The critically acclaimed documentary “Rize” claims to be about a new form of hip hop dancing, called “krumping,” that transcends commercialism.
By Debra Cash
The commercial calculation of MTV, smoggy and as near at hand as central LA, lurks in the margins of the new critically admired hip hop dance documentary, “Rize.” The film examines a new form of “ghetto ballet” that emerged on the streets of South Central Los Angeles. In 1992, a former drug-dealer named Tommy Johnson responded to the Rodney King riots by vowing to change his life, to combat despair by spreading happiness. He donned a giant, rainbow-colored ‘fro wig and started dancing the electric boogaloo and other funk moves at kids’ birthday parties. Johnson’s antic cheer inspired over fifty hip hop clown groups — including an Asian one, seen very briefly — now working the birthday party circuit in greater LA. Some of his followers, however, left clown dancing in search of a more personal and in-your-face solo style. They found it and called it “krumping.”
You’ll learn this much from the “Rize” trailer, with its glimpses of “Rize’s” director, David LaChapelle, cannily opens the credits with the promise that the film footage the audience is about to see has not been artificially sped up. He’s honest about that.
But “Rize,” and the publicity the film has gotten since it opened nationally, represents more than the latest cultural news from the street. The documentary exemplifies how hip hop culture develops in the distorting mirror of omnipresent media and commercialism. In “Rize,” spin is more than a b-boy move. It is the claim made that these young men and women have transcended commercialism to attain hip hop authenticity.
The first questionable claim of the dancers — and by extension, the director of “Rize” who seems to take the statement at face value– is that krumping is unprecedented and original. This myth of origin is stated by the articulate krump griot named Dragon (real name Jason Green): “a group of us got together and we invented this” in contrast to privileged kids who learn to dance in “prestigious suburban academies.”
But of course they didn’t invent it. The “stripper dance,” krumping’s foundation move, translates the fast-shimmying pelvis from West African dance and adds the open-legged, bent-kneed booty-shaking beloved of music videos. It’s called stripper dance for obvious reasons.
Krumping has its precedent in African dance steps that resisted assimilation and erasure, polyrhythms that were incorporated into the Afro-Cuban, Afro-Brazilian and Afro-Caribbean dance traditions. Think capoiera. Think James Brown. Traci Bartlow, who was teaching in the first hip-hop themed Cultural Traditions program at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival this summer, says that krumping is closest to kakilambe, a cleansing, spiritual dance that allows the dancers to rise above something that is not serving them. Bartlow’s students were able to demonstrate many techniques side by side.
LaChapelle seems to be corroborating Bartlow’s nuanced and historically informed point when he juxtaposes the krumpers with undated footage of painted, dancing Nubians. (This is in a film that has no other “outside” clips beyond the brief scenes of the riots that place the documentary in a historical period.) But on closer inspection, he is doing nothing of the kind. After one of the dancers remarks that krumping is “implanted from birth,” LaChapelle cuts to the Africans. Is krumping an expression of the collective unconscious? Are kids who invest their time dancing because they have no real job opportunities? Do they view themselves as “noble savages?” Is LaChapelle serious?
On the other hand, it rings true when a dancer explains that after two days off the circuit, a krumper is left in the dust because the style changes every day. Of course krumping changes every day. This kind of dancing is all about one-upsmanship: You do a step, I copy it and then add my special twist.
The problem is that for every winner there’s a loser. In “classical” hip hop battles, like when the veteran dancers of Rennie Harris Puremovement flip through a series of breathtaking power moves, each dancer is appreciated for his (and sometimes, her) special virtuosity. Such displays end with mutual admiration, high-fives and hugs. The same thing happens at clubs or at a party. When clowns and krumpers in “Rize” face off at the Battle Zone contest in front of a stadium full of thousands of screaming fans, the losing side claims that their dancers were cheated. Resentments build up. This is no longer about whether clowns or krumpers have the better moves. Even if the battle is fair, the dancers’ lives are not.
“Rize’s most insidious claim is that clowning and krumping are tonics for commercialized, media-driven hip hop. This is nonsense. Conglomerate media have always been players in the hip hop story. The so-called “breakdancing” craze of the late 1970s and early 80s lasted beyond when its first practitioners had moved onto other things — like roller disco! — only because white journalists (including photojournalist Martha Cooper, filmmaker and subway art enthusiast Henry Chalfant and dance critic Sally Banes) publicized it and New York’s downtown arts scene “discovered” it. After that, it was a short pop and lock to the discovery that hip hop could generate serious money for corporations and advertisers. The young men and women in “Rize” know what a man with a camera represents. They see the bling of music videos and (if they don’t think it’s too corny) probably watch “American Idol,” too.
Talented krumper Miss Prissy (Marquisa Gardner), who deserves to win her bout of the Battle Zone contest and is also shown dancing at church and working out in a conventional dance studio, delights in winning adulation from a live audience of her peers and neighbors. At the same time, she must know that the poster image of her glistening torso with a jewel ornamenting her bellybutton is a resume builder. She’s no fool. She’s worked hard at being a dancer. Visibility is the coin of that realm. Since the film was released she has been touring with rapper The Game. Lil C (real name: Christopher Aaron Toler) shown in a gorgeous sequence krumping at sunset on a beach while a ferris wheel blinks over his shoulder, has been working as a dancer and choreographer with Missy Elliott, Usher, and Gwen Stefani.
I don’t fault the dancers in the film. Commercial hip hop dance is real. It’s crass, it’s repetitive, it’s fragmentary, it’s hardly a representation of the best of this vernacular art form but it exists and generally doesn’t claim to be more serious than it is. (Hey, the same could be said of Boris Eifman’s execrable ballets. All art forms have their reductionists.) Maybe the krumpers can change music video dancing for the better, although I doubt it.
In his day job, LaChapelle has never been reticent about reinforcing the gang-banger bravura and gratuitously sexist conventions in the music videos that he makes for a living. (See, for instance, Christina Aguilera’s “Dirty,” the video that coincidentally is where LaChapelle first saw krumping danced by some extras he had hired.) To be fair, the man has range — his 2004 “Answer in the Sky” for Elton John brings in lindy hop and faux Ailey.
The krumpers of South Central may not have it in their power to reclaim their streets. That’s sad. But when they get a chance to go commercial, LaChapelle is the last person on earth who should give them grief about it.