Page last updated at 10:21 GMT, Tuesday, 2 June 2009 11:21 UK

Krumping, popping and all that JT

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

Dance act Diversity have won Britain's Got Talent with a series of performances described as "street dance". But what is that and why is it suddenly so popular?

Somersaults, Superman costumes and child-chucking.

Never was an act so aptly named as Diversity, their performances demonstrating ingenuity, comedy and, just as the television show demands, bags of talent.

This dizzying array of skills has been described as "street dance". Coming a year after breakdancer George Sampson won the same contest, their success suggests that it's gaining in popularity. But what exactly is it?

"Street dance is a bit of an umbrella term and underneath it you have breakdance, popping, locking, krumping and so many different niche styles," says Laura Robinson, a lecturer at Surrey University's dance department. (See video at the top of this page for a demonstration by Kevin Jackson of Street Dance productions.)

Originated outside the traditional high-art establishment
A sub-cultural expression out of the 'disenfranchisement of the ghetto inner-city' in the late 1970s
Began in the Bronx in New York but found different styles on east and west coasts of US
Although an 'African-American legacy of slavery', Puerto Ricans also very influential
African-based rhythms to it and dancers stood in a circle expressing themselves individually, showing off with moments of improvisation
A sense of resistance through dance, claiming an identity outside the mainstream
Source: Stacey Prickett, lecturer in dance studies, Roehampton University

"But from a commercial point of view it's easier to call it 'street' so people understand what it is."

The origins of its most famous styles, like breakdancing and popping, lie in the US in the 1970s, mainly New York and Los Angeles, and it's heavily improvised.

"It was done on the streets as a social dance form," says Ms Robinson. "What's happened to it is that it's become more commercial in classes, rather than street corners.

"West End shows like Zoo Nation's Into the Hoods have taken a vernacular dance form and put it on to the stage."

After a surge of interest in the 1980s, there has been another boom in popularity in the last five years, she says, with no evidence that the credit crunch has affected demand for street dance classes.

Head spin
Not one to try at home...

Interest has been sparked partly by television advertisements using dance moves to sell products, she says, and by music videos on MTV showing dance moves taken from "street".

People see their musical heroes like Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears perform a move that they want to mimic, she says. And classes give them a form of physical exercise that's also fun.

More than 300 people a week aged between 15 and 42 break, pop and lock their way through classes by instructor Junior Timey, in Manchester and Liverpool.

"When I try to describe it, I usually say to them it's simply movement to music. There are no rules."

Anything can be interpreted as dance if it's done to music, he says, so you can draw from other traditions or from the most mundane things.

Three years ago, you would look at a dance floor and guys were doing something they would do at a wedding. Now they think they're JT
Junior Timey
Street dance teacher

"Diversity did a phone call, they did somersaults and flips and they showed you can do anything. You can pick your nose and as long as it's done to the beat and looks cool, then it's street dance."

In Diversity's two-minute routine in the final, there was probably only about 15 seconds of what purists would call dance, he says. But unlike other forms, street evolves as people discover new moves that are then copied by others.

Films like Honey (2004), You Got Served (2004), Step Up (2006) and Step Up 2 the Streets (2008) have brought dance culture to millions, says Mr Timey, and made it appealing to young people. After Step Up 2, his class doubled in size to 80 for a short while.

"One of the attractions is to look good in clubs. Three years ago, you would look at a dance floor and guys were doing something they would do at a wedding. Now they think they're JT [Justin Timberlake].

"It's a new dance with no rules and you can do it without having to do years of training. You can learn a 20-second piece of choreography within an hour or two."

Back to life

And you're never too young to learn. Summer O'Mahoney, from Kent, is 12 and has been dancing for many years, having classes since she was six.

Lessons fill every evening except Sunday and all that hard work has earned her appearances at the Palladium and Barbican in London.

Breakdancing: also known as b-boying, comes in two forms. Boys like the floorwork and spins. Girls prefer up-rocking.
Who: Rock Steady Crew
Popping: tightening and loosening muscles to cause body jerk
Who: Electric Boogaloo
Locking: funk dance using fast hand movements
Who: Don Campbell, James Brown
Krumping: high energy and confrontational, also known as clowning, featured in 2005 documentary Rize
Who: Thomas Johnson, Beyonce

"My favourite is street and breakdance because you can just freestyle and do what you want and enjoy it," she says. "With disco, you have to know the moves. If you muck them up you're thrown out of the competition."

For her it is more than a hobby - she hopes to become a choreographer.

A generation of children like Summer all want to learn street dancing, says Elliot Treend, who is professionally trained in all its styles.

Ever since it burst back to life in the mid-90s, after a decade of disappearing underground, it has been gaining in popularity and it's now bigger than ever, he says.

"It's completely commercialised now. Every child wants to breakdance and their parents are in their 30s and are reminiscing through their children."

Mr Treend's speciality is breakdancing, a field in which he is known as B-Boy Justice, heading a crew called Dance Off. When appearing as a dancer in The Lion King, he even managed the unlikely feat of getting a few moments of breakdancing into the Disney musical.

James Brown
James Brown (above)
Michael Jackson
Justin Timberlake

"Breakdancing is very egotistical, a representation of your testosterone. It's a way of showing off. The alpha male has to be the best on the dance floor. Although we are a crew we are all the time trying to be better than each other. It's all about being the best and producing the perfect combination."

But he says the success of breakdancing, and all forms of street dance, means it has lost contact with its roots. Although spaces are found for skating and BMX riders, when he and his friends try to breakdance in a public space, they get moved on by the police.

"There's nothing on the street anymore. It has lost something because it doesn't have that same vibe.

"I remember being 11 in Harlow and having break dance competitions in the shopping centre with other gangs. Nowadays it doesn't happen."

Below are a selection of your comments.

Street dancing has not suddenly become popular, its the rest of you guys that have taken ages to catch up period. this has been going on for years!

I recently took up street dancing classes after having learned ballet for almost 13 years! Its so hard to go from the regimental format of ballet to freestyle street dance, but I love it and its more fun and a better work out than other dancing I do/have done. Great fun to try out - however make sure you have at least some arm muscles to get the most out of breaking and floor work!
Sophie W, Edinburgh

This dance style's popularity underlines the paucity of original British talent. We are aping US culture from almost 40 years ago.
Edward Johns, Lannion France

Talented? yes! Original? No! Kids in the USA have been using those techniques for years. I actually found the dances a little bit dated.
Barb, WINC, VA

Athletic dance has always been popular, be it called ballroom, lindy, classic rock and roll, northern soul, reggae dancehall, break dancing or now street dance. Street dance has elements of many previous dance styles, plus gymnastics and free running, so is bound to attract the young. It also requires teamwork, communication, self-discipline and so on; youngsters should be encouraged to give it a go. I'm just sorry I feel too old and creaky, though I still dance every weekend.
Tim D, Sheffield

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