Sunday, June 8, 2008

The surprise of Rize

In which our Diva sits still for a couple hours, watching people who never seem to

Having worked my way through the "costume dramas I missed" portion of my Netflix queue, I've hit the "dance movies I missed" portion, which means that this morning I watched Rize. By which I mean that I -- contrary to my intent of watching the dance and paying half-attention to the interview segments while doing some work on my laptop -- couldn't take my eyes off it.

I expected that of the dance, of course. I know krumping is old news, and I'm sure there's some current street dance movement I know nothing about, but it's not going to get less impressive any time soon. I was aware of the basics: the dancers' conscious use of it as catharsis, channeling the frustrations of inner-city life into creation; the jaw-dropping isolations of popping that have been with us since the 80s, but now performed at anatomically improbable velocity (there's a disclaimer at the beginning of the film that none of the footage has been sped up, and it's a good thing to make clear, because holy CRAP); the confrontational style of two or more dancers interacting that looks eerily like rioters' violence. But I knew nothing at all about the hip-hop "clowning" movement that grew out of one man's grass-roots youth program, or its relationship to the krumping phenomenon.

I don't know if the former students of Tommy the Clown who implied krumping was their creation, evolved out of the clowning style, were stretching a point, but it's at least a primary ingredient. It's hard to tell how much of the trash-talking between the "clowns" and the "krumpers" is competitive ritual and how much is genuine antagonism, but the angry words about cheating (from both dancers and family members) after the BattleZone competition make it clear that there's at least some element of the latter. It's definitely not all warm fuzzies. But there's nothing but positive in the kids' passion for what they're doing -- one young man asserts that "this is like our ballet," and I came away with the impression that they may very well spend more time honing their skills than a pro-track ballet student -- and awareness of and gratitude for it as a shield against the destructive lifestyles around them.

Things that really struck me: the intercutting of dance sequences with footage of the Watts and Rodney King riots, and later with archival footage of traditional African dancers. The latter was particularly riveting for a couple reasons. One, because it so brilliantly matched shots of both preparation (application of face paint, warmups and camaraderie) and movement vocabulary. And two, because it came just a few minutes after some of the dancers had been explaining the evolution of one of the key movement elements of both clowning and krumping from what they called "the stripper dance." They couldn't say where the move had originated, only that it had suddenly been "the dance everybody was doing" at parties and such.

My jaw was on the floor that they were calling it that, but not because of any kind of general shock that a dance trend would be borrowed from strippers or anything like that. On the contrary, it was because I recognized it as anything but. They're talking about what's now a staple of hip-hop dance: wide stance, knees bent, balance back of center, rapid pelvic contract-and-release from lower abdominals. Which, until this morning, I had assumed to have been borrowed by hip-hop dancers from West African traditional dance, via the same heritage codified by Katherine Dunham. Because that was where I've known it from for years. And I know only the broadest strokes of Afro-Caribbean. But a move that, to my eye, says power and pride and warrior's prowess? These kids are calling "the stripper dance"! And yet, in the way they're performing it -- boys and girls alike -- it speaks exactly the same way I expect it to, and has nothing of the stripper in it at all. It just seems to me there's something very wrong when the middle-class white chick recognizes a piece of African heritage that the African-American kids apparently don't.

Other threads in the interviews include family relationships (conventional and otherwise), church ties (several of the kids are also involved in liturgical dance, and one boy's mother has some eloquent commentary linking the way her son's dancing "comes out of the spirit" to her own connection with her church, and asserts that she "gets krump for Jesus," and if you know anything at all about my opinions about art and spirituality, you can guess how happy that made me!), and the kids' very matter-of-fact knowledge and firm rejection of the violence in their lives. There's not a boring second.

Definitely worth the watching, especially if you have any interest in dance, physical prowess in general (my knees and hips were aching just watching these kids!), and/or people living real day-to-day lives in neighborhoods usually presented to us only as places to escape from.

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