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On the RIZE: Dancing Clowns, Krumping, and the Future of Hip-Hop

by Rachel Levin
June 30, 2005
Los Angeles, CA

On the RIZE: Dancing Clowns, Krumping, and the Future of Hip-Hop

By Rachel Levin
June 30, 2005

Since hip-hop first blasted its way onto the street corners and dance floors of America thirty years ago, it has been difficult to imagine what dance style could possibly come along next to top it. What dance could be more spectacular than the gravity-defying head spins and body illusions of breakdancers? What dance could possibly be more sexually provocative than the booty-shaking antics of hip-hop video honeys? What dance could be more aggressive than breaking crews battling on the streets of the South Bronx?

Director David LaChapelle has glimpsed the future and delivers the answers in his new film RIZE. Believe it or not, the source for the next revolution in dance spectacle, sensuality, and cathartic aggression wears a rainbow afro and balloon face paint.

Tommy the Hip-Hop Clown (aka Thomas Johnson) is credited with starting clowning - an offshoot of hip-hop dance that could easily have been dismissed as a childlike novelty. In the aftermath of the 1992 Rodney King riots, Tommy, a reformed drug dealer, decided to put on a clown suit, crank up the hip-hop, and bring some joy to his neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles, which had been ravaged by fires, looting, and violence. What began as entertainment for children's birthday parties soon grew into an academy where neighborhood youth could learn how to dance freestyle while donning clown make-up rather than gang colors.

You'd think that dressing up like a clown and dancing would get most high school kids ridiculed by their peers, if not beat up by the cool kids. But clowning took on such cache in the neighborhood that it acquired privileged status. Tommy started Battle Zone, a competition where different clown groups could battle one another for the top clowning distinction. The groups multiplied and allowed for the development of unique styles and family-like connections among the members. If you were part of a clown crew, the gangs would leave you alone.

Yet just as there is always a slippage in our culture between clown as merrymaker and clown as sinister trickster (think Pennywise the Dancing Clown in Stephen King's IT), clown dancing inevitably evolved from its painted-on-smile origins to a dance style that reflected the passion and pain of its young performers. Clown make-up gave way to a kind of facial graffiti, a re-mix of African and Native American face paint traditionally used in battle. Party-time freestyle transformed into frenzied chest pumping and wild propeller arms. Clown suits gave way to bare-chested boys and torso-bearing girls.
Krumping was born.

Krumping is like clowning on speed. One mother featured in the film said of her son, "I thought he was on drugs when I first saw him krump." The disclaimer at the beginning of RIZE informs us, "The footage in this film has not been sped up in any way." The kids really are dancing this fast. It is completely freestyle - there is no choreography - and the style changes daily. As one krumper explains, "If you miss two days [of krump sessions], you're slacking," and other dancers can tell. But certain movement themes persist. Krumping mashes together elements as disparate as stripper dancing and African battle rituals. It reenacts movements of being overtaken by religious rapture and police brutality. An early scene in the film shows three girls mimicking police restraining and beating a "suspect" on the trunk of a car and then breaking into dance. Watching a krump session is like watching a controlled riot.

These kids are dealing with a palpable sense of life's fragility, growing up in a place where many youth end up either dead or in prison. There is an uncanny irony in the fact that Tommy's academy is located in a strip mall next door to Payless Caskets, whose owner admonishes the kids to "Clown right or you'll end up here with me." The film goes to great lengths to tell the personal stories of the featured dancers, especially Lil C and Tight Eyez who are credited with creating krump, and their dance partners Miss Prissy, Dragon, Baby Tight Eyez, and Larry. The dancers explain that krumping is their one reliable outlet for escape. They can hide behind the masks of their face paint and release their pain and frustration. Krump is a kinesthetic expression of laughter on the verge of tears.

Dance is also one of the few avenues for, if you will, rising up from their circumstances. There is no money for expensive extra-curricular activities, and college scholarships come mostly for athletes. If you want to be an artist, the kids explain, all you've got is your body and your music. Krump is reminiscent of the ingenuity of early hip-hop: creating something from nothing.

But the kids vow that unlike hip-hop performers, who've rehashed the tropes of thugs and 'hos innumerable times for a mass audience, they won't be come "commercial clones." This is a sticky proposition, for how can krumping avoid being commodified from the minute an outsider's camera captures it? The final scene of the film offers up Dragon, Tight Eyez, Lil C, and Miss Prissy krumping in the concrete L.A. river bed with exposed, chiseled abs, gleaming oiled skin, and costumes that look art-directed. It is a glorified music video, which is not surprising given LaChapelle's resume as music video director for the likes of Jennifer Lopez and Gwen Stefani. They may not become clones, but in an instant they've made krumping commercial.

Let's just say I wouldn't be surprised if the cool kids in the suburbs started painting their faces.


Krumping, from the movie Rize
Photo courtesy of Lions Gate



Krumping, from the movie Rize
Photo courtesy of Lions Gate

Go to www.RizeMovie.com and you can send in your own Krump & Clown Dance Videos & be a part of the Battlezone! 10 lucky finalists will have their videos included in the Battlezone at www.rizemovie.com.

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