photograph by Adisa | Dreamstime
A photograph, recently uploaded to Charles “Lil Buck” Riley’s Facebook account, depicts the heavens as seen from the window of a high-flying airplane. The Memphis dancer’s accompanying status update was only three words long but, superimposed over a blue sky full of fluffy white clouds, even a short message like “My new home” can say quite a lot.
Lil Buck is officially a star and has every reason to feel as if he’s in the clouds. In the past dozen months, Riley has soloed on point in a series of breathtaking commercials for The Gap, danced alongside Madonna at the Super Bowl, and helped to roll out new work by composer Philip Glass. He’s toured with Yo-Yo Ma, where he freestyled with the celebrated cellist at the Great Wall of China. Not a bad year for a former Orange Mound street performer who grew up listening to DJ Squeeky and dancing whenever, wherever, and however he could.
Although his signature piece, a variation on Camille Saint-Saens’ “The Swan,” is a balletically informed product of the time he spent performing with the Midtown-based New Ballet Ensemble, Lil Buck is best known for his mastery of a fluid, footwork-heavy dance style called “Jookin.” (For those who’ve never heard the word spoken aloud, it rhymes with “Book-in.”) It’s part of a vibrant urban dance tradition that caught on in North Memphis in the 1980s, quickly developed strong neighborhood variations around town, and further evolved into something else entirely, as the best dancers from neighborhoods citywide squared off in epic battles that erupted spontaneously on the dance floors of long-gone clubs like Hickory Hill’s Denim & Diamonds and Studio G, an all-ages club once located at the east end of Beale.
We call it Memphis Jookin because it’s a native dance,” Buck explained recently to comedian Stephen Colbert, when he dropped by for a guest appearance on The Colbert Report. He further schooled the “Colbert Nation” on some Memphis cultural history by explaining how Jookin, a hybrid urban-dance style that should never be confused with hip-hop dancing, was just the latest, and best known, iteration of a 30-year-old line dance called the Gangsta Walk.
“[The Gangsta Walk] was a confident line dance,” Buck explained, demonstrating some moves he’d first encountered ten years earlier as a teen visiting the Crystal Palace skating rink on South Third, where “What’s Up” by Xscape was playing in heavy rotation and the more accomplished dancers could get buck on skates.
In the early days of Gangsta Walking, before the invention of things like smart phones and YouTube, grainy, home-dubbed VHS tapes circulated hand to hand, featuring mostly unidentified dancers performing slick moves. In spite of the artefactual evidence, the specific history was all passed down orally and as ongoing Wikipedia turf wars suggest, stories conflict.
Charquentis Ford (better known as “Jaquency” in the Memphis dance world) is a Gangsta Walk instructor, dancer, and event promoter with Concrete Legacy. He can’t say for sure who the very first Gangsta Walker was, but he’s pretty sure he can narrow the field.
“In the early days there were only a small chosen few people who could really do it,” he says.
Jaquency rattles off the names of a half-dozen old school Gangsta Walkers whom he watched or studied under as a teenager. Among the dancers mentioned is 39-year-old Lennon Smith, who grew up in the Hurt Village housing projects before moving into the Scutterfield neighborhood in North Memphis. Smith, who created a signature move called “The Elvis,” believes the dance was born in 1988 at Humes Middle School, Presley’s alma mater.
“Most schools had a few dances a year, like at Christmas, but Humes had a dance every week,” says Smith, who claims to have spent the better part of his teenage years working out new moves in front of the mirror with music blasting through a pieced-together sound system with one enormous speaker. He describes the original Gangsta Walk as a kind of rhumba or cha-cha line with dancers “hanging on each other’s shoulders,” moving snake-like around the room.
“Everybody in the line would mimic what the first person do,” Smith says.
Shamar Rooks, a Jooker who dances with New Ballet Ensemble, offers some perspective. “It’s like the Hokey Pokey,” he says: ‘Put your right foot in, take your right foot out.”
It wasn’t long, Smith says, before dancers started breaking off from the line to do “their own little thing.”
“And that’s the start right there,” Smith continues. “That’s the first place I know of it happening.”
Even if the Gangsta Walk was born at Humes, that’s not the only place it was happening in the early days.
“I can remember being outside in the snow dancing,” says Cino, a younger Jooker and Gangsta Walker who, like the dancers he learned from, grew up dancing in driveways and parking lots. Cino teases the studio-trained Jookers, and kids who’ve learned to dance from YouTube clips: “They’re too afraid of messing up their shoes,” he says.
Richard Franklin, another dancer who likes to mix up his styles, says that for him Gangsta Walking was like learning a magic trick: “You see something, and you just have to keep doing it over and over again until you figure it out.”
And then you have to show it off. Whether they danced in the street, in the clubs, or in front of a mirror, the beats for the first Gangsta Walkers were provided by local and regional rap artists like DJ Spanish Fly, Al Kapone, DJ Squeeky, the Showboys, 8-Ball & MJG, and Three 6 Mafia. The early North Memphis Gangsta Walk style was built around energizing “buck jumps” with a heavy emphasis on air-walking and elaborate footwork.
“The steps look like you’re gliding, but it’s really just a way you step,” Jaquency explains. “It makes it look like somebody is scooting you.”
