An alternative to gangs, Clowning and Krumping are forms of dance born in south central Los Angeles. In his new film, Dave LaChappelle captures the rise of this art form and the complicated web of Los Angeles gang life. The cultural value of these dances is akin to breakdancing, bootdancing and other forms of African rhythm. Its inherent anger and freedom could easily be dismissed as youthful, black, ghetto angst gone wild. But LaChappelle's fluid storytelling highlights the resilience of youth who are fighting their way out of the destruction of the 1992 L.A. riots.
Rize chronicles the phenomenon started by Tommy "the Clown" Johnson, a reformed drug dealer who became a birthday party clown after the riots. He's not your average balloon twister. He used dance to engage families, particularly children, until they began attending dance events and performing in his employ. Over time, an estimated 50 clown groups formed. Then a derivative of the dance, the more aggressive "krumping," evolved. The leader of the groups is Dragon, the son of a recovering addict mother. Though the Krumpers became friendly rivals of the Clown dancers, the factions, which number in the thousands, stayed a respectful subculture, usually holding to the life-saving aspects of what they've grown. Together, they have lifted this subculture to national proportions.
LaChappelle illustrates their struggles in vivid color, drawing connections between what these L.A. youth do and what their African ancestors have been doing for centuries using dance as a form of expression and spiritual cleansing. It echoes New York dances like the Harlem Shake and Detroit styles like the Jit. The film captures the contrast between the two dance styles, the more joyful style of Clowning versus the rebelliousness of Krumping, which Dragon describes as freedom from oppression. LaChappelle tenderly explores the dancers' ability to create an activity that helps them withdraw, withstand and overcome their dangerous environment.
The most questionable aspects of the film are more philosophical than cinematic. It will be hard for some to accept the sight of little kids being encouraged to dance so suggestively, even if the sexual nature of moves like "the stripper dance" is more sensual than erotic. LaChappelle doesn't gloss over the grittier aspects of the culture. But it's impossible not to marvel at these kids, take hope from them and hope their world doesn't eventually become laundered, sterilized and marginalized by American pop culture.
Khary Kimani Turner writes about music for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].