Step, step, kick, flail
A young teacher was leading her class in a “good morning” song in a run-down suburb when a couple of 6-year-olds began flailing their arms in herky-jerky motions, swiping their hands around their heads and pretending to claw up and down their faces.
“Tecktonik, Tecktonik,” the teacher murmured. These motions were all she’d been seeing on the dance floor at clubs around Paris. Now, her “little ones” were going at it.
Tecktonik, the dance craze that’s a bit techno, a bit hip-hop, a bit original, is everywhere in France, in clubs and classrooms, in cities and suburbs, on the streets and the Web. (A video on YouTube of a young Frenchman called Jey-jey dancing Tecktonik alone in a garage has been watched more than 10 million times.)
And suddenly this spring it was popping up in the mainstream media. Which probably means that it’s about to become uncool.
But Tecktonik -- trademarked by its founders early on -- is already as much a movement as a way of moving on the dance floor. There is above all “the look,” distinguished by skinny pants, above-the-ankle sneakers, flashy colors splayed on tight T-shirts and futuristic haircuts that merge mullets with Mohawks but are mostly unpredictable. Think ‘80s aesthetics: David Bowie meets Kiss with a dash of punk and glamour thrown in.
Whether this is a trend manufactured to sell T-shirts to teenagers or an organic dance form that blossomed into a scene, Tecktonik is particularly striking here in France, where culture is usually high, trickling down from well-funded national institutions to academies, classrooms and finally the streets. Rarely has an aesthetic movement pushed up from the sidewalks, experts say.
Certainly, France has a history of popular dances like swing and tango done in working-class dance halls throughout cities and villages. Even now on warm Saturday nights, ballroom dancers turn up on the concrete risers on the Seine River’s left bank and tango the night away, and nostalgia lovers flock to eat and dance at the accordion-fueled, open-air restaurants called guinguettes on the Marne River east of Paris.
But now they’re outnumbered by Tecktonik enthusiasts jumping and swatting the night away.
Alexandre Barouzdin and Cyril Blanc, the dancers who invented the label Tecktonik, insist that it is a real first for France in more than a century -- and not just because it’s the first dance to be trademarked.
“The last time the French people were known for a dance was the cancan,” says Barouzdin, 31, who quit his day job as an assistant trader at Merrill Lynch to promote Tecktonik branding efforts. “Now, this French dance is spreading internationally.”
Tecktonik began about eight years ago at Metropolis, a suburban nightclub near Paris’ Orly airport. Known for its five themed rooms and wild, although not druggy, weekend parties, the club draws thousands of kids of all backgrounds from the region.
Barouzdin, who grew up in Paris, and Blanc, a classically trained dancer from the Loire Valley, began going there after they got tired of the gay dance clubs in Paris, where you could get noticed only if you wore high-fashion labels. They liked Metropolis’ anybody-welcome attitude and techno, a fast-tempo electronic dance music. By 2000, Barouzdin and Blanc were organizing what they called “Tecktonik Killer” parties that mixed electronic music styles with synthesized voice-overs -- and were drawing as many as 8,000 dancers a night to Metropolis.
The music originates out of Belgium and the Netherlands and falls under many names, including “electro,” “jump-style,” “hard-style” and “hard-core.” The dance is the Tecktonik, with moves blending voguing, break dancing and hip-hop, all done with a big emphasis on arm movements.
The dance and the scene became so popular at Metropolis that within a few years Barouzdin and Blanc had copyrighted the name and were in partnership with EMI Music France making “best of” CDs.
Tecktonik is associated with a range of products licensed by a division of a leading French TV channel. They include T-shirts, hoodies, an energy drink and chewing gum. There are two official Tecktonik hair salons in Paris, and popular vocalists such as Yelle and Lorie have included the dance in their videos.
Barouzdin and Blanc also launched videos on the Web, and these and other homemade videos by fledgling dancers helped drive the popularity of Tecktonik during the last year.
“We protected our name from the beginning because we didn’t want people doing hip-hop and calling it Tecktonik,” Barouzdin said, acknowledging that early branding helped boost the buzz.
Tecktonik’s biggest critics think that it is a fad that has been commercialized to death or at best is a derivative art form invented to sell clothes to poor kids and exploit their need to feel cool. Many Tecktonik fans resist the official name because of the commercial links and prefer to call their dance “electro,” “tck,” “vertigo” or “Milky Way.”
