Marrakech: Under the yellow domed ceiling of the Theatre Royal of Marrakech, a small crowd cheered and watched in awe as champion breakdancers from around the world battled, with head slides, freezes and kicks, in a competition streamed globally online.
“Make some noise!” the host of the event screamed into a microphone. “Show enthusiasm. People don’t know anything about Morocco.”
The spectators grew louder.
They were especially excited about the performance of Fouad Ambelj, a 24-year-old Moroccan prodigy who dances as Lil Zoo and who has become a worldwide sensation.
“It’s a great outlet for negative energy,” Ambelj said.
“I love that there are no rules. I can express anything I want. It makes me feel free.”
In Morocco, where state funding and institutions for the arts is scarce, break dancing has empowered young people to make their own entertainment since its arrival in the 1980s. The dance form, born a decade earlier in the Bronx, was ostensibly free; all it required were able bodies and open space.
“As a young guy in Casablanca, if you don’t have money or you don’t want to sit in a cafe every day talking about football, one fun thing is to go to a space and conquer it,” said Cristina Moreno Almeida, a postdoctoral fellow at King’s College in London who has studied hip-hop culture in Morocco. “It’s a global language that they all speak and they all know.”
For years, these B-boys practiced in public outdoor spaces. They fashioned makeshift dance floors out of cardboard to practice head spins when they couldn’t find grass fields.
Their recreational approach broke with cultural norms.
“Moroccan youth don’t usually dance in public spaces, unless it’s a wedding celebration or Sufi procession,” said Hesham Aidi, a researcher at Columbia University who writes about global hip-hop and cultural policy.
Before the internet and smartphones made it possible to watch back-to-back performances on YouTube, these dancers in training would watch hip-hop films on VHS and practice tirelessly.
Hesham Abkari, 52, was part of the pioneering generation of Moroccan breakdancers in the 80s. He remembers watching Michael Chambers, an American dancer and actor who goes by the nickname Boogaloo Shrimp, perform the turbo broom dance in the 1984 hip-hop movie “Breakin’.” Afterwards, Abkari tried to replicate the moves with his friends.
“We were first attracted by the music, the appearance of the dancers,” he said.
“They dressed as they wanted and they looked free. We loved that it was simply an artistic expression free of judgment.”
Today, Abkari is the head of the Mohammad VI Theater, which opened its doors to Casablanca’s dancers in 2006 and was followed by the culture center L’Uzine in 2014. These spaces allow them to rehearse, improve and professionalise their art.
Morocco and Algeria have the richest hip-hop scenes in the Middle East and North Africa region, Aidi said, in part because of their connection to the immigrant communities in the French urban peripheries where hip-hop is very popular.
“As breakdance - or ‘le smurf,’ as it was called - took off in France in the 1980s, the styles would trickle down to North Africa, carried by European-born youth bringing cassettes, sneakers and tapes of ‘H.I.P.H.O.P,’ the pioneering French TV show which began airing in 1984, four years before ‘Yo! MTV Raps,’” he said.
According to Aidi, the form developed during a tense political period in Morocco when the government was cracking down on street protests, after the riots of 1984 prompted by hikes in food prices.
While protesters and outspoken artists were targets, dancers flew under the radar because they were seen as apolitical. When a second generation of Moroccan B-boy crews emerged in the early 2000s, their art really began to flourish.
“The government also began supporting hip-hop in earnest in the mid-2000s, after the Casablanca bombings of 2003, seeing music as a way to keep youth away from extremism,” Aidi said, referring to a terrorist attack that killed 45 people. Now, a new generation of B-boys, and B-girls, is forming in Morocco.
Hajar Chaiboub, 21, started break dancing at the age of 13. She saw a group of peers rehearsing near her apartment in Temara, a city close to Rabat, the capital of Morocco. They made her feel welcome and taught her the basics.
“It wasn’t like any other sport or even like dancing,” she said.
“I felt comfortable. I knew all the guys, I was like a sister to them.”
Though break dancing is no longer an underground pursuit, these young artists still face considerable financial barriers; according to the World Bank, more than one-fourth of young Moroccans are without a job, and sponsorships are hard to come by. Moreover, the dancers’ opportunities to compete internationally are curbed by the difficulty of obtaining traveling visas.
But grass-roots enthusiasm from dancers past and present has kept the art form alive.
Yassin Alaoui Esmaili, who took these photographs, was part of the early 2000s wave of breakdancers in Casablanca. His story is a familiar one: He saw people dancing in a park and was instantly drawn toward their energy.
“It is the same spirit here as when it was created in the Bronx,” Esmaili, 33, said.
“People were craving a place to express themselves.”