By J. Camp
I am struck by RIZE like a car window hit by a brick.
The 2005 dance documentary, produced and directed by David LaChappelle, brings to my mind a proverb that involves a young and successful executive speeding down a street in the ‘hood in his new Jaguar, when a brick suddenly smashes into his window.
Slamming on the brakes, the angry driver jumps out of the car, grabs the nearest kid and shouts, "Why the hell do you do that?”
The young boy apologizes. "I'm sorry but I didn't know what else to do." The kid’s brother has tumbled out of his wheelchair into the gutter. In the proverb, throwing the brick was to way to get the driver’s notice. The executive helps the kid and his brother and the message is: Don't go through life so fast that someone has to throw a brick at you to get your attention or kill you trying.
Perhaps a proverb of sappy poignancy, it reminds me that many of us are like the driver. Oblivious to the plight of many people around the globe, we go through our comfortable lives in rarefied environments, deciding between soy or rice milk for our lattes, without ever checking-in with the daily suffering and poverty occurring throughout the country contemporaneously with our lives of self-indulgence. Taking a look occasionally keeps me grounded, compassionate and appreciative.
the proverbial brick in question, opens with stock footage of the
film then moves to footage from the 1992 Rodney King Riots. I witnessed the
1992 riots in South Central Los Angeles following the Rodney King verdict
personally from the relative safety of a tall, downtown
For me, it was a horrifying ordeal that lasted a few hours. For the children in South Central Los Angeles, that feeling of fear and the arrival of random death at any moment is the standard under which they exist. On that day in 1992, the proverbial brick smashed the window of my psyche, and once again while watching RIZE. At first confusing to me, it became clear quickly that LaChappelle’s choice of opening the film with these scenes of horror expertly sets the vibe of the pressure cooker from which the dancers in the film ascend and provides the contrast that makes the dancing in this war zone so intensely beautiful.
Dancing in the Streets
The first dance scene
involves four young women. One woman has bowed forward
face down within inches
of the hood of a car, in a pose reminiscent of numerous televised arrest scenes
on reality cop shows or moments captured on clandestine home videos, which show
the bigotry still existing in law enforcement. In these images, the suspects,
hands cuffed behind their backs, faces pressed against the hood, are searched
by the cops or worse, beaten. In the dance version in
RIZE, the four women portray this familiar sight in their neighborhood, miming punches as if they are beating the woman, prone on the hood, in an eerie combination of violence and art. The faces of the passersby at this moment in the film are curiously forming the same expressions I have seen on the witnesses in videos of actual police beatings, a hybrid look of curiosity, disbelief, horror and sorrow. I know that my face has that same expression as I watch the film.
I watch this interpretive dance of oppression, performed in the street where the real scene occurs, a creative act-out of their pain and fear in a disturbing yet beautiful fashion, when I realize that these women are creating movements that will weave into the fabric of the history of African-Americans in this nation. It is this tradition of historical choreography that records the struggle of a people.
We are then introduced to a young man named Dragon and my ears struggle to hear what he is saying, as I am so transfixed by his sudden appearance. The words “warrior,” “Krumping,” and “Nigger,” leap from his lips. He delivers his words with an intense stare from behind a face painted with an amazing pattern. Small children listen intently from behind a chain-link fence to Dragon’s opinions, tiny knuckles and fingers glowing in a scene filmed too “hot.” Dragon looks up as a low-flying jumbo jet rips open the membrane of community and forces itself into the scene with its deafening sound, which reminds me that this neighborhood is unfortunately also under a main approach corridor to LAX.
Next, what looks like a neighborhood group, gathers in a circle. The attendees are in movement, jumping, singing, arms in the air, surrounding those in the center who are performing an amazing dance. A disclaimer at the beginning of the film makes it clear that the speed of the footage in the film has not been artificially increased. The reason for this disclaimer becomes clear in the moment I see this group in action. The arm, leg and body movements are hyper-extended and accelerated to the point that a viewer might doubt the ability of anyone’s body to move at this high velocity. The movements are mesmerizing, improvised, and if viewed from the right angle, suggest street fighting.
