La Danse Hip-Hop as Paradox: Artification and Sportification
Hip hop choreographer and dancer Takao Baba has written a stimulating article about the development and present situation of streetdance in Germany. He gives particular emphasis to hip hop theatrical dance - also called concert dance - and refers to competitions as well. In his conclusion Takao maintains that hip hop concert dance is at risk of being absorbed by contemporary dance and needs to build its own independent institutions, "ones that bypass the existing structures" and create "a culture and scene of its own just like it did with (..) battles."
How does this proposition compare with the case of hip hop dance and dancers in France today? And do the circumstances that lead Takao to his seemingly radical conclusion relate to those prevailing in France?
I’m motivated by the idea of seeking points of comparison between the situations in the two countries, even though the parallel will be unbalanced as I do not have an equal amount of information on each country. As a sociologist, I have been doing research on hip hop dance and dancers in France for twenty years and have direct experience of the French scene, but not for Germany. I will therefore rely on existing documentation (Takao's article, information published by b-boy Niels 'Storm' Robitzky, and data published on German institutional and cultural websites) whilst building on my knowledge of hip hop dance in France. What similarities and differences can we find between the state of affairs in France and Germany? Are there any lessons to be learned?
In Germany, teenagers were passionate about films like Wild Style (1982) and Flash Dance (1983) and started dancing when they came out. Storm was 14 at the time of their release. A few years later he and his friends made paid appearances at vaudevilles, clubs (supported by a magazine), and at the Berlin Opera. Around 1987-91 he and his friends Kai Eickermann and Boris Leptin (aka Swiftrock) were the only b-boys in Germany that could make a living from their trade; by then he was 21 and teaching youth dance workshops and performing streetshows to generate additional income. After winning the Battle of the Year two years in a row with his crew Battle Squad, he spent a year doing theatrical hip hop dance in the United States, before heading back to Germany where he hosted a TV show called Viva. In 1996, age 27, he returned to the stage for good, choreographing a number of solos and duets; he was enthusiastic about the concert hip hop dance he saw developing in France and was encouraged to do the same.
From accounts of the early development of hip hop dance in France it was first introduced here when Rock Steady Crew came from New York and toured here in 1982. Films on hip hop were important, but the dance really took off in 1984 when a hugely successful hip hop TV show called H.I.P.-H.O.P., and whose particular pronunciation became legendary (ahsh-ee-pay-ahsh-ô-pay), sending enthusiastic throngs of small boys and teens dancing on side-walks and squares throughout the country. A hip hop producer I spoke to says that in Germany most hip hop dancers were from middle-class German families, often of modest means, whereas the French generally came from low-income working-class immigrant milieus that lived in the banlieues. Storm, whose father was a policeman, describes how he travelled with a student-rate train ticket, then stayed at his friend's father's "business apartment" in Adenauer-Platz, a middle-class neighbourhood in central Berlin. French dancers tell different stories. French rap singer Joey Starr was a teenager around the same time who came from the projects outside Paris and was part of a b-boy crew that travelled a lot in the 1980s. They would go to Italy to dance, but had no money for travel or board, so they took the night train without a ticket and hid from the controller. In Rome they slept in the train station or crashed on the floor at a friend's apartment.
Storm and his friends were on their own early on, travelling and making a living dancing and teaching dance by the end of the 1980s. In contrast, it took the young French smurfers (as they were then called) much longer to become independent; most of them never dreamed of getting paid for dancing in the early days - it was all for fun. They danced in cyphers outdoors, then in the foyers of the neighbourhood cultural centres and youth clubs (which are supported by local government and extend throughout the country in a dense network).
