The Impact of Kung-Fu Movies on Breakdancing.
Back in the mid to late 1970s, the earliest power moves of “breaking” were created by b-boy masters living in New York City. One of the biggest influences on the creation of moves like the “headspin” and the “windmill” was the Hong Kong kung-fu movie. B-boys watched the amazing physical abilities of their favorite kung-fu actors in films by Shaw Brothers, Seasonal Films and Golden Harvest studios. They imitated and expanded upon the ritualized combat they saw in these films, adding new moves to their dance. These films were seen in the U.S., but only in a limited number of theaters in major cities.
In the book “Kung-Fu: Cinema of Vengeance,” Verina Glaser said, “The basis for the success of the kung-fu films in the States was the same ghetto audience that carried the wave of ‘black’ Hollywood action films a year or so previously.” In New York City, the two places to see kung-fu movies were 42nd Street and Chinatown.
Kung-fu movies placed the majority of importance on the action, and less time on character development and production values seen in Hollywood films. There was a big parallel between Hong Kong and NYC. Hong Kong and New York were both densely populated with a large divide between the rich and the poor. Both cities had high crime rates and tough ghettos. These films were made as escapist fantasies for the people of Hong Kong and they ended up serving the same purpose for the inner city youth in the United States.
Ken Swift said, “Every kung-fu movie was like styles, people got they @$$ whipped and they went back and got revenge, and it was cool and that was like something maybe we saw this as kids in the hood, as something we dealt with every day in our lives. You know what I’m saying, dealing with the way we had to live, in school and at home.”
The year was 1973 and America got its first taste of the exciting and dance-like choreography of Hong Kong martial arts films with the Shaw Brothers production KING BOXER (aka FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH starring Lo Lieh. At this time, Hip-Hop as we know it did not exist. Street gangs like the Black Spades and the Savage Skulls fought each other in the streets of the Bronx for control of turf. Eventually, the pre-rumble dance of these gangs would be incorporated into the hip-hop dance known as “uprocking.”
Trac 2 of Starchild La Rock, a legendary b-boy crew from the ‘70s, related a story about the gang origins of uprocking. He said that the night before a rumble, the gang leaders had a dance off with each other, one-on-one. This let everyone in the area know who was going to be involved in the real deal the next day and anyone else should stay out of the way.
During the time that street gangs in the Bronx were at their peak, kung-fu movies became enormously popular in America. After KING BOXER, the films of Bruce Lee were released to great success. The popularity of Lee and his films created a demand for kung-fu movies in the United States. Bruce Lee was the most popular kung-fu star in the world and Golden Harvest became the second major studio in Hong Kong. Along with Shaw Brothers, they produced the vast majority of martial arts films made in the British colony. After the death of Bruce Lee in 1973, Hong Kong produced kung-fu films that tended to be formulaic until Lau Kar-leung began directing in 1975. He showcased authentic kung-fu techniques with films like CHALLENGE OF THE MASTERS, EXECUTIONERS FROM SHAOLIN and THE 36TH CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN (aka MASTER KILLER). While Lau Kar-leung was directing his debut film SPIRITUAL BOXER, Hong Kong street gangs in New York City were giving way to a more positive counterpart known as crews. Many of the gangs’ former members turned to dancing and block parties as an outlet for their energy. The most instrumental person in this change was former gang member turned DJ, Afrika Bambatta.
Instead of fighting each other in the street, the b-boy crews like Starchild La Rock and Rock Steady Crew battled each other with their dancing, known as b-boying, breaking or rocking. Like rival Clans seen in kung-fu movies, b-boys would test each other to see whose style was the best. On the jade screen it was “Snake Fist vs. Eagle Claw” or “Shaolin vs. Wu Tang.” On the streets it was the Disco kids vs. Starchild La Rock or Rock Steady Crew vs. the Floormasters. With competition heating up, the next generation of b-boys took inspiration from different sources to up the ante. According to Trac 2, Latinos added their own flavor to top-rocking and footwork. He said in 1978 the foundation for modern b-boy power moves were laid down.
