21 basic moves to know & teach
by Samara Atkins
Every dance genre has a basic vocabulary of widely recognized steps or moves. Hip-hop is no different, although it doesn’t have codified curriculums. There are moves that most hip-hop dancers consider essential to their repertoire and which hip-hop teachers, therefore, should have in their teaching toolboxes.
The hip-hop umbrella covers many styles—popping, locking, tutting, strutting, boogaloo, and so on—and each style has its own essential moves. In this hip-hop toolbox, I’ll include 21 moves that I consider fairly universal, though names vary. These basics will help you build phrasing with your students, capture hip-hop’s intention and essence, and build an internationally recognizable hip-hop repertoire. I teach and use these moves in my classes all the time.
Unless noted, moves start standing, feet parallel and shoulder-width apart.
Right foot: RF
Right leg: RL
Left foot: LF
Left leg: LL
#1 Body Roll
I break down the roll into three sections: 1) lean the head back, as if resting it against a wall; 2) snake down through the body; 3) sit on an imaginary chair. Straighten and repeat. VARIATIONS: Reverse the roll—sit on the chair, then roll up through pelvis, chest, and head. Or roll toward a front or back diagonal, so your spine snakes laterally too.
#2 Chest Pop
This move lets your upper body shine. Pop the chest out, contract it back in, and repeat. The rhythm is out on 1, in on &. VARIATIONS: Do chest pops to the front, to either side, or in alternating directions.
#3 Criss Cross/The Humpty Dance
This move is classic and dynamic; you can turn in any direction on the criss cross jump. Feet can be shoulder-width apart or together. Jump to cross one foot over the other; jump again to pop legs out into a wide-stance, seat-dropped position; then groove and move the entire upper body freely with a party-dance vibe. I say, “&1, party 2, 3, 4; &5, party 6, 7, 8,” with the criss cross on &1 and &5.
#4 Cross Turn/Pencil Turn
This makes a slick accent move. Do a small jump into a criss cross, RF overstepped to land a little behind LF so your feet are twisted. Untwist the legs to spin counterclockwise; keep weight mostly on LF to end with feet together. VARIATIONS: For a pencil turn, jump (or slide) feet together and spin while stretching the body upward in a straight line. Arms can be extended above the head, hands clasped, or pulled into the body at chest level.
#5 Cross, Uncross, Up, Down
With hands in fists, push hips back while crossing straight arms out in front. Push hips forward while uncrossing and pulling arms back to a bent position by your sides. Shoot both arms up powerfully—as if trying to knock the roof off a building—and lift a bent LL. Drop the arms and leg, then reverse. I say, “Cross, uncross, up, down” on counts 1&2&.
#6 Double Leg Lift
Pick a leg and lift it twice in double time—lift, touch down, lift, touch down—bringing the bent knee toward your chest. As the foot touches the ground the second time, shift the weight to reverse. The emphasis is on the up, not the down, making this move an easy, dynamic variation on basic leg lifts.
#7 Double Pump
Step RF out to touch, step RF back to center; repeat with LF. On the step out, arms double-pump, torso inclining slightly toward your stepping foot. Bent arms are held out horizontally from your sides; elbows pump up and down in double time. (Think of the funky chicken with arms reversed.) On the step back, the arms drop and the body relaxes. Step out on 1&, step back to center on 2; repeat to the other side on 3&4. VARIATION: alternate double pumps on two counts with single pumps on single counts.
#8 Kick Cross Step/Kick Ball Change
A hip-hop kick ball change crosses in front. Kick RF out in front, cross it over LL, and step onto RF; step out left with LF, uncrossing the feet and shifting the weight to LF. Then rock weight onto RF and kick LF to reverse. Give the kick cross step a three-beat rhythm: 1&2 [pause on two feet], 3&4 [pause on two feet]. VARIATION: Kick RF with more force so that you hop back onto LF and use a four-beat rhythm (kick, step, step, switch) on 1&2&, repeating on 3&4& to switch sides seamlessly.
#9 ’90s Kick Step
A perfect mesh of technicality, style, and groove, this move is great for students who are ready to do several things at once. Feet are slightly apart. Prepare RF behind you, as if drawing back to gather power. Kick RF straight out, then bend the right knee so RF touches the left thigh. Kick RF back out, then hop onto RF to repeat on the other side, with LF kicking and bending to touch the right thigh. VARIATION: Add two plain kicks (RF, then LF) before kicking RF to start the move.
#10 Jump High-Five/The Biz Markie
Jump in place, arms flying straight out to the sides, then drop the right arm and swing the left arm across the body, hand flexed, as if giving a high five. Jump in place, arms swinging out again, and reverse to high-five to the left. Let the torso swing a little toward the high-fiving hand. VARIATION: For the Biz Markie, start with feet a little wider apart, make your hands fists, and dip your head to look under your armpit. For punctuation, flex the wrist and pop the hip slightly to finish the move.