From 1984 Hip Hop dance started to develop in theatrical form in France, and by the early 1990s dozens of dance groups were founded, supported and encouraged by cultural organisers who had strong connections with established choreographers, theatre directors, and local officials. They started obtaining small grants from local government to set up theatrical dance groups, take dance classes, work with choreographers and put on shows. The first dance troupes were founded in 1983-85 (for example: Black Blanc Beur, Aktuel Force, Dans la Rue la Danse, Traction Avant - then Accrorap in 1989). The first large theatrical festivals came ten years later (Suresnes 1993 and La Villette 1996), followed by many others - all of which were vying for public subsidy.
Today there are countless hip hop dance groups in France - I will not attempt to list them here – but in 2015, the Centre national de la danse (a non-profit organisation subsidised by the Ministry of Culture) recorded 70 professional hip hop dance companies that receive public endowments (i.e. 13% of the 531 professional dance groups then registered). The sheer number of specialised hip hop dance groups, their early arrival on the scene, the abundance of their productions and their longevity are all distinctive traits of the French cultural arena.
The Rencontres de La Villette (also subsidised by the Ministry of Culture and other public agencies) is an example of a grand hip hop festival that had a major impact in structuring hip hop dance and embedding it in French society. It showcased the dance in a monumental manner, disseminated hip hop as a theatrical format while conversely disseminating the theatrical format as a hip hop canon. It also organised controversial debates about its own activity and attracted massive media attention. In 1996 the festival's first edition staged theatrical spectacles by thirty-nine hip hop dance groups featuring a total of 300 dancers which attracted over 20,000 audiences on the sprawling grounds of Le Parc de La Villette. The festival was to last fourteen years.
Festivals such as La Villette contributed significantly to the establishment of hip hop as a choreographed theatrical form - this is where I first saw hip hop dance in 1998 and thought how could dancing be so radical, virtuoso and jubilant? I was in awe! - and reinforced the standing of hip hop dance groups whilst attracting people and resources and spearheaded the popularity of the dance over a long period. Hip hop dancers started going professional via auditions, rehearsals and bona fide work contracts, as well as adding teaching to their domain. Theatrical choreography was the pre-eminent form of hip hop dance in France by then...which was in strong contrast to Germany where gigs at clubs seems to be have been the most they could get at the time - dancing for a small fee. Competition was the outstanding format there and the leading hip hop dance event was the famed Battle of the Year founded in 1991.
Around the year 2000 things started to change in France. For the first time, large-scale, big-budget b-boy championships were set up and entrance fees were charged. These events - Battle Pro, Juste Debout, and HipOpSession are some examples - required a high degree of organisation and were a major break from the informal cyphers amongst friends. In the 1980s and 90s, initiatives to institutionalise hip hop concert dance were being taken by educators and social and cultural workers from outside the hip hop movement, whereas battles were organised by another demographic - an up-and-coming generation of hip hop enthusiasts and entrepreneurs who wanted to regain control. Competition formats have now become a vibrant platform for breaking and other hip hop dances in France, integrating the country into the worldwide network of hip hop championships.
The French scene started as intrinsically dual, comprising of a theatrical sector and a competitive sector (recently complemented by a budding commercial sector). The hip hop theatre world covers a unique number of specialised subsidised hip hop dance companies, choreographic centres, theatres, and other agencies that are funded almost exclusively by public monies and backed by government entities. On the other hand, the competition scene is funded by both private capital and public funds. What’s interesting to observe is how people move and morph between these two sectors. Groups are called crews when they compete in battles, and companies when they dance in theatres; see Pockémon Crew, Vagabond Crew and Wanted Posse. Nearly all professional dancers are accomplished competitors and stage savants as they travel between theatres and championships. This is also true of the members of the French National Breaking team who are now training for the 2024 Olympic Games who are at once high-level athletes (recognised as such by the Sports Code and the High-Level Sports Charter) and active concert dancers. At a recent panel discussion in Paris the team's coach declared that he did not mind if members occasionally skipped breaking workouts in order to attend a theatre rehearsal. In an interview for Lumni - an educational channel of France Télévision published on March 2, 2021 - Gaëtan Alin, a 31 year-old member of France's Olympic Breaking team, talks about his experience on stage, especially with the prestigious National Choreographic Centre of La Rochelle and 20 year-old Martin Lejeune, Silver Medal Breaking champion at the 2018 Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires, talked about his experience in a "hip hop dance company" at a round-table discussion in Paris in 2021.
