Hip-hop: a grassroots movement
How did the hip-hop movement get started and why did it gain so much traction in France?
Today, in 2023, hip-hop dance is everywhere: in theatres, videos and commercials, at major cultural events, on high fashion catwalks, at the head national choreographic centres, and in less than a year at the Olympic Games. Yet in the beginning, hip-hop was a counter-cultural movement – one that developed amid tensions and even violence. It’s important to evoke its legacy even though it remains difficult to situate its birth with any precision without a dedicated historiography. Everyone seems to agree on the influence of political leaders like American civil rights icons Malcom X and Martin Luther King, as well as the verbal provocations and shuffling feet of Muhammad Ali, one of the greatest boxers of all time. In 1974, the musician Afrika Bambaataa founded Zulu Nation in New York and began organizing block parties that brought together dancers, DJs, MCs and graffiti artists, creating a positive alternative to violent gang culture in the Bronx. Funk was also at its height in the 1970s, along with the television variety show Soul Train, which showcased unforgettable dance and music performances, including several by the iconic James Brown.
The hip-hop movement first reached France via the big and small screens
Dee Nasty, Le Terrain
Paris City Breakers, Sidney’s show
Hip-hop dance gained prominence in popular culture as early as the 1980s. For example, Michael Jackson owes some of his most celebrated moves to the dancer Popping Taco and the Electric Boogaloos, whom he invited to dance in the music videos for “Thriller”, “Bad” and “Smooth Criminal”. The Rock Steady Crew featured in the films Flashdance and Beat Street. In 1982, radio station Europe 1 organized the global [BM1] New York City Rap Tour. Parisian DJs also brought hip-hop culture back from their trips to the United States, sharing it with crowds when they performed at clubs like Le Globo and Le Bataclan. DJ Dee Nasty also organized illegal block parties in a vacant lot near the Metro station La Chapelle, where dancers came to practice and battle. Joey Starr and Kool Shen were among them. They would then go on to develop careers in rap with their group NTM.
From 14 January 1984, Sidney hosted H.I.P. H.O.P. on national network TF1 every Sunday night. The footage broadcast was filmed in low-income neighbourhoods and council estates. Hip-hop dancers were becoming stars. The Paris City Breakers crew featured in every episode, providing demos and dance lessons, judging battles, and more. The show also introduced viewers to “the crazy breaker” Franck II Louise. They would spin on their hands, backs and heads. It was fun and refreshing and helped young people – some of whom were lost – to develop new careers thanks to their rapid rise to prominence.
Hip-hop dance benefited from urban policies designed to ease social unrest in low-income neighbourhoods
Kaska-danse, Cie Traction Avant
Zoro Henchiri, Les Minguettes
The summer of 1983 saw a number of violent confrontations between young men and the police in the wake of several race-based hate crimes. The “Marche des Beurs” or “Anti-Racist March for Equality” [BM2] passed through the Minguettes neighbourhood outside of Lyon, where the unrest had begun[BM3] . In Bordeaux, the Forum culture et quartiers (Neighbourhood Culture Forum), held in January 1985, embodied Minister of Culture Jack Lang’s commitment to social development in low-income neighbourhoods. It premiered the first French stage performance choreographed by the company Black Blanc Beur. In Lyon, the company Traction Avant and its founder Marcel Notargiacomo took hip-hop dance in a pioneering direction. In 1985, he asked contemporary choreographer Pierre Deloche, to create Kaska-danse: an unprecedented combination of contemporary choreography with breakdance and popping [BM4] beats.
The show toured through 1986 starring Fatiha Bouinoual, Samir and Ruchdi Hachichi, Fred Bendongué and Zoro Henchiri. Next came the influence of Japanese butoh, which lead to the creation of Un break à Tokyo (Breakdancing in Tokyo), in 1991, directed by Sumako Koseki. The Japanese choreographer and Zoro Henchiri expanded upon their shared language in Désert(s) in 1997. Their interpretation was deep, slow and relatively inexpressive; it majestically embodied resistance amid urban destruction.