Suddenly, a hand-held camera walks us through the neighborhood, passed stained stucco, lots of cement, heavy iron bars on windows and porches that really belong on a fortress, all enveloped in the stagnating and oppressive heat of South Central Los Angeles. Set in these surroundings, the sudden appearance of Tommy the Hip Hop Clown, wearing a bright rainbow-colored wig and a cheerily painted face fills me with both some relief and some judgment; clowns have always bothered me. I find the color scheme and strange faces of clowns irritating and startling. However, I am not so arrogant as to believe that I can understand what seeing Tommy the Hip Hop Clown is like for the children of this neighborhood. Still, in my own small way, I am able to connect with the understanding that this walking, talking, and dancing color spectrum is desperately needed in the dangerous reality of the neighborhood.
is a Hip Hop clown. Hip Hop is both a musical and political movement that has
developed predominantly over the last quarter-century. Budding in
Tommy provides his entertainment, consisting of Hip Hop dancing and standard clown tricks and games, at children’s birthday parties and has opened his own dance academy. Seeing a clown move to the rhythm of Hip Hop and Rap music is amazingly eye-catching. I am bored enough by clowns performing tricks to classic circus music that seeing a clown, dancing to Hip Hop, sliding his chin through the air, moving his hips and jiggling his big rainbow Fro (the best part) is at once hilarious, compelling and fresh. I find myself reeling from his slickness and laughing out loud at the same time. Tommy is one cool clown.
A former drug dealer turned clown, I am relieved to see him spread happiness in his neighborhood. The first smiles seen in the film are all around Tommy, and rightly so. As one woman so aptly puts it, Tommy is welcomed and necessary for the kids growing up in “Hollywatts.”
because of Tommy, there is an alternative to joining a gang, a choice that
could and will probably kill the gangster. There is a local man named Austin
who owns the casket shop down at the strip mall next to Dunkin’ Donuts. If a
gangster isn’t careful, he could end-up in the big, satin and lace lined
bubble-gum pink casket proudly displayed in
Austin’s store; this alone should be a deterrent.
According to the filmmakers, and an appreciate mother of a clown, you’re either in a gang or you’re with the clowns. Gangs vs. Clowns – a description one might apply to our current geopolitical situation around the globe.
Better Living Through Clowning
I’m relieved to know that the neighborhood supports this positive, creative outlet. After all, not everyone in the ‘hood is in a gang. First seemingly out of place, there’s something perfect about the clowns being in this neighborhood. What better antidote to the brutality of the streets than a dancing clown, injecting the light full throttle into the darkness? In fact, one of the fifteen-year old dancers enrolled in Tommy’s Academy was gunned down, an innocent girl in the wrong place at the wrong time. Although a loving community has formed, the violence in the neighborhood is real and an ever-present threat.
This Hip Hop clowning community is very inclusive. Young to old, thin to large, gender unimportant, everyone is invited to join, jump, jive and wail. An extremely large young man, Cereal, is just as coordinated and quick with his moves as his counterparts and in fact, his big body mass, swaying and shaking, adds a special flavor to his dancing style. As the saying goes, “it’s all good.”
It is also inspiring to see an Asian clown troupe in the film. Speaking with them, a simple truth is revealed and the beauty of the clown movement becomes clear: we’re all equal under a painted face. Integration through clowning is a beautiful thing.
In a favorite scene, the obligatory older white couple stands, watching from their driveway, mouths agape, in reaction to the performance happening in their street. Three of the younger dancers approach them, standing within two feet of the couple, dancing at highest velocity, fiercely and kinetically throwing imaginary punches, barely missing the faces of their captive audience. If this same moment were to occur in an unfamiliar setting, late at night, without the clown make-up (or with, depending on the make-up), this couple might flee in terror. Instead, they applaud and yell thank you as the dancers leave to execute another drive-by clowning elsewhere.
It is beautiful watching this gathering of neighbors, out in the center of the street, dancing together. As I watch, my imagination takes over and the suburban homes begin to fade in the background and become tribal structures. The street becomes the village center and the dancers become the shaman, with their faces painted in otherworldly styles, serving as gateways to other dimensions. I am suddenly filled with relief when I realize that, as human beings, our need for community, for coming together and for describing our experience through movement, art and sound is deep and philosophical. You cannot take away the need for this energy to move – it’s in us, ingrained within our psyches, and when we come together in this way, it feels good because it is healing. Drop human beings into any community situation, add a soupçon of oppression, a dash of cultural isolation and it is my belief that they will most likely come together to talk, dance, sing, wail and heal each other in the streets.
Tommy the Hip Hop Clown has, in fact, inadvertently started a movement and after all, the best movements in my opinion start this way. His love for clowning, for children and for dance has inspired many young people in his community. In addition to Tommy and his posse, now there is House of Clown, True Clowns, Worldwide Clowns, YK Clowns, and Race Track Clowns, just to name a few of the fifty or so clown groups Tommy has inspired. The Clown groups are like families; more than a dance troupe, they’re sharing their ghetto experience on a daily basis.
