Morocco’s D.I.Y. Dance Crews

Break dancing has been a crucial outlet for young people throughout the country, where government funding for the arts is limited.

MARRAKESH, Morocco — Under the yellow domed ceiling of the Theater Royal of Marrakesh, a small crowd cheered and watched in awe as champion break dancers 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,” Mr. Ambelj said. “I love that there are no rules. I can express anything I want. It makes me feel free.”

Moroccans imported break dancing from the Bronx in the 1980s.CreditYassine Alaoui Ismaili for The New York Times

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.

The dance form requires little more than able bodies and open space.CreditYassine Alaoui Ismaili for The New York Times
A break dancing battle in Casablanca.CreditYassine Alaoui Ismaili for The New York Times

Their recreational, D.I.Y. approach broke with cultural norms. “Moroccan youth don’t usually dance in public spaces, unless it’s a wedding celebration or Sufi procession,” said Hisham 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.

Backstage at the dance battle.CreditYassine Alaoui Ismaili for The New York Times

Hicham Abkari, 52, was part of the pioneering generation of Moroccan break dancers 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’.” Afterward, Mr. 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 Mr. Abkari is the head of the Mohammed 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 professionalize their art.

Aida Alami


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