One factor contributing to this situation lies in the workings of a centralised administration manned by the committed social and cultural workers (many of them civil servants) I mentioned above. It is significant that one such worker recently declared that for her promoting hip hop dance means "working for the general interest" (Colloque Cultures hip-hop, January 5, 2022, Philharmonie de Paris). General interest is a concept that comes straight from the Enlightenment and the French Revolution; for many people it is embodied in the modern welfare state. There are political underpinnings here too, as Loïc Lafargue explains in his remarkable study on the makings of a public "hip hop policy" in three French cities (Politique du hip-hop, 2008). Through subsidies hip hop dancers gained artistic recognition, and this in turn opened the way to political recognition. As members of hip hop associations they intervene in public debates, exercise expertise and participate in the development of public policies whilst the authorities seek to wield hip hop dance to promote social diversity.
Since the mid 1980s public subsidy to hip hop dance projects has endured, be it from governments local or national, or the political left or right. They began small, then became progressively larger and more varied. In France government support is a major resource for financing and organising not only breaking, but many cultural forms and artistic activities. Cultural policy is part and parcel of the welfare state, and long-standing national and local government subsidies to art and culture have lent stability to persons and organisations in the field - particularly since 1981 when the Left coalition came to power. La danse hip-hop also profits from a long history of government intervention in cultural life and a belief in the "social power of art" that publisher Paul Garapon (Esprit, 2002) called a French national idiosyncrasy.
After working with the GhettOriginals in New York for a year, Storm decided to immerse himself in "the esthetical and conceptual aspects" of the dance (see stormdance.de) as a path to choreograph hip hop and perform in theatres. And where did he start? In France. He met up with hip hop producers and organisers Yacine Amblard and Dirk Korell who were based in the Paris area. The duet Storm and Jazzy Project (Jazzy was Storm's partner Nathalie's stage name) made its first appearances in the French cities of Lyon, Rennes, Châteauvallon, Le Havre and Paris in 1997, 1998 and 1999 - managed by Yacine and Dirk - and only later performed in Germany and other European countries. Since then Storm has had strong ties with the French scene and conversely, has influenced it greatly through regular performances and workshops, collaborative projects with French dancers, French management, and involvement in the Franco-German festival Danse Hip Hop Tanz that Dirk and Yacine organised. The pioneering French hip hop company Black Blanc Beur danced in Germany as early as 1985 whilst the interdependence between the French and German hip hop dance scenes continued involving other dancers such as Raphaël Hillebrand, Honji Wang, Sébastien Ramirez, Karl Libanus, and the group Flying Steps from Berlin. Storm and his friends travelled throughout Europe in the 1980s and 1990s, as did many other dancers forming multi-national crews for competitions. However, it is worth noting the impetus from France and the collaboration between hip hop organisers and dancers in both countries played a decisive part in the inception and development of concert dance in Germany in the late 1990s.
Theatrical hip hop dance in Germany remained marginal until - according to Takao Baba - it took off around 2003 when the group Renegade was founded. Takao writes that during the 2000s German dancers were influenced by television, and that "hip hop dance was essentially creating backup dancers for hip hop and R&B artists." Meanwhile concert dance was thriving in France embracing a wide range of aesthetics including Western ballet and contemporary dance, African, South American and South Indian dances.
