CN D Magazine

#5 march 24

In France, Waacking Shines on the Biggest Stages

Copélia Mainardi


Christophe Berlet &
Valentine Perrin Morali

Waack in Paris at the Gaîté Lyrique © Christophe Berlet and Valentine Perrin Morali

Born in the African-American and Latinx queer clubs of Los Angeles in the early 1970s, waacking playfully channels the golden age of Hollywood. This subversive style, often confused with voguing, brings a distinctive attitude to posing and expressive arm movements, and has expanded worldwide this century. In February, under the shimmering light of disco balls, waackers donned their sparkliest costumes for Waack in Paris, a series of events at the Carreau du Temple and the Gaîté Lyrique, two prominent venues in the French capital – an international get-together that showed why a growing number of cultural institutions are turning to the genre.

Clad in black leather, rhinestones, a crop top, and low-rise pants, Idriss seems to be moving effortlessly and without showing any signs of fatigue – there’s barely a drop of sweat on his forehead. Perched on stiletto heels, the young dancer is about to win a “7 to Smoke” contest in which competitors must “smoke” (wipe out) seven opponents in a row. As the jury proclaims his victory, Idriss bows to a feverish audience gathered for a special day of waacking in the main hall of Carreau du Temple, a cultural venue in the heart of Paris.

Born in the 1970’s in LA clubs, waacking owes its name to the onomatopoeia “whack,” which refers to slapping. “It’s a political dance about oppression and expression,” says Mounia Nassangar. Wearing black from head to toe, her face hidden underneath a baseball cap, hoodie, and sunglasses, the dancer and choreographer impresses with her height and style, combining elegance and a carefree je ne sais quoi. Seeing her, one understands that waacking is more than a dance: it’s a lifestyle, a mindset, an attitude. 

The waacking movement arose within African-American and Latinx queer minority communities. Hollywood glamor and glitter were tantalizingly close, but these Angelenos felt excluded and underrepresented in that world. “No one wanted to see or hear them,” says dancer and choreographer Josépha “Princess” Madoki, another leading figure of waacking. “Clubs were the only space where they could be free and express this frustration.” A politicized form of expression, waacking represents rebellion, reappropriating one’s identity, and transforming injustice into momentum. The birth of this dance style is intimately connected to early mainstream Hollywood cinema, with young waackers imitating the poses of icons from the golden age, Greta Garbo, Fred Astaire, or Marilyn Monroe, in black and white films – “an entire universe which was as omnipresent as it was inaccessible,” adds Madoki.

With a strong emphasis on poses, attitudes, and slapping arm work, waacking has often been overshadowed by voguing. Another dance born in racial LGBT+ minorities, voguing is about flamboyant gestures and parades. Popularized by Madonna in the early 90’s, it echoes and parodies the codes of fashion designers, models, and magazines (like Vogue). “Waacking is LA, and Voguing is NYC,” summarizes Mounia Nassangar. Both are a reappropriation of the codes of an elite, but waacking is influenced by cinema, rather than fashion.

It took a few decades for the art form to find a place in Europe. “The AIDS epidemic decimated the queer community of waackers, and survivors didn’t always have the strength to go on,” laments Josépha Madoki. According to her, it is Brian Green, a dancer turned assistant to waacking pioneer and teacher Tyrone Proctor in the late 90’s, who deserves credit for renewing the art form’s popularity. In a time of rapid cultural globalization, the dance style was exported, and embraced abroad. In new contexts, waacking fused with other dance forms, though it took time for these emerging hybrid styles to be recognized and appreciated. Just like in many other underground street dance cultures, the idea of collectivity is fundamental to waacking. But contrary to krump, the movement wasn’t born in “battles,” which are notably absent from the clubbing landscape. In France, waacking competitions finally emerged in the 2010’s, allowing the genre to gain visibility.