Around the same time in 1978, filmmakers in Hong Kong were revitalizing the kung-fu film with sub-genres like kung-fu comedy. These movies accentuated more acrobatic movement in their choreography, influenced by the actors and directors training in Peking Opera. Yuen Wo-ping, Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung all graduated from sifu Yu Jim-yuen’s Peking Opera school and went on to make some of the most dynamic films in the late ‘70s like SNAKE IN THE EAGLE’S SHADOW and KNOCKABOUT. Going to see kung fu movies on 42nd St. became a ritual for the youth of New York City. B-boys especially took to the films, with their physically dynamic choreography, which was closer to dance than actual combat.
Bruce Lee in real life was a Latin dancer. He was the Hong Kong Crown Colony Cha-Cha champion in 1958. In his movies, he does a form of footwork that is very similar to top rocking. While “serious” film goers denounced kung-fu films, the b-boys took to the films as their own.
Ken Swift explains, “42nd St. was like ‘wow,’ these are subtitled, they’re putting these English voices over, these movies aren’t even made in the States, that’s even more like ’wow,’ you feel like you’re really a part of something.”
The DJs, MCs, b-boy’s, and graffiti artists would go to see these films together and it was a participatory experience. They would get so hyped up during the film that they would argue and fight with each other during the film. After watching the movie, the b-boys would leave the theater hyped off the energy they saw on the screen from movies like MAD MONKEY KUNG-FU, MYSTERY OF CHESS BOXING, CRIPPLED MASTERS, and many more.
Trac 2 and his brother Danny said that kung-fu movies are a fever you catch. After seeing martial arts on the screen, they wanted to try it themselves. Some early b-boys studied martial arts. Trac 2 took Shotokan Karate for two years. He said that a lot of the early b-boys studied karate. Bust most of them just imitated the movements they saw without any formal training.
As Ken Swift states, “Realistically, [we] leave the theater and just want to kick the sh*t out of people. I mean we would walk uptown and sometimes just kick somebody…You know, we would do a demo on somebody and start doing exactly what we saw in the movie, not knowing what we were doing, but just imitating it to the max.”
Besides just imitating the kung-fu by fighting each other with a Mantis Fist, Monkey style, or Crane style, the kung-fu started to find its way into the dance. B-boy KWON of Swift Kids said, “As far as the martial arts goes, that gave a lot of b-boys ideas as far as doing things on the floor and expanding their ideas for movement and bringing out their character.”
B-boys appropriated visually dynamic movements they saw on the screen, and made them their own. The fight scenes in kung-fu films were choreographed following a specific rhythm between the performers. The kung-fu actors had to follow each other’s movements like dancers. You can see fight scenes being choreographed like this in JACKIE CHAN: MY STUNTS.
It was only natural that b-boys would be attracted to these movements that were close to what they were doing already. Lil’ Lep explained how the kung-fu movies directly affected the dance and his crew, the New York City Breakers. “Kung-fu movies were important, because we learned from them. You know Flip (Flip Rock aka Bobby Potts), he does a lot of flips and they do a lot of flips in kung-fu movies. You know my man Chino (aka Action), he does a lot of flips too. My thing is my swipes, headspins.”
B-boys would take certain movements they saw in the kung-fu films and work them into the dance. Lep brought his own innovation to the headspin. Instead of doing it from a standstill position, he went into the headspin from footwork. He calls this the “pencil headspin.” In the movies DRUNKEN MASTER, KILLER ARMY and SHAOLIN TEMPLE there are moves when an actor will spin on his head 180 degrees or a whole rotation.
Ras, aka Ray from Floormaster Dancers (Brooklyn) said, “Kung-fu played a part in my life. You see the styles they had, they spin on their heads like b-boying, they had windmills, they were doing the helicopter, which is the swipe. We looked at these things, we used it as dance.”
