DANS LA RUE: Paris Urban Youth Culture
P. Diddy once told me to either Vote or DIE!  So naturally I voted.  50 Cent lives by the mantra "get rich or die trying."  Those Vitamin Water ads suggest which way his scale is tipping.  And here in Paris, our good friend-of-the-blog and celebrated Vertifight organizer Youval has commanded that I "Stay or Die!"  While the act of staying seems rather mundane and disproportionate to the severity of death, I must admit that it was an arduous task.  I failed to stay, so I died…

….on the dance floor.  Last week, once again Youval commandeered the closed shopping space beneath La Defense (Paris' financial district) for a literally underground street dance competition.  This time the contest categories were in Popping, House, and All Styles.  This time "Stay or Die" was the format.  And this time, for the first time in Paris, I competed.

I showed up nervous, anxious, and eager to prove myself.  There again stood an intimidating mass of 100 young hip hop heads, forming a circle around a portable amp hooked up to an mp3 player.  Surrounding them were closed clothes stores, some with signs that read "Skateboarders and dancers, please don't touch the windows."  

I was among the first group of 6 people called into the circle.  My beating heart almost burst out of my chest...

I thought we would do a round of preliminary selections in which each person had 30 seconds to get busy, and the judges would select one from the group to advance into the main competition.  But then something crazy happened.  Youval called out 6 more poppers to the floor.  The second group of 6 stood before me at the other side of the circle.  "I don't understand," I complained to my friend Mohamed.  "What do I do?"

"You battle."

Judge Franquey looks on in his fat North Face.
So it was an improvised crew battle, I thought.  Each crew sent out one dancer at a time for their moment in the cypher.  But unexpectedly, after every other solo, the judges pointed to a side, picking a winner.  Even though I don't speak the language, the people there could still read on my face: "HUH??"  

One by one, members of the opposing crew sat down, having lost to those on my side.  I was the fourth person to go, suddenly aware that this was survival of the fittest.  My opponent was alright but not incredible.  I smelled blood, hungry for a kill as the adrenaline thrust me into the cypher.  I started unloading my arsenal, showing technique, character, hunger.  And they cheered.  It's all I could've asked for-- respect from the melange of African, Arab, and Asian faces surrounding me.  I don't speak French, but I proved to them that I speak dance.

Pretty soon though, overwhelmed by the unexpected cheers, the adrenaline, the pressure, I got lost in that cypher.  My mind went blank.  The longer I was out there, the more I froze and the quieter the crowd got.  I rushed out of the cypher, and looked to the judges.  Two pointed to me, one pointed to my opponent.  Phew, I got to stay.

The hyped audience.
 A few more mp3's into the battle and only one man stood on the other side of the cypher while five on my side remained.  He paced brazenly back and forth, staring each of us down like the warrior he was.  His name was Amour, the French word for "love."

One by one, my crewmates stepped into the circle with Amour.  One by one they fell.  It was like marching up to the guillotine (French historical reference!).  Suddenly it was my turn.  I knew resistance was futile, but with nothing to lose, I felt liberated.  I danced hard and I had fun with it.  I laughed during my own solo.  The crowd sensed my liberation and enjoyment, and they cheered.  But they cheered even more for Amour.   So I died, and he stayed, the last man standing in the circle.  Love really does conquer all.

Afterwards, friends and strangers alike high-fived me to commend and appreciate.  After months in Paris, documenting the lives of others, I finally expressed myself to them.  In turn, I felt connected, intertwined into the fabric of their local culture.  I'm finally a part of something.  I think I'll stay a while.

Here's an example of a past "Stay or Die" battle hosted by Youval.  The last person standing from each battle ultimately goes on to face the other survivors. 



    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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