All of these groups of jumping and grinding clowns make me realize something deeply profound: I want to have a party and invite them all. I think we all could forget our troubles surrounded by hundreds of Hip Hop dancing clowns or at least, be unnerved enough to lose track for a bit and get out of our heads. I know I’d be dancing with them in no time, given the opportunity.
Truth is, some of the painted faces do not really resemble clowns. There are dancers with faces painted in intricate designs, some of which are evocative of the style of Tagging, the graffiti-style art form. It is these painted faces that interest me the most; I am at once able to see the mask and the person behind the mask, at the same time. Behind a mask, or partially revealed by one, a dancer can move and emote with a sense of anonymity and therefore, dance with incredible freedom. It is the opposite of what one might expect: a mask does not hide the self but alternatively, allows the self to materialize. Safely held within the comfort of the mask of his or her choosing, each dancer feels secure enough to reveal their true nature in movement. Tribal communities knew this, and seeing it born again in the masked faces of these dancers comforts me as if the ancestors are whispering in my ear the message that we may not be so far removed from our natural condition, as we may believe.
As I watch the film, I notice that many of the moves are seductive. It’s difficult to witness these shiny, muscled bodies grinding their pelvises in the camera without having a sexual thought or two or perhaps that’s just me. I am relieved to hear that in fact, the dance du jour is called the Stripper Dance, so my minimal lustful thoughts are justified. The Stripper Dance has everything in it; with arms, hips, pelvis, legs, face, and torso in movement, it resembles a high-powered lap dance sans the lap.
A young girl, perhaps six or seven, is performing the Stripper Dance. Seeing a child this young dance this way removes the sexual component for me. Through her, I see the dance for what it is: a series of thoughtfully executed moves that seem to incorporate all dancing disciplines. According to a young man who is watching, she is merely “Popping her booty.” He continues that a few of the parents become uncomfortable when they see their children dancing this way. The young man doesn’t see anything wrong with it. As he says, “They’re just Popping. What’s wrong with Popping?” Nothing.
Not only has Tommy the Hip Hop Clown been the inspiration of many clown groups, a new style of dance has been borne of the Hip-Hop style. Edgier and rooted deeply within the feelings of oppression, Krumping is like raw emotion sizzling on an open fire. Apparently, the trick is to dive into the fathoms of anger, fear, happiness – whatever the dancer is feeling – and transmute and sometimes transmogrify those emotions into an improvised series of movements, most described in a blur of high-speed body arrangements. To me it seems this is not just a revolution in the ‘hood; it is the legitimate evolution of dance. Removing the need for choreography, the raw Krump is akin to watching the best of all dance disciplines come together. At times seemingly violent, as dancers will often grab each other, tear clothing, or shove one another while dancing, “Getting Krump,” is not only beautiful but may even ease what ails you. It’s contemporary art, still images captured in the fleeting moments of movement in a dancer’s body. Had I Got Krump earlier I may have saved thousands of dollars in therapy.
Another outlet offered to
these ghetto children is Sports. Like money-circling vultures, the
representatives from high-profile sports franchises watch inner-city school
athletic programs for signs of the next up-and-coming superstar professional
sports player. These opportunistic and exploitive attitudes towards this
neighborhood are further fodder for the rage and frustration for those growing
up in the ‘hood. Scholastically ignored, these young
Fortunately, thanks to Tommy the Hip Hop Clown, they may have something of their own. A Krumping movement has hit the streets and the style changes every day. If a dancer hasn’t Got Krump for two days, the other dancers will detect it. Krumping is more than a dance – it is an ever-changing language of its own, and a healthy way to move difficult energy. Welcome to the Ghetto Ballet, a frame of mind and soul being expressed in a continuously mutating dance.