Ray learned Aikido in the marines, and loved the way he could manipulate an opponent’s body weight with the Japanese art. It is hard to say if the influence was always direct or if it happened because of repeated viewing of similar movements and was appropriated subconsciously. One thing that Ken, Trac and Lep all brought up when asked how the films influenced them was routines. The elaborate choreography of Hong Kong martial arts movies inspired the b-boys to choreograph their own routines with two or more dancers.
In kung-fu movies and b-boy routines, creativity and constant practice is what makes the choreography. I asked Lep about the choreography he was involved with in the New York City Breakers. “If we didn’t do it right, we would have to do it over and over until we got it right, you know, that’s part of being a professional dancer.”
The b-boys that started out imitating their heroes on the big screen eventually got to be in movies themselves, performing their own footwork, kicks and flips in films like FLASHDANCE, WILDSTYLE and BEATSTREET. BEATSTREET features the rivalry between RSC and NYCB prominently in the story line.
Kuriaki is doing footwork and Powerful Pexter says, “You’re biters, all your homeboys are biters.”
Kuriaki responds, “I ain’t never stole no moves from you, your moves ain’t worth to be bit, so what’s up with that, punk?”
After this exchange of verbal confrontation, the two crews agree to battle each other at the Roxy.
Ken Swift talked about going to Japan to promote WILDSTYLE on the film’s tour in 1982. ”We took Japan by storm. I think they were shook. That movie WILDSTYLE was like hard, rugged, rough Bronx. They show burnt buildings, the whole shit and I think these people were just blown away by this shit that came from those conditions.”
Ken was amazed that in Japan, American culture had already impressed the Japanese in a big way. He saw 20 Japanese Elvis impersonators where they were previewing the movie. He saw Japanese rock groups including a band of Kiss imitators. While the Japanese were emulating American culture, American youth was appropriating from Asian culture and showing the result to an Asian audience for the first time.
Ken Swift said, “We had to really show the influence of kung-fu, martial arts, of kung-fu movies in a dance piece when we went to the Akasaka blitz in Tokyo and be in front of Asians. That was strange. We were like, ‘Yo, we’re inspired by these people.’ It was strange. We were concerned, we’re like, ‘how are they going to react to this.’ I don’t know. The audiences are funny. They can be quiet as hell through the whole show and then at the end just (claps), and you’re like ‘okay, okay.’ You thought they hated it. Some of the audiences are very reserved, everybody really enjoyed it.”
After BEATSTREET, b-boying or breakdancing as it was known to the general public, became a nationwide phenomenon. Two West Coast movies were released, BREAKIN’ and BREAKIN’ 2: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO that featured pop and locking and some b-boying. These movies were produced by Golan Globus who made movies like NINJA 3: THE DOMINATION and later BLOODSPORT with Jean-Claude Van Damme. Van Damme has a cameo in BREAKIN’ as a crowd member on the outside of the circle.
The popularity of b-boying soared and “how to” books and records were released. The dance was exploited and mass marketed for two years and became the “in” thing. Then in 1985, almost everyone stopped dancing. B-boying was burnt out from overexposure. Diehard b-boys kept dancing, but to the rest of the country it was considered over.
Coincidentally, around the same time production on traditional kung-fu movies ceased in Hong Kong in favor of modern thrillers and comedies. One of the new films was MISMATCHED COUPLES, a breakdance comedy directed by Yuen Wo-ping and starring Donnie Yen. You can see the influence American culture had on H.K. at the time. The moves that were inspired by H.K. cinema made their way back into the genre they came from in their American b-boy form. B-boying also shows up in DRUNKEN TAI CHI and I WILL FINALLY KNOCK YOU DOWN DAD, two of the last traditional kung-fu films produced in the ‘80s.
In the early ‘90s, b-boying and the traditional kung-fu film both made a comeback. The movie that brought the kung-fu film back was Tsui Hark’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA starring Jet Li. The new wave of kung fu movies following the success of this film featured different styles of camera angles and editing. The choreography was enhanced with wirework, which allowed characters to fly. This style was previously seen mostly in swordplay films.