While staying true to its queer roots, today’s waacking combines urban dances and more traditional disciplines. Though gay men are credited with creating the genre, many women, particularly from the world of hip-hop, are now making it their own. “With waacking, anything goes. We can wear heels, a slit dress, assert our femininity. It’s the opposite of what hip-hop was about,” says Josépha Madoki. Mounia Nassangar also initially trained in other styles, “but this is where I feel most free,” she explains, “it’s the only place where we can say and be so many things in one single step.” Disco music, a reference to club culture, is the perfect soundtrack for these moves, though flexibility is key. “I learned to waack to house and funk,” recalls Mounia Nassangar. Josépha Madoki even had a brush with lyrical field when she choreographed a Romeo and Juliet for the Paris Opera last year, a transposition she delighted in. “The codes of waacking can be applied anywhere, just catch the beat, catch all the sounds and instruments. What better playground for this than an opera house, with a live orchestra?” The famous Capulet ball, but make it waacking: a bold move.

As waacking takes over major cultural institutions, should a loss of its authenticity be feared ? “Dance is always misrepresented,” says Mounia Nassangar, who brings the international community together with her Waack in Paris events, notably at the Gaîté Lyrique. “We need to be able to make this culture more accessible, while continuing to defend its history, its practices, and its commitments.” The misunderstandings and misconceptions that still plague waacking require education efforts  that are as time-consuming as they are necessary. “We’re paying tribute to past generations of dancers,” says Josépha Madoki. “It’s also a way of opening the doors for those who will follow!” And there are still causes for celebration. “That a minority culture born of the impossibility of existing should invade the Paris Opera or the Musée d’Orsay is a great victory,” she says, smiling. Pushing back the walls of the club to dream bigger: waacking deserves it.

Copélia Mainardi is a journalist. She has worked with several big publications such as Le Monde diplomatique, Libération and France Culture, reporting, investigating and making documentaries. She studied French literature and then worked in France Culture, the “28 minutes” program on Arte and the culture department of Marianne. She follows closely what is happening on the photography scene, in the performing arts, and chronicles current productions for specialized magazines and newspapers (Trois Couleurs, Blind magazine).

Christophe Berlet is a self-taught French-Thai photographer. He lives and works in Paris. He considers photography as a means to be open to others, a testimony, and both a personal and collective repository of memory. Photography allows him to find balance between introspection and an openness to the world. His practice of sport gives him a privileged relationship with movement and the body. Today, at a turning point in his photographic practice, he is developing long-term reports in which he raises themes that are directly connected to his life, such as the quest for meaning or the search for his origins.

Valentine Perrin Morali has been training in body and image techniques, through flamenco and artistic make-up. Her training in art therapy, which she completed at the Lille Faculty of Medicine, converged with these orientations. Self-taught photographer since 2016, she is particularly interested in social photography, through portraiture and reportage on the one hand and art therapy projects on the other. She runs workshops and takes part in collaborative projects with various associations, exploring ways of expressing identity through images and sound. In 2022 she published Mothers with Christophe Berlet, a photographic book published by EPG.

Since 2016, La Gaîté Lyrique has been exploring and highlighting club dance diversity and its communities, body diversity and the vitality of the choreographic heritage. Since October 2022, Mounia Nassangar has been a resident at La Gaîté Lyrique, participating in organizing Waack in Paris events in the main room and also dance workshops for a wide audience. La Gaîté Lyrique is committed to providing a safe space and a festive venue for the whole waacking community.

Choreography: Mounia Nassangar
In June in Rennes for collectif FAIR-E's (Under)ground festival 

D.I.S.C.O. (Don’t Initiate Social Contact with Others)
Choreography: Josépha Madoki
March 18 & 19 in Carreau du Temple, Paris
April 5 in L’Arsenal, Metz
April 26 & 27 in Musée d’Orsay, Paris

Waacking Battle 
Organized by Josépha Madoki
April 28 avril in the hall of Musée d’Orsay, Paris

Waacking conference
Chaired by Josépha Madoki, Princess Lockeroo (USA) and Lorena (Mexico)
April 27 avril in the auditorium of Musée d’Orsay, Paris