In the pulsating heart of hip-hop culture lies an art form that transcends mere movement—it’s a language, a rhythm, and a testament to the power of community and creativity. Breaking, a dynamic dance style born from the streets of New York City in the late 1970s, has become an iconic emblem of self-expression and urban resilience. At the core of breaking’s evolution lies the cypher—a sacred circle where dancers converge to exchange energy, ideas, and innovation.

The significance and relevance of the cypher in breaking extend far beyond its role as a mere physical space for dance. It embodies the essence of hip-hop’s foundational principles: collaboration, competition, and cultural exchange. Within the confines of the cypher, dancers shed their inhibitions, pushing the boundaries of their creativity while simultaneously paying homage to the rich tapestry of hip-hop’s past.

What is breakdancing? Breakdancing, also known simply as breaking or b-boying/b-girling, is a dynamic and acrobatic style of street dance that originated in the Bronx borough of New York City during the 1970s. It is one of the key elements of hip-hop culture, alongside rapping, DJing, and graffiti art.

Breakdancing is characterized by its combination of footwork, spins, freezes, and power moves, which are performed with athleticism, creativity, and rhythm. Breakers, also known as B-boys (for males) and B-girls (for females), engage in battles and cyphers, where they showcase their skills, compete against one another, and exchange moves within a circle known as a cypher.

Breakdancing incorporates a wide range of movements, including intricate footwork patterns, acrobatic spins on the floor, gravity-defying power moves such as flips and windmills, and dramatic freezes where dancers hold challenging poses mid-movement. Breakers often develop their own unique styles, incorporating elements of other dance forms and personal expression into their routines.

What is cypher? A cypher, in the context of hip-hop culture and specifically breaking (also known as breakdancing), refers to a circle formed by B-boys and B-girls where they take turns dancing in the center. It’s a space where breakers showcase their skills, exchange moves, and engage in friendly battles. The cypher is characterized by its spontaneity, inclusivity, and energetic atmosphere. It serves as a fundamental aspect of breaking culture, providing a platform for dancers to express themselves creatively, challenge one another, and foster a sense of community. The term “cypher” can also be spelled as “cipher” and is sometimes used interchangeably with terms like “circle” or “session” within the breaking community.

The basics of the cypher

The fundamental concept of the cipher predates organized breaking contests, B-boy/B-girl battles, and judging panels. Before structured competitions, breakers engaged in cyphers where they danced freely, challenging themselves and each other to the beat of the music.

In a breaking context, a cypher involves B-boys and B-girls forming a circle and taking turns dancing in the center. To participate in a cypher is to join in the spontaneous exchange of movement and creativity. Unlike regulated battles, cyphers have fewer constraints.

What are b-girls? B-girls are female dancers who specialize in the art of breaking, commonly known as breakdancing. Like their male counterparts, known as B-boys, B-girls are skilled in a variety of moves that include intricate footwork, athletic spins, acrobatic freezes, and dynamic power moves such as spins, flips, and jumps. B-girls often participate in battles, both formal competitions and informal cyphers, where they showcase their skills, creativity, and individual style while competing against other breakers. Over the years, breaking has evolved into a globally recognized art form and a pillar of hip-hop culture, with B-girls making significant contributions to its growth and popularity.

Cyphers are not confined to specific stages or venues; they can emerge anywhere, from parties and clubs to outdoor settings like concrete lots, train stations, beaches, or even someone’s living room. The organic nature of cyphers means they can form spontaneously, requiring only enough space for breakers to gather and express themselves through dance.

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The basics of the cypher
The basics of the cypher

The size of the cypher

The scale of a cypher isn’t restricted by numbers; it can range from a small group of three individuals to a bustling crowd of 20 to 30 people.

Unless serving as a prelude to a battle, there’s no fixed time limit for a cypher beyond the duration that breakers have to utilize the dance space. Cyphers might spontaneously unfold during a competition’s 20-minute intermission, or they could persist for hours in a club until closing time.

Moreover, cyphers aren’t confined to a single circle. Breakers have the liberty to initiate as many cyphers as space allows, with the number of circles typically determined by the available room.