I do not know if such affinities are favoured by Takao as he denounces the appropriation of hip hop dance by contemporary choreographers and the difficulty for more than a very small number of hip hop choreographers to emerge. "Talking about productions from streetdance choreographers in Germany, I can count them on one hand", he writes. Should hip hop be amalgamated with other aesthetics and directed by persons who do not profess an attachment to the hip hop movement? Is the issue about what styles you introduce, or about who introduces them? For Takao "streetdancers are at a disadvantage" in having to adopt to the rules of an established dance theatre world made for "contemporary choreographers and cultural institutions." In France there is also some controversy among hip hop actors along these lines, but it seems to have settled in recent years because of increasing job opportunities in hip hop, stronger public institutional backing, and diversified resources.
While Takao sees "only a small development of dance theatre and streetdance" in Germany over the past fifteen years, the situation is more favourable in France since the mid 1990s. Hip hop dance in all its forms is flourishing, and slowly but surely the initially small job market for hip hop dancers has expanded, offering opportunities for a great number of staged productions. I mentioned the two main sectors for hip hop dance in France - theatre and competition - the former is both professional and amateur, the latter solely amateur. However, both offer technical and administrative professional opportunities, whilst there are two developing sectors - teaching and commercial opportunities. Out of the relatively large population of professional hip hop dancers , and contrary to the situation in Germany described by Takao, a good number have become choreographers and present their productions regularly, both in specialised festivals, in theatres throughout France and occasionally on television. How is this so?
One important reason is the existence of the long-standing public policy of support for hip hop dance I already mentioned; it takes the form of both pecuniary grants and organisational backing. Despite minor fluctuations, this policy has been pursued fairly consistently by local governments throughout France since the mid 1980s and on a national level since around 1991. Another reason lies in the fact that dancers habitually band together in groups and establish themselves as associations, a very common structure for conducting affairs in France. Associations have a specific administrative status that lends them the legal capacity to solicit, receive and administrate grants. This modicum of institutionalisation characterises almost all of French hip hop dance and helps explain the longevity of so many groups. As a relatively stable environment, this collective organisation constitutes a basis for learning and creating choreography. Finally, the special regime of intermittent employment that is valid for all performing artists in France (provided they work a minimum number of hours per year) constitutes yet another safety net for hip hop dancers and choreographers.
There is a fairly wide organisational base for aspiring hip hop choreographers to rely upon including festivals, dance centres, academies, theatres and workshops. In particular, since 1998 a program called Initiatives d’Artistes en Danses Urbaines (IADU) at the Parc de La Villette lends support to hip hop dancers to create choreographies. Out of the nineteen National Choreographic Centres (CCN) that exist in France and whose director is nominated by the Minister of Culture, four Centres have or have had a hip hop directorate since 2008: Kader Attou, Mourad Merzouki, Fouad Boussouf and a six-person collective called FAIR[E] are or were recently in charge of a CCN. These are hubs for creativity in hip hop dance and regularly host workshops, symposiums and award residencies to hip hop choreographers to showcase their productions.
Germany also has a cultural policy of public subsidies to hip hop concert dance and competitive events. One stands out for its support to hip hop dance groups - North Rhine and Westphalia (NRW) - which grants funding to Renegade, Takao Baba and others, and also backs hip hop festivals and events. Another that is active in this sphere is Hamburg, which hosts the Hip Hop Academy whilst the Goethe-Institut, a non-profit institution funded by Federal appropriations and private donations supports hip hop dance workshops and creative projects abroad. However, private capital is also an important contributor to supporting hip hop concert dance; Takao tells us that many streetdancers make a living thanks to the commercial industry. On its website, Flying Steps posts the names of 54 corporations that have commissioned or funded their dance group: media, airlines, automobile manufacturers, fashion brands, insurance companies, and others are on the list.