Vincent Cespedes, a 34-year-old philosopher who has studied subcultures, thinks that Tecktonik is a reflection of a more conservative France of recent years, and of a narcissism in the culture that “inspires young people to make videos alone in a garage.”
“It’s the first dance in a long time that parents don’t object to,” he says, adding that he finds irony in the fact that Tecktonik is peaking as France is reflecting on the 40th anniversary of the May 1968 social uprising, when Paris was torn apart by student protests.
“Tecktonik is the opposite of May ’68. It’s all about control and commerce and a dance style that, frankly, is not very good.”
That’s one philosopher’s opinion. The kids, however, love it. Last month during the annual Fete de la Musique, when musicians take to every street corner of Paris and fill one Saturday night with music, the Tecktonik scene spread over half the Champ de Mars park behind the Eiffel Tower.
Yet even on not-so-special afternoons, suburban teenagers will turn up in droves to dance on the plazas of downtown Paris or in open-air spots in other European cities.
On a recent Sunday afternoon at a fitness center next to the Pompidou Center in central Paris, Treaxy, an 18-year-old star of the genre, was giving a master class. Going through the moves slowly, one arm motion at a time, Treaxy looked as though he was doing a garden-variety jazz dance.
The students, mostly male and ranging in age from 10 to 30, were uniformly eager if not particularly coordinated. Clearly, they had been living in their heads too much (it was exam time in France) and were having difficulty getting in touch with their bodies. But after 90 minutes, a very few were soaring through the motions and several Tecktonik professionals had shown up to perform.
“Tecktonik has no academy, no religion,” explains Treaxy, whose real name is William Falla. “It’s not sexual; there’s no meaning. The movement came out of the suburbs for people who just want to have fun.”
Treaxy grew up in a northeast Paris suburb, where his mom runs a hair salon and his father is a technician for Air France. At 16, the legal drinking age in France, Treaxy began going regularly to Metropolis and became an expert at the swipes and gyrations of this dance.
“I really could show myself,” he says. “It felt safe. It was a different planet for me.”
Over his parents’ objections, Treaxy quit his job as a maintenance worker and now performs in Tecktonik videos full time. He appeared in a Yelle video and a year ago was named France’s Tecktonik Dancer of the Year. (The Ministry of Culture recently officially recognized the contest.) Treaxy travels around Europe teaching, going to clubs -- and giving interviews. After Sunday’s class, he rushed off to talk on a Dubai, United Arab Emirates, TV show.
Djawad Saide, 17, is in a seven-member group called Electro Famous that hopes to win this year’s Tecktonik championship. All the members come from the Arab and African neighborhoods in Paris’ 18th arrondissement. Djawad’s parents are from Cameroon. He was born here and is finishing high school.
In Tecktonik circles, Djawad is called Diy-Lek. He wears his hair shaved short on either side with a spiky tuft carved on the top. He and Treaxy say Tecktonik remains a relatively wholesome culture, even in the clubs.
“Drugs are looked down on because we’re still young,” Djawad says. “We still think that’s bad.”
Djawad had concentrated on hip-hop, but when he took up Tecktonik his friends accused him of doing “some gay dance,” he says. He understands such misconceptions about Tecktonik because when the movement started “everyone wore tight pants and people said it was gay.” But its popularity reaches far beyond the gay community.
Djawad prefers Tecktonik to hip-hop because “it is more chic and clean. There isn’t this, ‘Yeah, let’s fight,’ as soon as there’s a problem. It’s more family-like; we spend evenings together.”
Treaxy and founder Barouzdin have similar reactions when they hear typical put-downs of Tecktonik as commercialized: They just laugh.
“Yeah,” Treaxy says, “there is not much original about Tecktonik. It’s an amalgamation of trends from the past. But when people see me dance or get going themselves, something happens. It’s joyful. If there’s not enough ‘meaning’ for some people, well, that’s too bad.”
Barouzdin suspects jealousy: “In France, whenever anyone creates something new, people can’t accept it. This movement came out of not taking things too seriously. All you have to do is imagine you have a pot of gel, and you were taking some out and putting it in your hair. And you’re dancing Tecktonik. There are no rules, and some people just can’t stand that.”
Times staff writer Achrene Sicakyuz and special correspondent Devorah Lauter contributed to this report.
Tecktonik in action
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