While directors in H.K. were bringing the kung-fu film back, RSC came together with the Rhythm Technicians and Magnificent Force to form Ghettoriginal. This unit produced and performed dance theater about their experiences in b-boying. One production they performed was “Shaolin Temple Hip-Hop” that was part of the play “Jam on the Groove” in 1996.
“Shaolin Temple Hip-Hop” was a piece that Ghettoriginal put together not to educate people, but as Ken Swift said, “It was a bug out skit. Let’s have fun with our inspiration, one of our favorite inspirations as b-boys, that meant so much to us coming up.”
They played with the themes in kung fu movies and recreated on stage what might happen in a kung-fu film. The main character, Flo-Master (who is a Tae Kwon Do stylist and has studied Jujitsu and kickboxing) wants to be like Jackie Chan. He falls asleep while watching a kung-fu movie in a theater and wakes up in his dream. In the dream he is a wanderer.
Kung-fu movies continued to directly inspire b-boys in the ‘90s. Ken Swift formed his own chapter of Rock Steady in 1996. The name RSC Seven Grandmasters was based on the Joseph Kuo movie SEVEN GRANDMASTERS. RSC Seven Grandmasters was a battle clique.
Ken Swift, “And that was the elite unit of Rock Steady that was all about win, lose or draw, battling anybody, going out there to war and it had the same concept as SEVEN GRANDMASTERS, going all over the country doing different styles, fighting and challenging. That’s a little [of] what the movie was about.”
RSC Seven Grandmasters were Ken Swift, Honey Rockwell, Mr. Wiggles, Flo-Master, Gizmo, Orko, and Katsu. Representing in Europe were Bruce Wayne and Tony Zoom. Pending to get in at the time are Remind and Crumbs (SEC) and Wicket (REN).
All the members had to train in the other members’ styles and strong points. Kung-fu and b-boying have many different styles. Each member of the Seven Grandmasters was an expert in their particular style of b-boying. Trac 2 told me that b-boying has never been about an individual, but partners and crews. B-boys need others to inspire them to advance their skill level and creativity.
The movie SEVEN GRANDMASTERS also inspired Ken Swift to create a new move. “In the movie the brother was on the floor,” says Ken. “And he grabbed his hands and he pulled and he slid on his butt and he kicked this dude. I have a forearm glide that I do, called ‘flowing downstream’ that was inspired by the film.”
On March 24, 2001 Koncrete Jungle’s 1st Wu-Shu and B.Boy/B.Girl Dance Challenge was held. The event was presented by the American Wu Shu Society and Ken Swift Productions. Wushu is the style of martial art practiced by Jet Li. One of Li’s contemporaries from the Zhejiang Wu Shu professional team is Hu Jianqiang who performed at the event. Master Hu was in SHAOLIN TEMPLE and KIDS FROM SHOALIN.
There was an informal battle between some of the b-boys and wushu athletes on the carpet. They were showing each other their skill in acrobatics and trying to outdo each other. Also, some of the wushu athletes jumped into the circle to dance. One of the wushu athletes, Tsuyoshi Kaseda, entered the b-boy competition and showed everyone his distinctive style. With events like this one, b-boys and martial artists can exchange ideas and inspire each other in person.
Kung-fu films are enjoying a renaissance on the big screen in America. The Chinese-language film CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON, directed by Ang Lee, won four Oscars at the Academy Awards and was awarded praise by both critics and fans. B-boying has also made a comeback by appearing in numerous videos. Huge martial arts productions are coming to American movie theaters. Lau Kar-leung’s DRUNKEN MONKEY is a throwback to the kung fu films of the ‘70s. Jet Li and Jackie Chan both have careers in Hollywood. Li’s CRADLE 2 THE GRAVE co-stars DMX. Hip-Hop now directly influences an art form it was inspired by. Kung-fu films have been with b-boying from the very beginning, since the street gangs watched the films on 42nd street. Kung-fu movies will always be a part of hip hop culture.
Article by Eric Pellerin