It's all a blur of whirling legs as Yousef spins himself around, first on his back, then on his front while nailing a windmill, a move that requires the dancer to propel his body around the floor using only his hands for momentum. He does it well, and is quickly shuffled off the mat so Mohamed can take his turn. He smiles shyly from under an awning of dark curls tucked under a yellow knit ski cap.
Tightly muscled, 22-year-old Mohamed, the proverbial leader of the pack, got something akin to a buzz cut yesterday but still wants to work on his headspin, an advanced move that requires the dancer to - you guessed it - spin on his head. Seconds after he starts, he loses control and spins right off the mats. His shaved head scrapes the pavement while other young observers cry out then break into applause anyway. He winces and rubs his head a bit before making way for Ali from Iraq to practice his two-handed scissors, a type of handstand with kicks.
These are the b-boys of Yemen, practising their skills in the leafy courtyard of Sana'a's French Cultural Centre, the home of Sana'a's breakdancing movement. The crew has about seven dedicated members and around 20 hangers-on. They call themselves the Blast Boys. Though the rarefied environment of the centre with its French language classes and an espresso machine seems incongruent with breakdancing and hip-hop, the b-boys are all from upper middle class backgrounds. Some of them are studying subjects like engineering or marketing in university while others go to the top private schools in Sana'a.
Some of the b-boys have been breaking for years, though the younger boys in their early teenage years hanging out at the centre today only started about two months ago; they look at senior crew members Yousef and Mohamed with thinly-veiled awe hidden behind feigned indifference. Though the b-boy movement grew out of urban New York City in the 1970s, it seems to have taken root over 30 years later in Sana'a, Yemen's very conservative capital city. Djs of the day began remixing songs according to breaks in their rhythm, completely foregoing vocals. The people who danced to this music were called break boys, or b-boys, and break girls, or b-girls. The term is also used for anyone who has anything to do with those music breaks, including rappers, beat-boxers and the DJs themselves. Some people use this slang term for anyone who lives the hip-hop lifestyle.
The breaking trend continued to spread throughout the United States in the 1980s, when rap groups like Run-DMC and the Sugar Hill Gang were becoming relevant musical forces. Though the b-boy movement had staying power in the underground scene, its cousin rap made it to the American mainstream. Still, the b-boy movement holds some sway over today's pop culture, in which children dream of becoming rap stars and graffiti fetches prices of over Dh367,000 ($100,000) in fine art auction houses.
"My idea of hip-hop is that it's made of four parts: the MCing, the breakdancing, the DJing and the graffiti artist," says Mohamed. Some of his crew does rap and a lone artist does graffiti, but none of them DJ since there aren't venues for it. It's really their breaking that is drawing attention in town. There aren't many choices for leisure activities here. As Yousef says, "you can either break dance or you can 'yukhazan'," referring to the qat chew, which is Yemen's national pastime. An estimated 80 to 90 per cent of Yemenis chew qat, a mildly narcotic plant whose name has become synonymous with this country. The main feature of these social get-togethers is the sitting. Men chew and talk, then talk and chew. Dazed chewers sit cross-legged on the floor for hours. Sometimes a traditional dance or two erupts out of the stupor from some of the pluckier few.
Instead of partaking in traditional qat chews after class as many of their peers do, the Blast Boys and their acolytes practice breakdancing moves for over two hours nearly every day. This love of the beat causes some misunderstandings, but that doesn't mean the b-boys turn their backs on tradition and Islam. "They're not used to those kind of people and when they see us, they're gonna start asking questions and they're gonna start judging you, sometimes even make fun of you," says 19-year-old Ahmed, who also goes by the nickname Dahabash, which he says means someone who breaks the rules.
Someone should throw Ahmed a life preserver, because he is drowning in his grey velour sweatsuit get-up, complete with the stiff brim baseball hat. He found hip-hop while he lived in Canada for five years. Ahmed breaks, but he prefers to practice at home or dance with friends at parties. "You know, my dad is kind of a religious guy. So I was wearing these clothes and he was like, 'Why do you want to be like them? You got your religion.' So I was like, I'm not taking this as a religion, yani, but I love these kinds of songs."
Back at the French Cultural Center, the breakdancing pauses when the call to prayer sounds. The guys pull out their brown plastic prayer mat that otherwise hides in the corner of their practice space at the FCC. Some, like Yousef, who is the only 100 per cent Yemeni in the group, line up for prayer while others wait to perform their religious duties at home instead. None of the young men here would dare continue to play break beat music over the muezzin's calls.
