The Impact of Kung Fu Movies on BreakdancingBy Eric Pellerin(Part1/4)

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 US, but only in a limited number of theaters in major cities.

In the book Kung Fu: Cinema of Vengeance (1974), 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 ass 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 1971 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 Up-Rocking.

Trac 2 of Starchild la Rock, a legendary b-boy crew from the seventies, related a story about the gang origins of Up-Rocking. 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 Five Fingers of Death, 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 the Shaw Bros. 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 of 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 dance, 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 late seventies’ most dynamic films like Snake In the Eagles 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.

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