Jookin - Is it the New Ballet?
How the Gangsta Walk chopped, tutted, iced, and Pac-Manned its way from the streets of North Memphis to the Great Wall of China.
photograph by Adisa | Dreamstime
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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.”