Feature: Rize

Friday 9 April 2010

‘Ghetto Ballet’ is the description that one dancer gives to the new dance form emerging from the streets of LA. Georgina Harper gets krump…

Krumping isn’t just a dance style, it is a state of mind.
The word can be used as a verb; ‘to krump’ or to ‘get krump’ and to ‘be krump’ is a compliment meaning that you get it.
Krumpness that is.

Still from 'Rize' A new documentary, Rize, on general release from the end of December, introduces the very latest development in hip-hop dance. Krumping expresses the hardships and frustrations of a whole generation of America’s poorest underclass. Directed by fashion photographer David LaChapelle and set against the race riots of 1965 and the Rodney King riots of 1992, the film portrays a group of young people who discovered that dance could provide an alternative to the gang culture that pervades life in the ghettos of South Central Los Angeles. In light of the social tensions exploding on the streets of France and the recent riots in Birmingham, the film’s message about the value of artistic expression to socially deprived communities reaches European shores at a poignant time. The film is raw and simple in it’s depiction of the dance practice, allowing the dance to speak for itself rather than relying on experts or dance specialists to explain it. At the opening of the film a young dancer, Dragon, declares ‘this is not a trend, repeat, this is not a trend. You ain’t never seen life expressed like this.’

Tommy the Clown in 'Rize'

Following Tommy the Clown, creator of the ‘Clowning’ dance style and a breakaway group of ex-clown dancers who have developed their own style called ‘Krumping’, the film explores the dancing against the harsh backdrop of the ghetto. These dance forms are strongly rooted in the traditions of Hip Hop, both in a physical sense and a philosophical one. Physically we see the creation of a circle of participants within which people take turns to dance, the incorporation of movements like body popping and the competitive ‘battle’ aspect. Philosophically Krumping goes back to the most authentic foundations of Hip Hop; the use of dance and music as a response to oppression. Whilst echoes of Hip Hop remain, this new style has many original features. The clowns have colourful painted faces and Krumpers sport a pared down, more stylised camouflage. The facepaint acts as a mask, allowing the dancers to assume a new persona and express themselves in new ways. Tommy describes the painted face of his clown character as his ‘weapon’ and dancing as his ‘getaway’. The sheer speed of the movement is also a defining feature. The dancers move so fast that the film includes a disclaimer assuring that the footage has not been sped up in any way.

In Krumping the dancers often achieve a trance-like state, lashing out at a breakneck pace, pushing each other, scrambling and releasing pent up aggression. Most importantly is a shift in attitude; the dancers are clear that they don’t agree with commercial Hip Hop’s glamorisation of ghetto life and Krumping is about more than dancing the latest moves. Through Krumping dancers express their anger and frustration and channel the negative into a positive, facing and exorcising their demons. As one dancer puts it: ‘you by yourself when you dance, telling your story. This is our ghetto ballet.’

Hip Hop dance artist Jonzi D first brought Tommy the Clown and the Hip Hop Krumpers to the UK two years ago to perform at Sadler’s Wells Hip Hop Festival Breakin’ Convention. He suggests that the most innovative new dance and music forms have often originated in poor African American neighbourhoods, including Blues, Jazz and Tap dance and that these forms have eventually been assimilated into mainstream arts and entertainment. He also points out that many of the main elements of these dance and music styles have developed from within African traditions. The film draws parallels between Krumping and traditional African dance forms, from the use of face paint to create ‘masks’, the circle formations and the trace-like state which the dancers assume.

Still from 'Rize' LaChapelle includes archive footage of traditional African dances highlighting these similarities. The astounding thing is that the dancers, without access to formal dance education of any kind, had never seen footage or even re-constructions of traditional African dance practice. They believe their dance to be ‘in their blood’ and that the imprint of certain modes of expression have surfaced in Krumping almost beyond their control.

Jonzi D reports having seen the rapid use of the back and hips, the main characteristic of Krumping, during his time in Africa – particularly in the South African Pantsula dance.

Krumping is certainly an interesting example of the way that dance and movement styles migrate from one continent to another and surface in different locations at different times. The link between religion and dance is also explored in the film. Tommy the Clown turned to dancing after a religious epiphany whilst in prison and his fierce group of Krumpers are all committed Christians who talk of a finding ‘a spirit in the midst of Krumping’ and ‘getting Krump for Christ’. Traditional African dance inextricably linked spirituality and dance and after western Christianity’s attempt to separate dance and worship, dividing the ‘weak flesh’ of the body from the ‘superior’ realm of the mind, it seems these young people have re-discovered this connection.

Miss Prissy in 'Rize' There are few career paths open to the children of these neighbourhoods and drugs and gang culture offers a seemingly quick way to earn money and prestige, and as many of their families and friends are involved in gangs it can prove difficult to break out of this way of life. Krumping not only provides a physical outlet for young peoples frustration but can also creates alternative social structures and allows young people to gain respect from their peers and their community. For Tommy the Clown the success of his dancing has turned his life around and dance has provided him much more than just a steady income. After a spell in jail for drug dealing he was asked to perform at a kids party and began a business as a hip hop clown. His art and his business has grown from there to include a Clowning Dance Academy and number of high profile ‘Battle Zone’ dance competitions in huge stadiums with thousands of spectators. Whilst dancing can help people work out their emotions, it can also offer alternative career paths. The Krump dancers featured in the film have gone on to use their dancing to actually escape the ghetto and are starting out as dancers and choreographers. Dancer Miss Prissy choreographed and starred in Madonna’s new video Hung Up and others have also been snapped up by the likes of Missy Elliott and the Black Eyed Peas. Let’s hope that the dogma of Krumping will infiltrate mainstream Hip Hop before the lure of a quick buck corrupts the essence of Krump.

Still from 'Rize'

Fashion photographer David LaChapelle, famed for his glossy, sexy and kitsch style is the last person you would expect to be behind such a raw portrayal of the life in the ghetto. Although he can’t resist including a dance sequence in his distinctive colourful pop style (and which you wouldn’t want to miss) the majority of the film is more gritty than glossy. Speaking after the premiere of Rize at the London Film Festival in November LaChapelle said he had been looking for something deeper and more challenging than the world of pop and he was inspired to make the film as he had never seen life expressed purely through the body moving in space.

By allowing the story of Krumping and Clowning to come from the mouths of those who live and breath it, he brings to the fore the relationship between dance and society with startling clarity and inscribed on the body of the dancer.

Article posted December 2005

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