Celine Lefevre doesn’t come from the ghetto, she’s white, and female. Not your typical rapper. But when she tells the story of hip hop in a snap, crackle and pop of a dance solo, it all falls into place.
The sunny 35-year-old could stand as an emblem of hip hop made in France, where the American-inspired street art has a powerful following in the multi-ethnic “banlieues” — the suburbs around big French cities — but also a respected place on stage.
This January, the Paris suburb of Suresnes is hosting the 21st edition of its annual hip hop dance festival, a showcase for the vibrant fusion of street and contemporary dance pioneered by the likes of Lefevre.
“Hip hop in France made its mark on stage,” she told AFP while rehearsing a solo piece for the festival. “Hip hop choreography comes from here, there’s no real equivalent in the United States.”
Classically trained, Lefevre discovered hip hop aged 17 and never looked back, working the Paris dance floors until she mastered its moves — and won acceptance from her peers.
“I just loved how generous it was,” she told AFP. “It’s just as demanding as classical, but it’s also a social dance.”
For the past 15 years, Lefevre has been moving back and forth between the stage and the world of hip hop “battles”, giant, high-octane events where self-taught dancers improvise before an audience of thousands.
“Everything we do comes from there,” she said.
Around 100 dancers revolve around the Suresnes Cites Danse festival, launched in 1993 by the Jean Vilar Theatre and today a kind of mecca for the scene, commissioning shows, offering courses and rehearsal space.
Enriched with classical and contemporary techniques, hip hop’s influence reaches into the mainstream with choreographers like Mourad Merzouki and Kader Attou now at the helm of two national dance centres, in Creteil and La Rochelle.
“Hip hop today holds the same place as contemporary dance did 20 years ago,” said the theatre’s head Olivier Meyer.
The Paris-based Congolese dancer Richard Passi was one of the first to bring hip hop to the stage in the 1980s, with his troupe Black Blanc Beur.
“It’s a victory. I’m proud of that,” he told AFP while rehearsing a trio act called “No Limit, No Time” for the festival.
“These days everyone wants the little Frenchies — you find them all over the world — with Madonna, at Cirque du Soleil, or in musicals,” added his six-foot-something dance partner Jean-Claude Marignale, from the island of Guadeloupe.
For the choreographer Sylvain Groud, it was a “physical shock” the first time he came in contact with the genre.
“These dancers are like purebred horses compared to your classical ballet dancer,” he said. “That’s the strength of hip hop.”
Does French hip hop risk losing its soul, becoming too tame? “I don’t see it happening,” said Lefevre. “There is such a strong core of hip hop purists — we are like a thread pulled out of that scene.”
Dubbed a “hip hop lesson”, her solo retraces the history of the genre: signature moves like “popping”, and dance trends from Madonna-style “voguing” in the 1990s to today’s high-energy “krumping”, a gangland phenomenon popularised in the film “Rize”.
“You take all that pent-up rage that’s built up in the projects, and just watch it rise up through the feet and explode,” she explained with a grin.
She also tells of how, as a girl, she had to finesse her way onto the scene.
“When I was 20, we weren’t welcome at hip hop nights, the girls were on the sidelines. We had to prove we could do the tough-guy posing — but then we got to show a girly side as well.”
Lefevre helped blaze a trail for young women like Yamina Benallal, 27, who has her own “battle” group but also regularly checks in for one of Suresnes’ dance courses — this time on clown techniques.
“I used to hate hip hop’s image, all about ghettoes and hoodlums. But the day I started dancing, I changed my mind completely,” she told AFP. “There are enough different worlds in hip hop to find space for everyone.”
Long frizzy hair and gangly gait in a grey tracksuit, Sandrine Lescourant, 26, has just stomped her way through a clown improvisation — a jerky, red-nosed routine with a strong hip hop flavour.
She puts things more bluntly: “Hip hop is what I am. It lets me be free.”