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What is Locking?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Locking was initially called Campbellocking after its inventor, Don Campbell. Campbell was a dancer who appeared on numerous shows in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but performers like James Brown, who also used similar techniques in performing his music, may have inspired him. Locking is often associated with break dancing today, but it occurred much earlier than many of today's forms of hip hop. It’s still used regularly and unlike some versions of hip hop, may be more often performed to funk or pop music than to rap.

The basic locking form is to hold a movement, usually well coordinated with music, after some fast dancing movements. The dancer remains, for a few seconds, locked in place, before resuming dancing. Dancers often work extremely hard to coordinate these moves with music and sudden freezes, that emphasize form, isolation, and music. So it can be said the form of dance is extremely musically aware.

There are a number of lock steps which are often combined with popping. In fact locking is often thought to have inspired popping. When a pop and lock are used, a dancer isolates a muscle movement with a hard hit. Imagine hitting a wall, which stops your movement. Popping essentially provides an invisible wall, so the muscle isolation pops or hits. This movement then may be locked, or frozen for a few seconds, based on inflections in music used.

Some dancers argue strongly that pop and lock, though emerging at approximately the same time in dance history in the 1970s, are really two separate forms. A pop is much more of a serious dance, whereas locking is more fun, celebratory and playful. Plus, most forms of popping consist of series of pops, one after the other. Some describe it as a series of freeze frame photographs. A lock tends to occur through a dance as isolated stops in what are otherwise a variety of fluid and sometimes frenetic moves. Some merge the forms, but others argue that the two forms should exist separately.

There are a huge variety of lock steps, and many of them involve collapsing the body before locking in place in one way or another. The dancer then emerges out of the collapse into a lock. Other features in locking include splits; look at James Brown and Prince performances for these forms of lock steps. Landing on the knees, and holding various other positions, including some taken from mime are also common.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Musical Expert contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By Perdido — On Aug 16, 2011

@StarJo - I would definitely say that boy bands were the perfect example of a combination of popping and locking. They often did the two in conjunction with each other, so much so that it became their own style of dance.

Hard hitting movements were the cornerstone of boy band dancing. They would throw out an arm and punch the air, or they would quickly swing out a knee in an almost violent motion.

However, these popping motions weren’t always constant and fluid. In fact, they usually were followed by freezes, or locks. Punching the air has a more dramatic effect if you hold the punch in place during a pause, after all. Their songs frequently included musical pauses, and I have a feeling that the choreographer may have played a part in helping them compose the music, since dancing was such a big part of their act.

By StarJo — On Aug 16, 2011

I watched a lot of music videos during the late nineties when boy bands were all the rage. They frequently froze in their movements, which I think could be called locking. However, they also did a lot of hitting movements that could be called popping.

All the bands kind of danced the same during this time, and I think some of them probably had the same choreographer. What is the correct term for the majority of their dance styles?

By cloudel — On Aug 15, 2011

My young cousin worked up a dance routine involving lots of lock steps to impress the cheerleading squad during her tryout. It worked. They were amazed that she handled such a difficult routine with such ease, and they wanted her skills for their team.

The song she chose incorporated frequent pauses as part of the beat. I would say that every twenty seconds or so, she had to quickly go mostly limp before locking her body into position. She came up with a different position for each lock.

Rather than collapsing on the floor, she would stand and droop her head and arms, keeping her knees slightly bent before locking. She was on point all the way through, and she never missed a beat.

By Oceana — On Aug 14, 2011

Locking can be very dramatic, especially when it occurs after a long series of fluid movements. If you are unfamiliar with a song while watching dancers perform to it, and the music suddenly drops out in a certain spot while the dancers lock at just the right time, it can send chills up your spine.

I take a dance class at a local health club, and the class that uses the room right before my class meets is a hip hop dance group. They are rather advanced dancers, and if I get there a few minutes early, I get to watch their routine.

They were moving constantly throughout the first two minutes of a song. Suddenly, the music paused, and all twenty of them locked in perfect time. I actually got chill bumps!

By JaneAir — On Aug 14, 2011

@JessicaLynn - I got jealous for a minute when I was reading your posts-I bet it's fun to see all the dancing. But then again it's probably old news for you!

I think I have seen both popping and locking, although at the time I didn't realize what it was. My friends and I stumbled on a little out of the way club in the city, and there was some crazy dancing going on in there!

There were people dancing on their hands (I later found out that was breakdancing) and doing all kind of complicated dance moves! My friends and I stayed to watch for a little while, and I'm pretty sure there were some lockers present. I distinctly remember seeing the "freeze frame" kind of dancing described in the article.

That was definitely a fun experience, although the breakers and lockers kind of hogged the dance floor!

By JessicaLynn — On Aug 13, 2011

My boyfriend is involved in the breakdance, or bboy as they call it, scene in our city. A lot of his friends do popping or locking too, or a combination of all three.

It is really interesting to watch, I must say. Although I've never been tempted to take up locking myself, I definitely respect it as a dance. It sounds and looks easy, but it is totally not! Most of those guys are in great, great shape.

Also, as the article said, lockers have to be very in tune with the music. Locking off beat looks completely ridiculous, and most lockers I know try to avoid it at all costs!

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Musical Expert contributor, Tricia...
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