The radical history of Paris b-boy culture is under threat

The radical history of Paris b-boy culture is under threat
Break away — Born in the Bronx back in the ’70s, breakdancing later found a similar home in the banlieues of Paris, where marginalised communities adopted the style as a vessel for protest. In 2024, it will feature as an Olympic sport for the first time – but what does this mean for its radical roots?

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The scene is an almost perfect picture of Parisian spring: the Eiffel Tower slouches in the afternoon sun, the Seine’s crisp waters hurtle along below, and atop a hill overlooking it all, bold rays of light beam between the Palais de Tokyo’s grand columns and along its sweeping marble floors.

But within these clichéd, postcard surroundings of western Paris – usually prime for pouting influencers, tourist hordes and the French capital’s haute bourgeoisie – are not-so-subtle signs of resistance. Look closely, and you can witness a subversive reclaiming of public space.

Stacks of boomboxes are pumping out beats that shake the Art Deco façades and rattle the eardrums of bystanders nearby. Swarms of skaters add to the racket with the clattering symphony of a thousand kickflips. And in one far corner, a dozen young men are gathered conspiratorially in a circle.

“This is our world,” says Gosso Nabisso, stretching his arms out wide like a predatory bird. “We won’t scream it in the street. But we own this place. To be a b-boy is a culture and a state of mind. We take it everywhere we go.”

The 28-year-old Parisian – wearing a backward cap, black tee and white Nike trainers – strides into the centre of the group and effortlessly leaps forward into a handstand. He then rotates and twists his body to the rhythm of the music, before abruptly stopping the rotations while balanced on his forearms, legs still flailing mid-air. To finish, he spins several times on the crown of his head before flipping back over to land coolly on his feet. The crowd claps hard in appreciation and he shoots them a confident grin.

Actions speak louder than words for Gosso, one of the “b-boys” – or breakdancers – of Paris, a movement quite literally embodying the fight for urban life. In recent years, the pressures of gentrification and commercialisation have cranked up in their hometown. But through their unique form of contemporary dance – ferocious, carnal, yet elegant – they have found a way to express themselves in a changing city.

“Breaking is the thing I like the most in the world,” says Gosso, who has now taken a seat on the edge of the circle to watch the other b-boys show off their own impressive moves. “I can’t put into words exactly why. But there isn’t anything else like it. We don’t have to follow anyone’s rules – my way is the right way.”

Born in the Bronx in the 1970s from the urban decay forced onto African-American communities, breakdancing quickly spread across the Atlantic and conquered the disadvantaged banlieues on the peripheries of Paris. Often practised on the tarmac outside the infamous French social housing estates known as HLM, it found a similar urban home. Ever since, breaking has been a countercultural medium and a way for those on the margins to express anger at inequality, police brutality, racism and other issues that disproportionately impact marginalised communities in the country.

The social context in France, like that in the US, has been key to that development. In the 1950s and 1960s, the banlieues were seen as the future. According to Fabien Truong, a sociologist in the Urban Cultures and Societies team at the Paris Centre for Sociological and Political Research, they represented a sign of the social progress of the middle classes. But, due to the geographic isolation of the banlieues and the cramped estates within them, they become hotspots for crime, traffic and, more generally, a poor quality of life. So the middle classes left and were replaced by working-class immigrants. “Things degraded very quickly,” says Fabien. “The banlieues were transformed into societal prisons.”

But from the 1980s, powerful forms of cultural expression were born out of these tough living conditions. “Modernity, creativity, and a new urban language emerged, which was both very French, but at the same time was inspired by the US and the world. It expressed social malaise, racism, stigmatisation, injustice – the experience of what it is like to live there. It was a way of contesting the social order through artistic means.”

One hub where French breakdancing made some of its first steps was the Parisian banlieue of Saint-Denis, a suburb with a high population of immigrants that to this day remains starkly divided from the revered city centre. It was a melting pot of pioneering culture that became famous around the world – in 1991, renowned American rapper KRS One even gave a lecture at the University of Saint-Denis.

Gabin Nuissier is a 54-year-old choreographer from the Caribbean island of Martinique. Through his company Aktuel Force, he became a pioneer of French breakdancing in the early 1980s. For him, the banlieue of Saint-Denis is “the cradle of French hip hop culture” – and the immigrant communities living there have always been a fundamental part of that. “It’s a cultural story,” says Gabin, who arrived in France in 1974. “We are people, outsiders, with roots from elsewhere. We had the same experience – we cut our ties with our families to leave. But when we came together in this breakdancing community it was magnificent. I put my Caribbean origins into my style of dance – it’s animal and instinctive.”

