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What is a breakdown in music?

The term “breakdown” in music, as used by dancers, refers to a part of the music in which dancers perform movements that do not require partner interaction. Breakdowns are performed by all members of the floor (men and women) without regard to their partnership status or ability to do partnered choreography. They can be done individually or in groups and are usually slow, often heavy, and rhythmically complex. Done correctly, they can be visually dramatic, emotionally intense, and highly satisfying to dancers who enjoy moving in this way.

What is a breakdown in music?

Breakdowns vary from dance to dance and are typically related to the culture of the social group that dances a particular style. They reflect not only ethnic heritage but also the social experience of the dancers and their dance community. In some styles, breakdowns are called “drums,” or the music that inspires them is referred to as “drumming.”

Breakdowns have been present in African American social dance since its inception in 1619 when enslaved Africans who needed to relieve stress began dancing while working. Breakdowns are also generally associated with the contemporary Black church and have been performed by church choirs for centuries. In addition, when slaves were allowed to gather for social dancing on the weekends, they incorporated breakdowns, in one form or another, into their dance repertoire.

Contemporary Breakdowns

In the 1960s, a part of African American culture referred to as the “Southern Jam” spread to Northern cities. This was a mixture of Blues, Funk, and Gospel elements combined with heavy social dancing where the goal was to dance non-stop for hours without stopping. The non-stop nature of the music made for very long sets and consequently few true breaks in the music – thus, breakdowns became extremely important as a means to allow dancers to rest and re-group between songs. This style of dancing was popular in the South, the West Coast, and other urban areas up to the early 2000s when it began to fade from popularity at dance clubs and parties, particularly in New York City.

The concept of breakdowns has been adopted by a variety of music cultures around the world. It is not clear whether these cultures copied the breakdown concept from American styles or if they developed independently of one another. Regardless, there are now many different types of breakdowns in varying degrees of popularity throughout Africa (i.e., South African “A Capella” or Congolese “Syetumba”), Europe (i.e., Ethiopian “Sidamo” or Romanian “Targu Mures”), the Caribbean (i.e., Jamaican “Wa Jamma” or Cuban “El Pregon”) and other countries where African Americans have migrated in large numbers (i.e., Dominican Republic, Brazil, Australia, and even Canada.).

What is the break-in of a song?

The break in a song is a section of the song (typically two or four measures) that differs from the rest by its rhythm, tonality, and syncopation. In terms of dance clubs, these are typically brief moments when music played at fast tempos is slowed down to about half tempo, so dancers have an opportunity to catch their breath before the music picks back up.

Typically, breaks are characterized by rhythmic patterns that are easy to dance to and often feature a bass drum pattern with four quarter beats followed by two eighth notes on the bass drum and snare or floor tom, respectively. The tempo of these rhythms may be slow (60 bpm) or medium (80-90 bpm), but rarely are they fast (120 bpm), as it is difficult to do anything more than “breakdown shuffles” at these tempos. In addition, breaks often feature two eight-bar sections with an 8/8 ¼ time signature, allowing some dancers to mix up their movement patterns between songs and stay moving throughout the set.

How do breakdowns differ from one another?

How breakdowns are performed differs from culture to culture and is often reflective of the social experiences of those who dance them (e.g., migration, urbanization, rural-urban differences). Thus it is difficult to generalize about all breakdowns.

Additionally, breakdowns tend to be structured in consistent ways with group dance traditions of the culture from which they evolve (i.e., Congolese and Kenyan/Tanzanian breakdances have consistent structures, whereas Jamaican breaks do not). Below is a basic framework for understanding breakdowns based on common patterns in the African American tradition and the Jamaican “Wa Jamma” style.

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