Planet Funk

September 19, 2010

We’ve all heard expressions like “getting funky” and “bring in the funk.” But what exactly is the dance style called “funk”?


Last winter, I decided to do some research and headed to a “funk” class at Broadway Dance Center in NYC. After learning a sassy routine—which combined elements of popping, locking and more—I was even more confused! The combination definitely had a distinct feel, but the steps seemed similar to hip-hop movements.


So I called in expert Santiago Freeman to educate me. “Funk,” it turns out, is not one style. It’s an umbrella term that include
popping, locking and electric boogaloo. (It can also be used as an adjective to describe an attitude or quality, which can be infused into almost any dance movement. See “That Funky Feel” below.)


Read on to learn about the fascinating origins of the funk styles and discover how funk is continuing to evolve today! 
—Lauren Levinson

Funk is Born

The funk styles developed in the 1970s on the streets of L.A. and Fresno, CA, in response to funk music (think “Papa’s Got a Brand-New Bag” by James Brown). Since popping, locking and electric boogaloo all emerged around the same time, they eventually got clumped together and became known as the funk styles.


These dances gained mainstream popularity after the Electric Boogaloos, a legendary California-based crew, performed on the hit television music and dance show “Soul Train.”


“The Electric Boogaloos were treated just like celebrities everywhere they went after appearing on television,” says Tyrone Proctor, a “Soul Train” dancer. “They even went on a multicity tour and introduced their innovative boogaloo style to the world.”


Now, more than 30 years later, the funk styles continue to maintain worldwide popularity. And they have also grown and morphed into newer street styles.

Funk at Your Fingertips

The funk styles are primarily danced to funk music, which is generally defined by deep drum strokes, heavy electric bass lines and repetitive chords.


Like the music, the funk styles hit the beat hard and with precision. In other dance styles, you might flow through the beat. In the funk styles, you accentuate the beat by stopping on it (also known as hitting it). Movements associated with the funk styles are primarily concentrated in the upper torso, arms and head. (See “The Nuts and Bolts” below to learn hot moves you can try right now.)


The current popularity of the funk styles can be experienced at international dance contests, such as Juste Debout in Paris, France. At this gathering, top street dancers from around the globe compete in a large stadium in front of thousands of fans. Bruce Ykanji, a champion popper and the founder of the event, says that he started it “in order to pay tribute to the upright styles of street dance, which are intricate and have a lot of rich history.” Can’t make it overseas? Check out the U.S. funk competition Freestyle Sessions in L.A.

The Future of Funk

While electric boogaloo, popping and locking remain the quintessential forms, the funk styles continue to evolve on the streets and adapt to new music sounds, like electronic. Modern moves include liquid dancing (fluid motion focused on the hands), gliding (sliding with a toe-heel twist) and buckin’ (a distinct walk). These dances spawned from popping and are performed as improvisational moves at raves.


In addition to the traditional styles of funk that came from the streets, funk styles have also been incorporated into studio derivatives, like jazz-funk.


This new approach takes classic moves from jazz and ballet, such as arabesques, jetés and pirouettes, and fuses them with the street elements of popping and locking. According to Sheryl Murakami, instructor of jazz-funk at Broadway Dance Center and former professional cheerleader, this newer style has become increasingly popular in music videos, and stars such as Beyoncé have added jazz-funk into their stage-show repertoire.


Devoted funk teachers are reveling in the fact that funk is continuing to bloom in the streets and the studios. Locking teacher Suga Pop (who has appeared in music videos with Michael Jackson and Prince!) says, “Funk moves the soul. As a member of both the Lockers and the Electric Boogaloos, it’s my duty to educate people about our dance and history. I teach because I do not want it to be cast aside as a fad. I love it and owe it—it has given me a life.”


Now, next time you’re in an important audition and the director yells, “Make it funky,” you’ll know exactly what to do!


Photo: Khalid Bey