Popular music got an unusual boost in the early 1980s with the emergence of rap and hip-hop, styles of street music that were framed by the so-called “breakdancing” craze. This apparent combination of dance, robotic movement and gymnastics caught on particularly in inner-city areas and amongst the Afro-American population where it tied neatly into the developing emphasis on gangland street identity. Once MTV broke into the phenomenon, with such as Malcolm McLaren’s “Buffalo Gals” and Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” leading the way, the craze had virtually redefined popular music. On the streets, particularly in California, breakdancing was becoming a communal expression, almost a lifestyle and in the popular imagination at least, the dance-off offered a chance to replace the gangland rumble. Fights could be solved on the dance floor, at least in the utopian optimism of those who heralded street culture. As inventive as breakdancing was however, it failed to impact onto, and be accepted by, more traditional forms of dance, wherein the new street jazz dance was considered little more than a passing fad. There was nonetheless at least one movie that sought to address this dilemma, Breakdance (known as Breakin’ in the USA).

The plot of Breakdance will seem familiar to anyone who has seen the genuine hit movie Flashdance. Newcomer Lucinda Dickey stars as a waitress at a rather low class Los Angeles burger café. She is taking traditional jazz dance classes and longs to be a professional dancer. One day, a friend drops in and gives her the name of a potential agent. Dillon however persists with her dance classes only to find that her arrogant instructor is interested in her for more than dance. She shuns his advances and goes with a gay friend to the site of a gathering of street youths, where she sees the breakdance fad and is introduced to two young men, played by actual performers Adolfo “Shabba-Doo” Quinones and Michael “Boogaloo Shrimp” Chambers. Soon Quinones develops an interest in her also and she becomes friends with them. She wants them to teach her the new street dancing so that she can aid them in a dance-off (DJed by Ice-T). She urges her agent to attend and tries to convince them to give her “troupe” a break in an important audition process, but her former dance teacher opposes it at every stage, claiming that is inappropriate for breakdancing to be alongside more traditional forms.

Breakdance is a kind of fad version of another dance fad movie, Flashdance, but where that film became enormously popular, Breakdance never broke through beyond its target audience and is considered today another quick exploitation vehicle by the critically loathed Cannon Studios. The film however is more about the process of sub-cultural definition amongst minorities allowed by the dance craze (and the venues, attitudes and fashions that sprung up around it) than it is about the lead dancer’s singular achievements. Indeed what remains unusual about this film is that by the end of it, rather than find her unique ability, she has been somewhat integrated into the melange around her – she finds definition not in independence but in belonging, and it is this belonging that enables her to find the strength to guide her friends to a chance at something greater than street level dancing. The integration of a white girl into a minority subculture is held as a triumph of racial integrity, permitted only by the dance phenomenon as an indication of a culture in transition. It is thus this notion of transition and the evolution of dance as an art form that the film concentrates on in its second half where the clash of breakdancing and traditional forms becomes central.

The film establishes the culture of street dancing as a world unto itself, with emerging codes primarily related to individual pride and the need to respond to rather than give into intimidation, with Quinones at one point wondering why every challenge must be so responded to. The film however counters by suggesting that such may be the attitude of a quitter, the attitude that Quinones must conquer if he is to succeed. But success is twofold in the film. Firstly it exists at the street level, where dancing is a form of self-expression (kind of like saying “here I am”) rather than a true artistic expression or interpretation of the kind associated with traditional jazz dance. Indeed, that difference forms a major subtext in the film as it seeks to show that what may start out as a street form is in fact a vibrant new form of jazz dance as potentially valid as any other type of artistic expression. Traditional dance is merely too staid and unwavering to accept any broadening in scope. Thus, the film can be interpreted as an attempt to legitimize a popular fad by showing it as another stage in the ongoing evolution of traditional dance as an art form. The difference between high art and pop art strangely enough finds its way into the conclusion of the film, which seeks to merge both forms and to truly create a vibrant new style – to bring street dance into the theatre. Sadly, the film lacks the style and conviction to develop this theme in anything other than a relatively banal populist fantasy.