While music often serves as the catalyst for breaking, a DJ isn’t always a prerequisite for a cypher to materialize. Sometimes, the rhythmic clapping of hands, live band accompaniment, or even just the syncopated sound of sneakers hitting the floor can suffice to ignite and sustain a vibrant cypher atmosphere.

The size of the cypher
The size of the cypher

Why are cyphers important to breakers?

Cyphers hold significant importance for breakers for several reasons:

Firstly, unlike competitions where qualification is often required, anyone can join a cypher spontaneously. It’s an inclusive space welcoming all levels of breakers, from beginners to seasoned veterans. In the circle, you simply step in and dance as much and as often as you like, making the most of the available time.

Secondly, cyphers disregard age and gender. There are no rigid category distinctions like ‘b-girl’, ‘kids’, ‘solo’, ‘crew’, or ‘2on2’ within a cypher, unless specifically organized that way by participants themselves.

Moreover, cyphers serve as a perfect arena for breakers to challenge themselves. Here, they can experiment with new moves, test their endurance, and showcase everything they’ve practiced without the fear of judgment or losing. Unlike in competitions where trying something new and failing might lead to defeat, in a cypher, crashing isn’t as consequential, and there’s no formal judgment or designated losers, unless engaged in a cypher battle. Without the presence of judges, breakers are liberated to explore and attempt any technique they’ve been honing.

Why are cyphers important to breakers?
Why are cyphers important to breakers?

You can battle in the cypher

Battling within the cypher is a significant aspect of the breaking culture. It serves as a platform to resolve conflicts or simply exchange styles of breaking. Calling out another breaker for a battle can be motivated by various reasons; it might be to settle an issue, showcase admiration, or challenge oneself against a high-level breaker who might not be accessible in formal competitions. The beauty of cyphers lies in their openness – you can call out anyone, anytime, anywhere. Furthermore, the format of battles within the cypher is flexible; it can range from one-on-one duels to group battles involving multiple breakers or entire crews. The number of participants battling each other is unlimited within the cypher’s dynamic environment.

Moreover, cyphers offer breakers the freedom to express themselves in diverse ways. Whether it’s showcasing top rock, freezes, power moves, or dancing freely to the rhythm, breakers have the autonomy to choose their mode of expression within the circle.

Historically, cyphers played a pivotal role in shaping reputations within the breaking community. While today’s breakers may gain recognition through global competitions, the essence of building a reputation still resonates within cyphers. Even after transitioning away from competitive battling, many breakers continue to engage in cyphers, where reputations as skilled dancers are forged and upheld.

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Additionally, cyphers serve as venues for initiation rituals within breaking crews. Prospective members often undergo multiple rounds of battling within the circle to demonstrate their skills and worthiness to join the crew.

Ultimately, the cypher embodies the essence of freedom for B-boys and B-girls. It’s a space where breakers converge to dance, battle, exchange ideas, explore their identities, and push their limits. Regardless of competitions, music, or formal stages, cyphers remain the heart of breaking culture – a place where breakers find true liberation to express themselves authentically and connect with others who share their passion for the dance. Wherever there are B-boys and B-girls, a cypher is sure to emerge as a testament to the enduring spirit of breaking.


The cypher, a sacred circle within the realm of breaking, holds profound significance and relevance in the evolution of hip-hop culture. Originating from the streets of New York City in the late 1970s, breaking emerged as a form of resistance and self-expression amidst economic and social turmoil. Within the cypher, dancers find sanctuary, solidarity, and a platform for artistic innovation. As breaking spread globally, the cypher became a universal language, uniting dancers from diverse backgrounds and cultures. It serves as a crucible for artistic evolution, where dancers refine their craft and push the boundaries of creativity. Beyond its artistic value, the cypher embodies the values of hip-hop—collaboration, competition, and cultural exchange. It is a reflection of society’s struggles and aspirations, fostering bonds of camaraderie and mutual respect. In essence, the cypher symbolizes the enduring power of hip-hop to unite, inspire, and transform lives across generations.

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