Dig Deep: Find Your Style
Most of the dancers’ movement motivations are cultivated from a deep and tender place. One young dancer, Lil’ C, speaks candidly and rather nonchalantly about having to take his Mother to a rehabilitation clinic for her crack addiction. Still, more painful, this young Hip Hop Clown’s Father committed suicide several years ago. This tale is delivered as a voiceover as we watch Lil’ C Krumping on the beach next to the Santa Monica Pier. Through Krumping, he expels the painful, hidden chapters of his life. Watching Lil’ C dance on the beach by the Santa Monica Pier, it is clear that the pain and suffering of his childhood are fueling his movements.
a further tribute to the human spirit, this life of occasional horror and
constant oppression has become home. Another incredible Krumper and dancer,
Miss Prissy, discusses her feelings of not feeling safe outside of her
neighborhood. She is often asked how she is able to live in South Central, a
comment on the infamous danger of the neighborhood. Miss Prissy, wise beyond
her years, responds, “It’s not dangerous
– it’s life!” In fact, she finds it scary to go to places
LaChappelle ingeniously treats viewers of his film to visual bites of dancing indigenous tribe folk interwoven with images of the Krumpers. The painted faces are also compared, getting the point across quickly. Although this could be viewed as driving the point too far as filmmakers, it is amazing to see how much the Krumping movements recall the dancing of the tribes. It is clear that even with improvisation, bodies in motion replicate each other with startling regularity. I hope someday we discover that certain movements relate directly to certain feelings, and by performing these movements in a particular order, one can shift these emotions, channeling them out of the body, and thus heal the soul without a uttering a word. This to me would seem to be far more effective that sitting in a chair speaking with a therapist for an hour or two.
With all of these troupes of
Clowns and Krumpers dancing in the streets, it is inevitable that a competitive
atmosphere would develop. Apparently, the Krumpers, many of whom are former
The battles begin to a screaming crowd. Each side does it’s best to look bored as their competitors dance with looks of incredible hubris, hurling moves at each other like bricks. At first, I am enjoying myself, but then I feel ripped off. The moves seem to become less and less about dance and more angry, with competitors in the sidelines slamming chairs on the stage when their teammate loses. I am suddenly worried, a sense of dread comes over me; will these dancers be able to really forego their neighborhood programming and keep this competition safe and within the confines of good sportsmanship?
Lil’ Mamma, a seven-year-old dancer is dressed as a baseball player, swings a bat, while I ponder what would happen if the bat slipped. A Krumper is slamming chains on the stage. I’m beginning to doubt a statement earlier in the film by a Krumper who said, “The last thing on our minds is violence.”
In the end, the clowns win the contest, winners picked by audience reaction extending the Clown’s painted smiles with real ones. Tommy is dancing with the Battlezone Title Belt around his waist. The Krumpers don’t look so happy. Stranger still, audience members (obviously Krumping fans) look downright violently pissed-off. The Krumpers suspect they’ve been cheated. One is shown screaming her complaints. I lose the chain and I don’t understand how they could have been cheated with scoring based on the hollering of the audience? I’m confused and I find the Krumpers’ anger surprising and repulsive. Then I remember they’re just young, having not learned yet how to lose gracefully.
Last Thing On Their Minds
LaChappelle then shows Tommy getting ready to leave the stadium after the competition. Tommy is cleaning up when suddenly...he gets a call on his cell phone – then he’s crying – while Tommy and his Academy we’re competing, his home was being robbed and ransacked. Violence related to the dancing, denied throughout the film, apparently and suddenly is being expressed. Here are the real tears of a clown, stinging my cheeks along with Tommy’s. There’s no indication in the film who is responsible for the crime, but based on the reaction of the Krumpers and their fans to their loss at the Battlezone, I sure I am not alone in my suspicions that the break-in is related somehow.
Looking directly at its merits as a film, I found RIZE, although well crafted, ultimately heavy-handed and even preachy in places. However, there is a deeper understanding of human nature present in the film as I watch these young Krumpers and Clowns redefine themselves in a neighborhood that provides, and often insists upon a prefabricated identity of drugs, crime and death, should they choose or be coerced into the gangster costume. For me, the clown-like style of baggy clothes (for the concealment of weapons), the colors and symbolism of the Gangster in the end become the trappings of a much deadlier form of clowning-around.
It is important to note that there is still a choice in this place, and for all of us, no matter how grim or dangerous our surrounding environment. I believe that the key is feeling our lives: the hurt, the pain, the frustration, the anguish and most important, the joy.
In the pressure cooker culture of South Central Los Angeles, these feelings must be focused somewhere and the Clowns and Krumpers have found their out through learning to access the resultant feelings in a healthy, creative and productive way. To me, this is why their dance is so important. The rawness, the connection and the passion of their movements transcend all differences that might exist between my life and theirs. The Clowns and Krumpers describe their experience to me in a way that a gangster never could. Told to me through the movement of their bodies, the message is received loud and clear in a language I understand: these children are not heathen nor thugs; they’re just oppressed and when all else fails, DANCE.