In his chart-topping hit song, rapper Huey instructs fans to “Pop, Lock and Drop It.” The video shows dancers twisting their heels before dropping on their haunches. But if you ask any popper or locker, this song and dance is pure fiction. You either pop or you lock. You can learn both styles, but you can’t perform them at the same time. So why do so many people refer to these two distinct dance forms as “pop-n-lock” and “pop-locking”?
Popping and locking both originated on the West Coast. Locking, created by Don Campbell, a club dancer with no formal training, developed in the late 1960s in L.A. Campbell had trouble doing the funky chicken, so he would freeze mid-move, as though trying to remember what comes next. Soon, he began incorporating these accidental “locks” throughout his routines; as audiences laughed, he would point back at them. These points and pauses became the foundation for the locking style, which quickly spread from L.A.’s inner city to the suburbs and then throughout California. Campbell started the Campbellock Dancers (later to be named The Lockers) in 1973, and soon other locking groups were cropping up all over, mainly performing on the club scene.
Meanwhile, popping started in Fresno, CA, where “Boogaloo” Sam Solomon began experimenting with a new dance style in 1975. Inspired by the jerk and the twist, Sam would isolate and tense muscles throughout his body, and as he did, he would say, “pop” to accentuate his movement. His brother, Timothy “Popin Pete” Solomon, was quick to catch on. “When I’m thinking of popping, whether it’s popping popcorn or popping your knee, it’s this snap. It’s this forceful thing,” he says. “Popping is hard edges and angles. You’ve got to flex your knee, flex the muscles in your arms, flex the muscles in your chest and pop the head—all to the rhythm.” Boogaloo Sam and Popin Pete first formed a locking troupe called The Electronic Boogaloo Lockers in 1977. But when they relocated to Long Beach in 1978, they reformed and refined their style, changing the name to the Electric Boogaloos.
Aside from their shared geography, popping and locking don’t have much in common. The two styles differ not only in movement vocabulary, but also in tone. Popping is grounded, sharp and smooth, a dance that looks almost hypnotizing. “Popping, besides the mechanics of it, is a dance to be cool,” says Groovaloos founder and dancer Bradley Rapier. “How illusionary and unreal can I be? When you’re popping, the idea is that it’s not possible.” Traditionally, poppers wear suits to show off their clean lines.
Meanwhile, locking is a much more playful dance, where character plays an important role. “Locking is not a battle dance,” says L.A.–based locking teacher and choreographer Flomaster. “It’s a party dance. It’s a dance that was made up to have fun, to uplift people. If I’m at a party and I see you dancing, I come over there and we’ll feed off one another. It’s not about the circle.” Lockers often rock colorful knickers, striped socks, suspenders and big pizza hats.
And although the pop and the lock are both strong, jerky movements, they are performed at different speeds. “With poppin’, you pop your whole body nonstop, like pop-pop-pop-pop-pop,” says Flomaster. “In locking, you have to freeze. It’s like taking pictures. Lock. Click. Lock. Click.”
So why are these two distinct styles sometimes referred to as the same dance? One possible reason: When Boogaloo Sam and Popin Pete first came on the scene in Long Beach, dancers had never seen their movement style before. They were familiar with locking, however, so they began mushing the terms together. “Locking was the most popular dance, so people thought there was a connection,” says Popin Pete. “People thought it was a direct descendent of locking, so when they saw popping, they called it ‘pop-lockin.’”
Additionally, although the styles are very different, they do have one similar element—strength. “People get messed up, because locking is strong,” says Rapier. “You do go into that lock position very firmly. But you’re not trying to pop it. You’re not trying to go there and tighten your muscles.” Even the word “popping” has mistakenly become an umbrella term for several sub-styles of West Coast street dances. “There are people who wave and there are people who tut. They’re not popping,” says Popin Pete. “I say this to give the people who created other styles their just dues and their props.”
If you want to better understand the various funk styles, try to seek out the originators and pioneers of each dance—many are still teaching! (For a few class options, see “Groovin’ On” on p. 81; we’ve also got some basic steps in “The Moves,” at left!) If you can’t make it to learn from a master in person, you can always find a wealth of information and instruction in DVDs and online. And while it’s important to study techniques, it’s even more imperative to delve into each style’s history in order to put the movements in perspective. “For us, names are important,” says Popin Pete. “We want to give the truth for authenticity’s sake. People think it doesn’t matter: If everyone says pop-lockin’ or breakdancing, then it must be okay. Well, if there are 20 people in a class and 15 get an F, does it make the people who got the Fs right? No."
In our "Dear Katie" series, MCB soloist Kathryn Morgan answers your pressing dance questions. Have something you want to ask Katie? Email email@example.com for a chance to be featured!
I'm 14 and have been studying ballet seriously for about three years. Even though I feel ready, my teachers haven't put me on pointe yet. Am I doing something wrong? Should I ask them about it, or is it pointe-less?
Samantha Figgins is currently in her fifth season with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (and was a Dance Spirit cover girl back in 2013!). But what many people don't know is that the gorgeous dancer suffers from single-sided deafness. As a baby, Figgins contracted spinal meningitis, which caused her to lose all hearing in her right ear. She never gave up on her dance dreams, though, and fought her way through uncomfortable situations, never missing an opportunity to learn and grow. Now, after getting her first pair of hearing aids, she opens up about her path to success. —(As told to Courtney Celeste Spears)
Sara Esty's ethereal grace and sophisticated charm have won over ballet and Broadway audiences alike. The bunhead-turned-Broadway-baby began training near her hometown in Gorham, ME, at the Maine State Ballet's School for the Performing Arts (with her equally fabulous twin sister, Leigh-Ann). She enrolled full-time at the Miami City Ballet School in 2004, and joined Miami City Ballet as an apprentice in 2005. In 2006, Esty won the Princess Grace Award, and she was promoted to soloist at MCB in 2011. After leaving MCB in 2014, she made her Broadway debut in An American in Paris as the understudy for Lise, and went on to share the role of Lise with her sister on the show's national tour. Most recently, she was seen in 5th Avenue Theatre's production of Marie, Dancing Still in Seattle, WA. —Courtney Bowers