Footwork is one of the vital components of breaking. Everything in hip-hop has taken a lot from other forms of art, and of course footwork has a lot of similarities and influences from other things, but the approach, structure and the science of it is something that the b-boys and b-girls created themselves. To quote legendary b-boy Ken Swift, "The most important component is footwork. If you take footwork out of the b-boy equation, you don't have b-boying."
So how did footwork develop into what it is today?
Breaking was first performed on top, but during the early days, someone hit the floor and stayed down – most likely the A1 b-boys of Kool Herc's parties, the Herculoids. In the early days, footwork didn't have structure like it does now, it was more of a crazy, sporadic energy on the floor. See Lil Boy Keith in the video below for a prime example:
To see more great examples of the 70's sporadic style footwork you should study Frosty Freeze of the Rock Steady Crew and Wayne Blitz of the Float Commetee, among many others:
Moving into the '80s, footwork had already started to get more structure. The CC long walk was introduced by the Crazy Commanders Crew (Spy or Shorty Rock based on the source), which later became known as the six step. The Rock Steady Crew took footwork to another level, though, mastering it with finesse. Crazy Legs became legendary for his dynamic flow, while Swift became famous for his original variations and flows, which everybody looked up to. These two b-boys became the reference point for footwork.
Naturally, there were many others breaker pushing footwork forward in the '80s scene who influenced the development of footwork. Icey Ice from the New York City Breakers had a super dynamic style. He was mostly known for his power moves, but the way he would rock his footwork before it was extended and super powerful.
Europeans have had their share of different approaches to footwork, as well. Italy's Maurizio the Next One, for example, wanted to combine the dynamics of Icey Ice and the flow and flavor of Crazy Legs. As a result, he came up with his own style, which he calls 'space flow', a powerful freestyle flow combining elements as if gravity doesn't exist.
The French breakers, like Paris City Breakers and Aktuel Force, had their light touch and flowy expression of the New York flow. Added with Germany's Battle Squad's expression and structuring, a new concept called 'Pretzels' took off, based on knee sweeps and one legged footwork concepts. The steps were probably already there in the early days in the Bronx, but the structure and the concept was something new.
The boogies boys of the Bronx also had their share on influencing footwork. Original New York style was sharp and aggressive, like graffiti, and based more on steps. Mr Wiggles and other boogie boys took threads from tutting, for example, and added new approaches to the vocabulary. B-boys from Toronto, such as the Boogie Brats, adapted the style, and with their contribution made it famous. Many people refer to the style as 'origami', but this style also has it's roots in the Bronx.
As you can see, there are many different approaches to footwork to see and understand – it depends on the breakers' background. They might tell you different things on what's footwork and what's not, and have a different definition of dope footwork, but nevertheless a few basic things are universal. If the footwork has great form, flow, originality and it's done on beat, then most likely we'll all agree that it's fresh.