As the beats stop and the calls to prayer begin, you'd think that breakdancing and Yemen have been a couple forever. Though breakdancing itself has been around for a few years here, the b-boy lifestyle only gained popularity recently with a little push from the director of the French Cultural Center this past spring. "When I came to Yemen, I met some young people practicing here in the French Cultural Center and they like hip-hop," says Joel Dechezlepretre, the 60-year-old very French, very elegant and very well-preserved director of the centre. "So I said I would organise a type of program to find out if they are good or not. And these French artists said, 'OK, they are very good'."
In April, Dechezlepretre brought Farid Berki, the foremost hip-hop choreographer in France, to Sana'a for a two-week training workshop with the Blast Boys and their followers. Berki has been working in this milieu for over 15 years after training in jazz, modern, tap and African dance. He and Dechezlepretre knew each other from a previous collaboration when Dechezlepretre ran the French Cultural Center in the Republic of Chad in Africa.
Berki, two of his dancers, a French DJ and American-Yemeni rapper put on two shows for the public during the two weeks. The first show was a rap and breakdance battle, where the youths competed on the slightly creaky stage at the Yemeni Center for Research and Development. The breaking was interspersed with songs by aspiring young Yemeni rappers, who were less experienced then their breakdancing b-boy brothers.
About 10 days later and after their intensive training with Berki, around 15 b-boys performed a dance Berki choreographed specifically for the occasion. "For this performance, we worked with accessories and situations that evoked daily life," said Berki. The youths danced with jambiyas, the traditional Yemeni dagger that men wear around their waists, accompanied by five traditional Yemeni musicians in addition to the DJ and hometown hip-hop hero, AJ Hajjaj.
Berki speaks highly of the b-boys and their talents. Likewise, the boys look up to him. "We got a lot from them," Ali says of Berki's troupe. "My headspin is because of them. It's one of the hardest moves in breakdancing you know? But he gave me the basics." "What would give me great pleasure, what I would like to see in some time is a [dance] company that puts on proper shows based on Yemen's specific hip-hop identity," said Berki. "And to be able to hear Yemeni rappers on the radio in France."
Though Berki has big dreams for the crew, they are in it for diversion, not a career. "I will keep up with it for two years until I finish the university, then I will be a dentist," says Ali. "A breakdancing dentist? I don't think that's appropriate. It's kind of nice in school but after this, I don't know? maybe I will make a floor for dancing in my office." Ditto with young rappers like Zaid, 17, another Iraqi expat, who is new to the game and hence raps slowly with many "what, what's?" thrown in to keep the flow going. Zaid said that he and his friend Ryan have been hired to rap together for a party and that's what got him into the idea of recording a CD, something he is trying to do now. He says that rapping is perfectly fine at this age and helps him to express himself.
"I rapped about my country, I rapped about Islam, and I pretty much rapped about all my life," says Zaid. "I never ever swear in any of my raps - never ever! It always has to be about a point." However, he openly admits that some of his favourite rappers, The Game and 50 Cent, go directly against that ideal. "I am mainly talking about their style of singing, how they go with the flow," he says a little defensively.
Like Zaid, AJ Hajjaj, né Hajjaj Abdul Qawi Masaed, also adds an Islamic twist to his rap along with snippets of Arabic such as this freestyle he broke out for the interview: "So I explained the Quran, the book of laws and love, the 99 names for the man above. He'll be just like a dream, al-hamdulillah, al-bilaalameen." Hajjaj was born in Youngstown, Ohio in a predominantly black neighbourhood. He found hip-hop while still in high school, but didn't get serious about a recording career until way later, says the self-described "middle-aged teenager". After years toiling in Oakland, California in the U.S., Hajjaj found commercial success in Yemen, where even taxi drivers brag about their native son.
Hajjaj says that Arab hip-hop is still in its infancy. "I am starting to hear a lot more Arabic rap, but it's still in the beginning stages and you can tell," he says. Other Arab MCs like Morocco's Salah Edin and the Palestinian combo Ramallah Underground have accrued fans; even ultrareligious Saudi Arabia managed to produce a rap group called Dark2Men. But Hajjaj dismisses Arabian rappers as "kind of bubblegum". Perhaps this means it is the new rapper Zaid's moment after all; the gangster-tough guy element of the rap world is non-existent here and no one will hate on him for coming from a family of diplomats.
When he played the Yemeni Centre for Research and Development, Hajjaj was surprised to find that the crowd of around 400 people - including females who are something of a rarity at public events - knew every word of his songs and rapped along with him. "A lot of the rappers and dancers, they were so in awe when they seen [sic] me," said Hajjaj. "I was kind of blown away myself. I didn't realise that I was so popular here."
"It's a kind of freedom - it's not that they are so 'rebel' because hip-hop is a revolt against society," said Dechezlepretre, who is clearly proud of his role as patron to the breakers. "Here they want to dance and that's it."
Ahmed has a simple explanation for his b-boy transformation. "It's the beat. It gets you moving," he says.