eating it. Discussed in Mr. Fresh et al. (1984: 14-15), Dunnahoo (1985: 22), Watkins and Franklin (1984: 76). Photographic evidence dated 1981 in Fricke and Ahearn (2002:306)
Many people attribute the development of Tutting to the Egyptomania that erupted with the first tour of the King Tut exhibit to the United States. This exhibit was on display in New York in 1978, and was vey well attended. Some also point to the subsequent televised performance of Steve Martin’s novelty hit song “King Tut.” The performance aired on Saturday Night Live in 1979, and featured stylized dancing mimicking the Egyptian hieroglyphs and paintings of the set’s décor. The moves performed look very similar to Tutting moves, although the technique and logic is less sophisticated.
Lock It (Locking)
Locking moves are highly gestural, sharp, and often angular. Mr. Fresh et al. explain that Locking is an exaggerated display of laughter; “for example, you might slap your knees or point at something or someone funny. You throw your arms up. You kick your legs out. You really have a good time when you Lock” (1984: 15). Locking uses a lot of pauses for emphasis between fast movements, during which the joints are given an extra lock. This emphasis is similar to that in Popping, except where Popping is an outward emphasized motion, Locking is like a settling into a pose. Also discussed in Dunnahoo 1985: 16-17. Photographic evidence from the Joe Conzo Archive dated 1980, in Hager (1984).
The Mannequin is an imitation of a store mannequin, with locked joints, and has several sub- styles; it is one of the most imitative, mimetic categories in Electric Boogie:
Robot- An imitation of a mechanized robot, complete with the limitations and specific angles of motion and a reverberation once the movement has completed its trajectory. Although it is performed on beat to the music, the Robot can be performed at any speed.
The Puppet/Marionette- Imitative of a marionette with strings controlling the elbows in particular, with lower arms dangling and relatively limp.
The Collapse-A Mannequin move where the feet are wide apart, knees are together, and weight is on the inside of the shoes.
The Lean gives the impression that the dancer is leaning far over to one side by Collapsing the leaning side leg while the other remains straight and jutting the upper body and shoulders far out to the side (Mr. Fresh et al. 1984: 16).
The Pop (Popping)
The Pop is an isolated movement in a given body part that may be combined with other Electric Boogie moves, or combined into a full routine. As Mr. Fresh et al. explain, “You can Pop your shoulder by tensing the arm muscles and by giving a little help by the slightest downward jerk of your elbow” (1984: 15). One well-known Popping move is the Heartbeat, where a Popper performs an exaggerated heartbeat, often accompanied by a hand, sometimes someone else’s, just above the chest of the Popper, as if the heart is being commanded to try and escape the chest.
Ticking is a snapping of joints which mimics the breaking of a bone, used to add motion to emphasize other moves (Dunnahoo 1985: 17, Mr. Fresh et al. 1984: 14). It can also refer to Popping double-time, which inevitably has a different quality of movement.
The Wave is a very common way of moving within an Electric Boogie set; it involves passing an invisible wave or current through the body by isolating and highlighting the body part where the ‘energy’ is. A Wave can be done through the entire body, but the most recognizable version of it is probably the 10-Step Wave. In the 10-Step Wave, energy is passed sequentially through the arms while keeping them parallel to the ground; the fingers fold into the palm, the wrist bends, the elbow lifts, the shoulder comes up, and then reverses to the other side, so that the energy comes out the fingertips. Mr. Fresh et al. aptly point out, “the Wave is the one Boogie style that does not have the snapping and popping character of Breakdance music” (1984: 14). This is not an inconsistency but rather an attribute that gives it an important compositional role, which is the ability to add contrast and slow things down, much like intermediate Freezes do in a B-boying set. Also discussed in Dunnahoo (1985: 18), Watkins and Franklin (1984: 66).