Data is lacking here, but in view of this information, government support for theatrical hip hop dance in Germany does not appear to be as long-established nor as widespread as in France. Much of the support seems to come from corporate capital and private sponsors. This is important, since in the European tradition, government support is often linked to an artistic aesthetic, while private capital is linked to an aesthetic of entertainment. Germany does not seem to compare with the abundance of crews and organisations that exist in France, nor with its nearly forty year-long history of public support to hip hop dance, both locally and nationally, thus ensuring French street dancers were almost completely insulated from the marketplace for the first decades of the dance's development. This points to the very particular socio-economics of hip hop dance in France where hip hop dancers did not function in a commercial setting, but in the not-for-profit sector, via the associations I mentioned earlier. Local and central governments supported hip-hop associations as a tool to implement social and cultural policy and in addition, the long-standing tradition of popular education in theatre and dance in the associations is a factor not to be underestimated. These circumstances help to explain why so many hip hop dancers' are attracted to theatre and have little connection to rap. Rappers evolved in a whole different economy, the entertainment industry, which is based on corporate capital, while theatrical hip hop dance depends on public funding. Only recently has hip hop dance in France started to be seriously supported by private capital and a whole new arena of employment for hip-hop dancers has newly appeared.
Takao makes a plea for the autonomy of hip hop concert dance in Germany based on its "own funding." Where should this "own funding" come from? Research has long proven that the performing arts are structurally unprofitable and cannot survive without sponsors. In 1999 sociologist Jean-Louis Fabiani wrote that the French system of support to the arts epitomises the "paradox of state-guaranteed autonomy." Twenty years on, French hip hop dancers, like other artists, are obliged to widen the range of their sources of patronage and not depend on public subsidies alone. But in comparison to many countries, public funding remains important in France.
Before closing Takao deplores the way in which hip hop dance is defined, as well as its apparent lowly social status. As a latecomer to the cultural scene, hip hop dance does not enjoy the superior and virtually uncontested prestige of established arts such as opera or classical ballet. Nor is it even construed by all members of society as an art. Nevertheless, the practice has changed immensely since early dancers made their pitch in New York and Oakland fifty years ago, or in Paris and Berlin ten years later. It’s interesting to observe that some people do see the dance as art, whilst others do not. This speaks to a practice in flux that it is fruitful to describe and analyse. How exactly is hip hop dance changing, as are the persons and arrangements involved? We cannot prove whether the dance is or is not an art. But controversy about this very point suggests that the dance is in the process of becoming an art, according to the generally accepted conventions in our society of what an art is. Describing and analysing this permutation can afford us surprising insights into the mechanisms of the dance's and the dancers' past and future development. Rather than ruling whether hip hop dance is or is not an art, I find it more stimulating to try to grasp how a practice that was once fun and games for children is being redefined as an art, and how practitioners that had no social standing are engaged in a transformative course that now sees them designated as dancers, choreographers and artists. My colleagues and I call this gradual, multi-layered transformation a process of artification (a trend whose achievement cannot always be assured: Shapiro & Heinich 2012). The question then is in what ways and to what degree do artifying processes of hip hop dance in Germany and in France converge/diverge?
Surprising as it may seem, the concept of artification is also a tool to think about what may be a turning-point in the development of hip hop dance, i.e. the inclusion of breaking in the Olympic Games. Takao brings this up in his conclusion where he speaks about money and rampant commercialism, but I am not sure this is the main point. An analogous process to artification is at work here: sportification. Indeed, it is reasonable to believe that the prospect of breaking at the 2024 Games will accelerate an existing trend toward sportification that is well under way and has been so for many years via the big international breaking championships such as Battle Pro, BOTY, IBE and Red Bull BC One. It will render this trend all the more intense both on a practical and on a symbolic level. Breakers and attendant actors will benefit from the Olympics' claim to universalism, they will benefit from a new global audience and from the enormous resources that are mobilised for the organisation of the Games. And importantly, they will rearrange some of their activities in order to adhere to IOC regulations.
