How Did 80s Breakdancing and Street Dance Films Capture and Propel the Popularity of the Dance Movement?


In the vibrant and dynamic era of the 1980s, breakdancing emerged not just as a dance form but as a cultural phenomenon. Born on the urban streets and nurtured in the heart of diverse communities, breakdancing, or b-boying as it’s also known, became a defining element of the decade. This expressive and energetic style of dance captured the imagination of a generation, transcending its grassroots origins to gain mainstream popularity.

The propulsion of breakdancing into the limelight was significantly aided by the medium of cinema. Films centered around street dance not only showcased the artistry and athleticism of breakdancing but also brought it into living rooms and cinemas across the world.

This article discusses how 80s breakdancing and street dance films played a pivotal role in capturing and propelling the popularity of the dance movement. It explores the interplay between this unique dance style and the cinematic representations that helped embed it into the fabric of 80s pop culture, examining the impact on fashion, music, and the global dance scene.

The Origins of Breakdancing

man doing a head spin

The phenomenon of breakdancing, a cornerstone of hip-hop culture, has its roots deeply embedded in the urban landscapes of the United States. Its emergence in the 1980s marked a significant cultural development, but the story of breakdancing began much earlier.

Breakdancing originated in the late 1960s and early 1970s in predominantly African American and Puerto Rican neighborhoods of New York City, particularly in the Bronx. It developed as a form of street dance, influenced by a variety of dance styles, including funk, salsa, and martial arts. Breakdancing was initially a form of competition and expression among youth in these communities.

As an element of hip-hop culture, alongside rapping, DJing, and graffiti, breakdancing was more than just dance; it was a mode of storytelling and a form of social commentary, reflecting the challenges and aspirations of urban youth. It became a medium for individuals to express their identity, creativity, and physical prowess, often serving as an alternative to negative influences in the community.

Breakdancing quickly moved from street corners and block parties to larger platforms. Dance battles and ciphers became a staple in the hip-hop scene, attracting wider audiences. The media and popular culture began to take notice in the early 80s, and breakdancing started to be featured in TV shows, commercials, and eventually movies. This exposure played a crucial role in bringing breakdancing from the streets to the mainstream.

The origins of breakdancing highlight its roots in community, competition, and cultural expression. Its journey from the streets of New York City to the global stage is a testament to its appeal and ability to resonate across different cultures and social boundaries. As breakdancing gained prominence in the 1980s, it not only showcased the skill and creativity of dancers but also brought to light the vibrant culture from which it originated.

The Role of Cinema

shooting a hip-hop dance video

The 1980s saw breakdancing leap from street corners and community centers into the broader public consciousness, significantly aided by its portrayal in cinema. Films of this era played a crucial role in introducing breakdancing to a global audience and shaping its public image.

Introduction of Breakdancing to a Wider Audience Through Film

Breakdance-themed movies, such as “Breakin'” (1984) and “Beat Street” (1984), were pivotal in bringing the energy and artistry of breakdancing to a wider, international audience. These films showcased the dance in a cinematic context, making it accessible to those far removed from its urban origins. These movies not only displayed the technical aspects of breakdancing but also delved into the culture and community that surrounded it, offering viewers a glimpse into the world of street dance.

Key Movies of the Era and Their Impact

“Breakin’” and its sequel, “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo,” along with “Beat Street,” are often cited as seminal works that brought breakdancing into the mainstream. These films featured real dancers from the street dancing scene, lending authenticity to their portrayal. The success of these films at the box office highlighted the commercial viability of breakdancing, leading to a surge in its popularity and the production of similar movies.

While these films were instrumental in popularizing breakdancing, they sometimes portrayed a sanitized or dramatized version of the dance and its culture, often tailored to suit commercial interests and the wider public’s perceptions.

Critics argue that while these films captured the visual spectacle of breakdancing, they occasionally fell short of accurately representing the deeper cultural and social aspects of the dance form and its roots in hip-hop culture.

The role of cinema in the 1980s was pivotal in elevating breakdancing from a niche urban phenomenon to a global sensation. While these films played a key role in popularizing the dance, they also sparked discussions about cultural representation and commercialization in the arts. The legacy of these films continues to influence how breakdancing is perceived and has cemented its place in the annals of popular culture.

Influence on Pop Culture and Media

people dancing

The impact of breakdancing in the 1980s extended far beyond the dance floor. As it surged in popularity, breakdancing significantly influenced various aspects of pop culture and media, leaving an indelible mark on the decade.

  • Impact on Fashion, Music, and Language: Breakdancing heavily influenced 80s fashion, with dancers popularizing clothing that was both functional for dancing and stylish. This included tracksuits, sneakers, bucket hats, and bandanas, which became synonymous with the dance style. The music associated with breakdancing, particularly hip-hop and electro-funk, gained mainstream popularity. Artists and groups like Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa, whose music was integral to breakdancing, became widely recognized. The lexicon of breakdancing, with terms like ‘breaking,’ ‘popping,’ ‘locking,’ and ‘b-boy/b-girl,’ permeated everyday language, further showcasing its influence on popular culture.
  • Influence on Other Dance Styles and the Entertainment Industry: Breakdancing’s popularity inspired the emergence of new dance styles and the evolution of existing ones, incorporating elements of popping, locking, and breaking. In the entertainment industry, breakdancing began to feature prominently in music videos, live performances, and television shows, often as a highlight of the performance.
  • Role of Media in Shaping Public Perception of Breakdancing: Media coverage played a significant role in shaping public perception of breakdancing. It was often portrayed as a dynamic and exciting art form, although sometimes it was stereotyped or misunderstood. The portrayal of breakdancing in films, television shows, and music videos helped to normalize it as a part of popular culture, moving it away from its underground roots to a widely accepted and celebrated art form.