These links to the banlieues of Paris have, however, been tested over time. Initially, break dancing was not officially recognised by the state or other public institutions. But in 1989, a law was passed to include it among more traditional styles – like modern jazz and classic dance – that could be taught as a diploma. That played a part in what was an extremely significant rise in hip hop dance styles. Breakdancing quickly spread.

“Hip hop has historically been an art form outside of institutions,” says Aurélien Djakouane, a researcher who was commissioned in 2006 by the Ministry of Culture to investigate the impact of institutionalisation of French hip hop culture. “But then it became part of public institutions. There was suddenly media coverage and recognition of it.”

Since then breakdancing has permeated all layers of French society, including an iconic scene featured in the cult 1995 French film La Haine. In turn, brands have seized on it in their advertising: the August Paris Opera house, for instance, has used it as a way to modernise and attract a younger audience, and in 2024, breakdancing will feature for the first time as a competitive sport at the Olympic Games, set to be held in Paris.

While that rise has been impressive, it has not come without its complications. For many in the movement, the steady disappearance of public space has created additional hurdles. “Before there was more freedom to dance wherever and whenever you wanted,” says Gosso, who first began breakdancing in 2011. “It’s more difficult now.”

Back when Gosso started, the hub for dancers was a disused space inside a cavernous shopping centre at La Défense, the business district on the outskirts of Paris known for its hulking skyscrapers that are banned in the city centre. Gosso would traipse across from his house in the far eastern 12th arrondissement almost every day.

“The first time I went was like a film,” he remembers. “It was crammed with all kinds of people. Skaters. Street artists. Hip hop singers. Climbers. Body-poppers. And the b-boys. There were hundreds of people. I went during the weekdays as well as the weekends and they taught me the moves.”

That legendary space, Gosso says, was shut down years ago and converted into a swimming pool. Popular spots in public spaces such as train stations and shopping malls have also been clamped down on – with authorities citing reasons like heightened terrorist threats. The pandemic has proved a real challenge for many dancers too, limiting them to tiny Parisian housing – or, for the lucky ones, their garages.

Francois Gautret, 41, is the legendary director of French breakdancing company R Style, which he founded in 1999. He echoes concerns over how space for dancing has in recent years become more difficult to come by. “The majority of dance halls now in Paris are run by the city hall,” he says. “Very few are private. That’s an issue of control. The people in the hip hop movement aren’t always those who benefit – it’s brands and institutions. I know former dancers [from the 1980s] that have become homeless. It’s very sad. There must be funding for the grassroots.”

Despite these threats to the movement, Paris officials insist that the forthcoming Olympic Games in the city will be a huge opportunity for breakdancing to reach unprecedented viewership and commercial success. “I think it will be amazing for the development of the sport,” says Aurélie Merle, Director of Sporting Competitions at Paris 2024. “We will be attracting new audiences, and that’s what we want. We were seduced by breakdancing and what it brings. It’s very much aligned with our time. It will be a breath of fresh air.”

Many of the b-boys themselves play down how their medium is evolving. They argue that evolution and modernisation is a normal process. Sofiane El Boukhari, who grew up in the Parisian banlieue of Tremblay-en-France, an hour from the city centre, remembers performing at underground dance battles in ramshackle venues when he was young and scraping together funds for long-distance bus rides across Europe to perform.

“Since then the quality of performances has improved, the aesthetics of our videos has improved, the venues are better quality,” says the 25-year-old, puffing on a cigarette outside a practice space in northern Paris. “Change doesn’t have to be a bad thing if it’s done the right way. Now we can live off what we love to do.”

When it comes to the subject of commercialisation – and the Olympics – Sofiane says breakdancing has always been unique in the way it straddles the line between sport (through the underground dance battles) and art (through individuality and performances).

“Brand opportunism has been around forever,” he says. “We’ve been doing events every weekend for a decade. The Olympics will just be one more event. If it brings sponsors that’s cool – we will have the status of athletes. But we can get by just fine without it.”

Stepping inside the warehouse space and into a dark practice studio with wooden floors, Sofiane begins his extensive warm up, lunging and leaping from side to side with great purpose. Like the legendary figures of Gabin and Francois before him, as well as fellow contemporaries such as Gosso and the future generations to come, he uses the raw energy of breakdance to help process an ever-changing, turbulent world.

“I’ve always loved breakdancing, [ever] since I first discovered it,’ he says, taking a pause in between moves. “You can externalise all of your emotions. Dancing is liberating.” 

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