DANS LA RUE: Paris Urban Youth Culture
While waiting to meet up with a friend outside the Chatelet train station near the center of Paris, my eyes widened when a young couple walked by dressed in the freshest Hip Hop gear.  While usually such a sighting is unremarkable in an urban setting, these two caught my attention because their bright purple and black outfits matched, from their baggy sweats to their fitted caps.  The untrained eye might mistake them for a gang, but I could clearly recognize them as street dancers.  I watched as they hurried off, and out of curiousity, began following them, hoping they might lead me to a dance performance.

They turned a quick corner into an open square, but I wasn't as quick.  I lost them.  Looking around for signs of bright purple, I scanned the urban landscape for the couple to no avail.  But just when I was ready to turn around and leave, I saw rapid movement coming from the balcony of Forum des Halles.  Street dancers!

I climbed the stairs to the balcony where I found several groups of young Hip Hop kids dancing in front of the glass of the building's exterior.  Just as I'd seen in Tokyo a few years ago, these street dancers practiced their craft using the architecture of city as their dance studio.  The glass walls provided mirrors while the balcony provided open floor space.  Each group of dancers claimed their individual part of the "studio" where they had hooked up iPods and PSPs to portable speakers.  

Emboldened by the discovery, I approached one pocket of youth, introducing myself in broken French: "J'habite en New York.  Je suis danser...ehh...Foto?"  Luckily a couple of the teens spoke more English than I speak French.  They were delighted by the request and immediately formed an impromptu cypher to demonstrate their skills, eager to get on camera.   They turned up the music (which on portable iPod speakers is about as loud as a walkie talkie) and got down.  In their skinny jeans, bright tees, and fat sneakers, they danced one by one to contemporary, minimalist hip hop, doing some heel-toe steps, dropping down to the floor, and grooving back up.  The others clapped and cheered as each got in their solo.
I asked the ambassador of the group Frank if the dance style they were doing was Get Lite, a dance I'd seen from Harlem.  "No, Get Lite is dead," Frank enlightened me.  "The last video on Youtube was from 2008.  This is Jerkin' from LA."  I'd never heard of Jerkin'.  Here I was, an American from NYC, the cultural capital of the world, and had no clue what this new American-made dance was.  I needed these young folks who have probably never even been to LA to inform me.

Wikipedia confirms that Jerkin' started around 2008 in LA, made popular by a song by the New Boyz called "You're a Jerk."  Curiously enough, the article likens the dance to that of the French dance called Techtonik.  More on this other dance later.

Here I was, documenting this dance, amazed at how it travelled to these youth a continent away, and through this vehicle they found a community, a culture, and a lifestyle.  It was a diverse group of youth, composed of different races, ranging in age from 17 to 11.  Though they were mostly young boys, there was one female in the group who seemed to be regarded as an equal in this dance.  I assumed they were all friends or classmates from the same immigrant neighborhood in Paris, but again I was mistaken.  They actually came from all different parts of the city, but generally all from the border.  Frank said they found each other through Facebook, and they gather at Chatelet every Sunday to practice.  

Indeed there is a whole Facebook community of young teenage Jerks in France, with over 3,600 fans.  Here they update each other on the latest music, fashion, and dance moves within the culture.  They post videos of themselves battling and boast about their respective crews.  Judging by the pictures and video, they are emulating the New Boyz to the T.  I haven't been able to locate Frank or others on Facebook yet, but I'll definitely be back at Chatelet to learn more.


    Brian is a writer, dancer, activist, and general hip hop head from New York City. He is currently working towards his Master's in Global Communications in Paris.  


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