The influence of breakdancing on 1980s pop culture and media was profound. It reshaped fashion trends, influenced music and language, and left a lasting impression on the entertainment industry. The cultural footprint of breakdancing in this era is a testament to its power as a form of artistic and social expression, resonating with a wide audience and etching its place in the history of popular culture.

Social and Cultural Impact

men breakdancing

The ascendance of breakdancing in the 1980s had significant social and cultural implications, impacting the lives of individuals and communities and reflecting broader societal trends.

Breakdancing as a Form of Expression and Empowerment for Youth:

  • For many young people, especially in urban areas, breakdancing offered an avenue for creative expression and self-identity. It was a powerful form of communication that went beyond words, allowing dancers to express their feelings, experiences, and stories.
  • The dance form also became a means of empowerment. It provided an alternative to negative influences in the community and offered a sense of achievement and recognition.

Global Spread of Breakdancing and Influence on International Dance Communities:

  • The popularity of breakdancing quickly spread beyond the United States, influencing dance cultures around the world. Countries across Europe, Asia, and Latin America embraced the dance style, each adding their unique flair and interpretation.
  • This global spread led to the creation of an international breakdancing community connected by a shared passion for the dance form and its cultural roots.

Breakdancing’s Role in Fostering Diversity and Inclusivity in Dance:

  • Breakdancing emerged from diverse urban communities and was inclusive from its inception, cutting across racial and socio-economic lines. It welcomed anyone willing to learn and embrace the culture, regardless of their background.
  • The dance form played a crucial role in bringing diverse groups together, fostering mutual respect and understanding through the shared language of dance.

The social and cultural impact of breakdancing in the 1980s was multifaceted. It served as a tool for personal expression and empowerment, connected communities across the globe, and promoted diversity and inclusivity. Breakdancing not only left a mark on the dance world but also had a profound influence on the social fabric of the time, embodying the energy, creativity, and spirit of a generation.

Legacy and Modern Resurgence

a street dancer / breakdancer doing a handstand

The legacy of 1980s breakdancing extends well into the present day, with its influence still felt in various aspects of modern culture. This legacy has also sparked a resurgence of interest in the dance form.

  • Enduring Legacy of 80s Breakdancing: The 1980s breakdancing phenomenon laid the groundwork for the modern street dance culture. Its influence is evident in contemporary dance styles that incorporate elements of popping, locking, and power moves that were hallmarks of breakdancing. Beyond dance, the ethos of breakdancing, with its emphasis on creativity, individuality, and community, continues to inspire artists and performers across different mediums.
  • Revival of Interest in Breakdancing and Contemporary Adaptations: In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in breakdancing, driven partly by nostalgia and partly by a renewed appreciation for its artistic and athletic qualities. Modern adaptations of breakdancing often fuse traditional elements with new dance forms, reflecting the evolving nature of street dance. This has led to the development of new styles and the continuous evolution of the art form.
  • Breakdancing’s Inclusion in Global Competitions and the Olympics: Signifying its enduring appeal and global reach, breakdancing has been recognized as a sport and will be included as a competitive event in the 2024 Paris Olympics. This inclusion marks a significant milestone for breakdancing, elevating it from its street origins to an internationally recognized athletic discipline. The move to include breakdancing in the Olympics has sparked a renewed interest in its history and cultural roots, bringing attention to the pioneers of the movement and the legacy they have created.

The legacy of 1980s breakdancing is a testament to its lasting impact on culture and the arts. Its modern resurgence and inclusion in global competitions underscore the dance form’s significance and the respect it commands as both an art and a sport. Breakdancing’s journey from the streets to the world stage continues to inspire new generations, cementing its place in the annals of dance history.


The breakdancing culture of the 1980s was a dynamic movement that shaped a generation. Through films, the influence of breakdancing and street dance increased. From influencing fashion and music to altering the landscape of street culture and dance, breakdancing left an indelible mark on the decade. Its legacy continues to resonate today, not only through its inclusion in global competitions like the Olympics but also in its enduring influence on modern dance and popular culture. 

The resurgence of interest in breakdancing speaks to its timeless appeal and its role as a powerful form of artistic and physical expression. As we reflect on the impact of 80s breakdancing, it’s clear that this movement was not just a product of its time but a cultural phenomenon that continues to inspire and evolve. The 80s breakdancing phenomenon wasn’t just about dance; it was part of a broader cultural movement that included street art. What Happens When Street Art Meets Environmental Activism? explores another dimension of street culture, examining how today’s street artists use their murals as a powerful tool for environmental advocacy, echoing the spirit of the 80s by using urban expression to drive social change.

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