France raised the bar to become a force
Aktuel Force practice session, Forum des Halles
Lilou vs Cloud, Red Bull BC One
Bad Trip Crew, Battle of The Year
French hip-hop would not have experienced such a spectacular rise without the iconic training facilities located in the heart of the country’s biggest cities. Hip-hop dance relied on an informal but codified peer-to-peer training method. In Paris, dancers would meet in clubs, but also at La Chapelle, Boulevard de la Villette and the Trocadero. At the Forum des Halles, the marble esplanade was perfect for sliding, and the Rotonde, opened in 1985, provided covered outdoor space. The television programme H.I.P. H.O.P. only lasted eight months, but enthusiasts, like the group Aktuel Force, needed spaces to get together. In Lyon, dancers gathered at La Part Dieu shopping centre, and on the esplanade outside the opera house.
Battles were also of tantamount importance in the careers of many dancers, helping them to become true professionals. They encouraged participants to go above and beyond and to be creative, whether competing as individuals or in groups. In 2001, Lords of the Floor, the first official breakdance tournament hosted by the energy drink Red Bull, took place in Seattle. The event was a whirlwind of bold combinations, one-handed handstands, and dizzying spins and freezes! In 2004, Red Bull hosted the first edition of the now legendary Red Bull BC One: an annual international breaking competition whose main event is a knockout tournament featuring 16 b-boys[BM5] . Lilou – the pride of Lyon since he hails from nearby suburb Vaulx-en-Velin – won the competition twice: first in 2005, facing South Korean Hong 10, and then in 2009 when he beat the American breaker Cloud.
The first Battle of the Year took place in Hanover, Germany in 1990. . In France, the national qualifying event takes place in Montpellier, which has also hosted the international finals since 2010. What makes this battle unique is the way it serves as an incubator in the discipline. Each crew performs a short choreography. A panel of judges selects the top six crews, who then face off to win. There’s also an award for the “best show”. Quite a few participating crews – Pockemon Crew, Wanted Posse, Vagabond Crew, Melting Force and more – went on to develop their shows and perform in theatres. Bad Trip Crew, founded in 2001 by Parisians Bboy Almo and Bboy Darwin (Saido Lehlouh), stood out thanks to their original style and the unique personalities of each of their members.
The creativity of artists and activists came together with political determination and support from certain theatre directors to foster the boom in hip-hop artistic production in France in the 1990s. These unique conditions made it possible for talented choreographers to gain prominence and for hip-hop to take its rightful place in the landscape of French choreography.
At the start of Rose-Amélie Da Cunha's project, there is a social and activist dimension. Coming from a working-class background, urban dances were for her a gateway, a source of inspiration and an encouragement to self-determination. After specialized studies in events and cultural mediation, she worked for 12 years on the development of Pôle Pik, a hip-hop choreographic center, the Karavel Festival then Pôle en Scènes, in the Lyon region. In 2020, she continued her commitment to dance and supporting artists within La Villette in Paris, by being responsible for programming hip-hop and coordinating the system, co-founded by the Fondation de France: Initiatives d 'Artists in Urban Dances (IADU). Currently freelance within an Activity and Employment Cooperative (CAE), convinced by the capacity of the Social and Solidarity Economy to achieve major transformations, she supports project leaders in the realization of their ideas, in being particularly attentive to the question of the representation of minorities in artistic creation. She has advised L'Azimut in Île-de-France for the programming of dance shows since November 2021 and was commissioned by the Les Nuits de Fourvière festival to ensure the design and artistic co-direction of the “Vogue la nuit”, at SUBS in Lyon in July 2022. She is currently collaborating on the writing of courses around hip-hop dances for the Numeridanse platform, in the organization of festive events for La Biennale and the Maison de la danse de Lyon and the dance and circus programming of the Maison de la Culture (MC2) in Grenoble. In 2023 it is launching a collective reflection to support the professionalization of the choreographic sector in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region. At the same time, she volunteers in several Lyon organizations that echo her convictions: Rêv’Elles, Café Rosa and the Guillotière Neighborhood Council where she lives.