Exploring the connection between

modern dance and breaking

Meet The Ruggeds, a dance crew based in the Netherlands. They’ve won prestigious international battles, performed on prime time television, and they operate their own studio. The Ruggeds have toured their original theatre productions, “Adrenaline” and “Between Us”, in Europe and the USA.

When breaking (“breakdance”) is presented as theatrical performance, like The Ruggeds’ shows, it looks a lot like modern dance. Arguably, it is modern dance.

This relationship is deeper than it may seem at first. A comparison of breaking and modern dance reveals overlapping vocabulary, parallel histories, and potential for meaningful exchange.

Overlaps in movement vocabulary

Modern dance arose as a rebellion against the conventional style of the time, classical ballet. Modern’s emphasis on freedom of movement and expression embodies that rebellious nature. Breaking, also an unconventional art form, shares these core values.

The most apparent similarities between the two styles’ movement vocabularies are in the floorwork. Preeminent schools of modern dance like Graham and Limón teach grounded techniques like contractions, spirals, and seated exercises, demonstrating a relationship with gravity and the ground. The rolls, sweeps, and slides in breaking are aesthetically distinct, yet mechanically similar.

See the two performances below: The mood and context of each are vastly different, but there are moments — a spin here, a sweep there — where the techniques are comparable.

Modern and breaking don’t often look this similar, but when they do, it’s a striking juxtaposition.

Parallel histories

Although modern dance dates back to the late 1800’s, it has parallels to the origins of breaking in the 1970's. Both styles emerged in the United States during times of socioeconomic turmoil: modern dance during industrialization and the rise of the middle class, and breaking during a period of financial crisis and urban decay.

However, modern dance originated primarily among white middle class adults, whereas breaking was created by black and Latino youth in poor neighborhoods. Modern is primarily a concert dance, whereas breaking began as a social or folk dance. Modern dance technique was influenced by classical Western concert dance forms, whereas breaking was influenced by preceding folk dances and martial arts.

As both breaking and modern dance developed over the years, some of these differences disappeared. For example, modern dancemaker Pearl Primus implemented ideas from African dance forms in her choreography to portray the African-American experience. Breaking has expanded its horizons as well, and can be found on theatre stages around the world.

→Exchange: Breaking in the theatre

Aside from The Ruggeds, a good number of breaking-influenced groups and individuals have found success on the stage. For example: Kader Attou/Compagnie Accrorap, Chey Jurado, Bruno Beltrao/Grupo de Rua, and Bad Taste Cru. There’s even an international hip hop theatre festival called Breakin’ Convention.

Whether labelled as breaking, modern, or something else, these performances are a valuable addition to the collective repertoire of concert dance. They bring perspective from underrepresented demographics and movement vocabulary from an underground dance form.

←Exchange: Modern dance in breaking

Reciprocally, modern dance has found its way into breaking. Breakers like Gon (The Heima) and Issue (Morning of Owl) also practice modern and use that experience in their group choreography. They bring the same approach into their solo battles—and they win those.

Breakers with modern dance experience can stand out with their mastery of intention, breath, body awareness, phrasing, and other fundamentals. The best breakers, modern dance educated or not, have independently learned these concepts and internalized them.

Looking ahead

One aspect of the breaking-modern dance exchange still has huge potential, and that’s education.

Breaking education is in a relatively early stage of development, and there has been little codification of basic principles, let alone transferable learnings from other styles. Leaders and instructors can help breaking grow by discussing, recording, and standardizing its fundamentals while also incorporating the universal dance concepts that other styles already teach.

On the other hand, modern dance is widely taught with standardized repertoires, but this leaves less room for new influences like breaking to change things up. As it was born of a need for free expression, modern dance education should further explore new ideas and tools from breaking and other unconventional disciplines.

At the end of the day, breaking and modern are fully fledged, standalone dance styles. Still, their movement is similar if not related, their origins are parallel, and they have seen significant mutual exchange.

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