What does this mean? Sportification is a process by which breakers gradually adopt the conventional norms and practises of established sports; it is a move from an amateur to a professional stance. For example, hip hop dancers now warm up, they work out, they do so to a strict schedule, they train together, they monitor their weight, their sleep, their diet, they work with a coach and follow their views on these matters. They compete according to clearly established rules, they establish and agree to a universal judging system, they establish a sports federation, they join it and pay dues, and they wear the federation's jersey or uniform. Rules and regulations are discussed, agreed upon and disseminated. Etc., etc. Such procedures may seem trivial but many of them are actually quite novel among b-boys and b-girls and are neither widespread nor unanimously accepted at this time. The general rationale of these procedures is to pacify social relations by creating the conditions of equality among participants. Conversely, according to one expert, it is possible that some particularities of the breaking battle will be accepted into the Olympic format, such as personal interactions between contestants during the bout. These in theory hinder equality and harmony, and stoke antagonism, counter to the general sportifying trend.
However, I believe the greater question lies elsewhere. And that is: what does the incorporation of breaking in the Paris 2024 Olympics and the forming of National Breaking Teams around the world change today and portend for the future? The members of the National Team of France receive a monthly stipend from the Ministry of Sports; they are thus confirmed in their status as sportsmen and sportswomen by a high authority and are rewarded pecuniarily. This is indeed a move toward professionalism. As we have seen most hip hop dancers in France move seamlessly from stage to battle and back again. Will this new circumstance create a heightened specialisation among street dancers, and hence a split among them? Will it assign breakers to the sole realm of competition, ban them from the stage, and channel them into a new life as high-level sportspersons, while the other hip hop dancers specialise in theatre and become artists first and foremost? Or on the contrary, will breakers continue to be multi-active dancers, both sportspersons and artists, blazing an original path among Olympic athletes? Or will there be yet another twist, with poppers, lockers and house dancers in turn gaining a place in the next Olympic Games, in 2028 or 2032, joining breakers in the expanding trend of sportification of all types of hip hop dance? Many possible developments lie ahead.
There’s a paradox in the tension that exists between the terms: hip hop and danse. The word danse has a long history, going back to at least the 13th century, it’s an old word, an old practice and an old institution. In contemporary France the term applies to many honourable establishments and it carries a certain political weight, reminiscent of the court dances of the Sun King Louis XIV, and his contemporary heir, the elitist Opéra de Paris. The word hip hop is different in every way. When it first appeared in the 1980s, it was devoid of any reference or meaning in French history or culture, alluding to a popular cultural movement from the United States. The two terms - one rich with meaning, rooted in the institutions and the history of France, the other reminiscent of Latino and Black American youth - were first paired in France in the mid 1990s. The phrase la danse hip-hop linked two very different social worlds, the signifier of old institutions and solidly anchored social representations to that of a recent and barely known popular movement. Today the paradox is less apparent, but the tension between established social institutions and current representations is firmly ingrained in the hip hop dance scene in France and plays a part in hip hop actors' distinctive aesthetics, the range of their career choices and their views on the future of this sector. The paradox continues.
 The main websites I consulted about hip hop dance in Germany are: https://www.goethe.de/en/kul/tut/gen/tan/20392943.html; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DnsVpcB0z2U; http://stormdance.de/biography/; https://flyingsteps.com/de; https://www.i-das.de/. For more about hip hop dance in France, see my site for publications and further references: https://ehess.academia.edu/httpwwwiiaccnrsfrlahicarticle255html. I extend my warmest thanks to Dirk Korell for his critical reading of this paper and his valuable input.
 My very rudimentary estimate, projected from a survey on dancers conducted in 2003, is that there are roughly 1000 professional hip hop dancers in France today out of a total of circa 6000 professional dancers of all stripes. See also the data on dance companies above.
Commissioned for Ink Cypher, May 2022
Roberta Shapiro is a sociologist working in Paris with interests in artification, work, social and cultural change. Over the past years she has been researching the development of hip hop dance and dancers in France. Her current inquiry focuses on the dancers' life trajectories and the debate over b-boying as art versus sport.