Leans show off your groove and cool factor. Lean to one side, torso twisted, as if leaning your back against an imaginary wall; then lean your back against the opposite wall. Folding the arms against your body adds more style. Keep the flow basic (counts are lean on 1, lean on 2, etc.) to embody this move’s relaxed vibe.
#12 Pas de Bourrée
This move crosses dance genres; here’s the hip-hop version. Step RF behind LF, step LF out to uncross the feet, and step RF in place to shift the weight back to RF. Repeat to the left. The rhythm is 1&2. VARIATIONS: Single-pump elbows, or have the arms follow the foot pattern, crossing and uncrossing with the feet.
#13 Pop-up Heels/Heel Jump
This constantly jumping move is great for showing off and a nice way to break up a phrase’s tempo. Jump onto two feet, on the right heel and left ball. RF is flexed with toes pointing up to the right; the body faces right. Then jump back to stand facing front. Repeat to the other side, jumping onto the left heel. VARIATIONS: Set or place the arms opposite the flexed foot, or simply swing them side to side in single time, always in opposition.
#14 The Prep
More ’90s love goes to this classic move, the epitome of hip-hop. The groove is side to side; the hands, in double time, show off ways to prep for a party: checking a mirror, brushing off shoulders or pants, etc. Start leaning back and to the right, arms bent upward and parallel, palms facing you at eye level. Groove to the right while checking your hand mirror (your right palm): arms separate slightly twice (right hand slides up, left hand slides down) in double time. Then switch to groove to the left, again checking your right palm. Counts are 1&2 [switch] 3&4. VARIATION: stretch arms out in front, palms flexed outward, to show your friend the mirror: “Hey, you look good too!”
#15 The Reebok
Here’s another stylized ’90s move we still love today. Rock back on LF, punch the left arm forward across the body; rock forward on RF, pull the arm in; rock back on LF, punch the arm forward. Now drop slightly into the knees and step together right, left, right. Lift LF as you finish to start to the left. The rhythm is &1 2 3&4. VARIATION: Replace the three steps with three small traveling hops, feet together, while both hands do a gradual wave in the opposite direction.
#16 The Rock
I like this upper-body move for getting into my movement and the music. Keep the knees casually bent, arms relaxed at your sides. Rock the shoulders and torso forward twice toward one side (feet stay in place), then switch and rock forward twice toward the other. The counts are 1&2 [switch] 3&4 [switch]. VARIATION: Rock to the back.
#17 The Running Man
This is the first hip-hop move I taught myself, after weeks of trying to understand it! Feet start together or slightly apart. Lift and bend each knee toward your chest as if running in place. As one foot touches the ground, the other foot is propelled backward and off the floor as if pushed by air from the descending foot. Think of the legs as spinning continuously, like locomotive wheels; the arms pump continuously in opposition. VARIATION: Switch your facing as you do the move.
#18 Scoop Turn/The Steve Martin
Turn your body to face right on the & count. Lean slightly right and kick LF behind you in a scooping motion that turns your body to the left, ending facing left with bent LL up, then put LF down. The left arm accents the scoop with a brushing motion. Repeat on the other side, leaning left and kicking RF back to scoop and turn, right arm accenting. VARIATION: For the Steve Martin, another ’90s move, add a forward-and-back rock before the scoop.
Slides can take you all over the place. Even beginners can do this accessible move with style. Step RF out in a sideways slide, dragging LF, dropping into the knees, arms trailing behind you. Step together with LF. Then slide the LF to reverse. VARIATION: I like to snap my fingers, and snap my arms into in a “field goal” position (arms bent upward in 90-degree angles), when my feet come together.
#20 Step Cross
This top rock basic makes a nice transition. Step right with RF, cross in front with LF (still traveling right), and rock onto LF. Rock the weight back onto RF. Uncross LF to step left, cross in front with RF (still traveling left), and rock onto RF. Step right, cross left; step left, cross right. VARIATION: Cross in back, instead of in front.
#21 The Two-Step
This basic move is a great starting point for inexperienced dancers. Step out right with RF and bring LF in to close; step out left with LF and bring RF in to close. VARIATIONS: Add arms while two-stepping, for example, pushing the hands out to the sides or “raising the roof.”
Oakland, California, native Samara Atkins studied journalism and dance at Howard University and co-founded Mix’d Ingrdnts, an all-female dance company. She teaches hip-hop at Destiny Arts Center, Shawl-Anderson Dance Center, and In the Groove Studios.