Uninitiated readers probably assume that the club term “buck” is a reference to wildness, and “getting buck” means going wild. And in some cases, it does. But when you hear a Jooker or Gangsta Walker talking about getting buck they are also describing a zen-like physical and mental state in which the dancer’s body is perfectly in synch with the music and able to respond, not just to the beat, but to all aspects of a song.
Lennon Smith compares getting buck to surfing. “You catch that flow like a wave,” he says.
Variations developed all over town. “South Memphis never came to play,” Jaquency says, explaining how the Gangsta Walk changed as it moved from neighborhood to neighborhood. “They were always buck wild.”
The style that took root in Westwood and Whitehaven was called “Choppin” and defined by an often frantic karate-like chopping of the arms. As the Gangsta Walk moved from North Memphis into Raleigh and then pushed east, the dance started to take on many of the mimetic, and illusion-oriented qualities now ascribed to Jookin.
The 1990s were mostly about the development of turns and slides, with a little bit of waving. “From there we started watching professional dancers and trying to get up on our toes like a ballerina,” says Shamar Rooks. “Then dancers wanted to know how to be contortionists, so they started watching magicians. That’s where you get dancers wearing hoodies and taking their arm out of the sleeve to make it look like they’re breaking their bodies when they’re really not. At the millennium we came out of the box of Jookin, and Choppin, and Buckin, and tried to make our dance style an illusion. We wanted to make it look like it wasn’t really happening at all.”
Gangsta Walking has its own language. “Tutting” describes a style of hand movements that resemble gestures found in Egyptian hieroglyphics. “Icing” is a smooth, illusionary style of Jookin where the dancer creates the impression that he’s sliding on ice. “Pac-Manning” describes one foot hungrily chasing the other foot, heel-toe across the floor like the Eighties-era video game character Pac-Man.
If you didn’t live through it, the best way to experience the landscape in which Gangsta Walking originated is to catch a production of Hurt Village, the critically acclaimed work of dramatic fiction by Memphis playwright Katori Hall that first opened Off-Broadway in February 2012. Shakespearean in scope, Hall’s vision of the infamous Memphis housing project is defined by drugs, violence, and an absence of strong male role models, but it moves well beyond the sensational to establish a real sense of culture and community. Before its New York opening Daniel Price, a Memphis Jooker known for popularizing the “Icing” style, taught the Hurt Village cast how to dance like North Memphis.
“It was completely natural for me to work with all these down-home people who’d made it on the Broadway stage,” says Price, an original dancer with U-Dig Dance Academy.
Since Hurt Village, Price has busied himself developing “Memphis Jookin AR Dancer,” an augmented reality Jookin app for Android and iPhone, and Memphis Jookin G2G, a competitive and instructional video game that will allow users to learn and execute moves from many urban-dance styles.
If readers know the story of rock-and-roll, then they already know Memphis is a city of brilliant cultural convergences. That’s still true today, and although the Gangsta Walk has been measured against ballet in The New York Times and other national publications, flamenco, which evolved out of southern Spain in the late eighteenth century, may ultimately prove to be the better comparison.
Both flamenco and Jookin were born in marginalized communities exposed to flagrant discrimination, and in both cases the stories and the steps were handed down orally from teacher to student.
(“It’s like ‘each one teach one,” Jaquency likes to say.) Both flamenco (cante) and Jookin (Buck and Crunk) evolved in response to new, identity-defining musical styles, full of hope and hot defiance. The relationship between these two styles, separated by an ocean and a few centuries, has never been made more clear than in “Dos,” an original work choreographed by Barcelona transplant Noelia Garcia Carmona, danced by Carmona and Shamar Rooks, for New Ballet Ensemble’s stunning 2012 Spring Loaded concert.
Carmona describes the work as a personal, emotional response to a piece of original music composed by Memphis musician Roy Brewer. “It’s about two things coming together, and breaking apart, and then coming together again,” Carmona says, describing how well the heavily-percussive flamenco fits with a percussion-sensitive style like Jookin. “It doesn’t have to be about love,” she says.
Rooks, who danced the piece with Carmona, compares the stomps and claps of flamenco to the various pieces of a drum kit. Studying flamenco, he says, has helped him to “find the hi-hat” even in music that doesn’t use a hi-hat.
“Since 2003 we’ve had a goal to bring these different styles together in a way that is seamless,” says Katie Smythe, the founding director of New Ballet Ensemble, who first introduced Lil Buck to “The Swan” on a trip to West Memphis to perform for the Delta Arts Council. After years of bringing unique dance styles together under a common banner, “Dos” is, perhaps, as close as New Ballet has come to showing Memphis something that is neither Jookin, ballet, or flamenco, but some new version of rock-and-roll.
Memphis Jookin is hot right now. It’s on TV, at the barre in the ballet studio, and it’s working its way into all sorts of curriculum and classical performances like Hutchison School’s recent production of Romeo & Juliet, which included original choreography courtesy of U-Dig Dance Academy. The better news is that even as it’s being institutionalized, the Gangsta Walk is still being taught on the street, and in neighborhood barber shops.
“It’s always going to be a Memphis thing,” Jaquency asserts. “There will always be Gangsta Walking in Memphis.”
Rhodes College graduate Chris Davis is a staff writer with the Memphis Flyer, where he focuses on the performing arts, compiles the popular “Fly on the Wall” column, and produces the “Intermission Impossible" theater blog.