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.
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Even if the Gangsta Walk was born at Humes, that’s not the only place it was happening in the early days.
“I can remember being outside in the snow dancing,” says Cino, a younger Jooker and Gangsta Walker who, like the dancers he learned from, grew up dancing in driveways and parking lots. Cino teases the studio-trained Jookers, and kids who’ve learned to dance from YouTube clips: “They’re too afraid of messing up their shoes,” he says.
Richard Franklin, another dancer who likes to mix up his styles, says that for him Gangsta Walking was like learning a magic trick: “You see something, and you just have to keep doing it over and over again until you figure it out.”
And then you have to show it off. Whether they danced in the street, in the clubs, or in front of a mirror, the beats for the first Gangsta Walkers were provided by local and regional rap artists like DJ Spanish Fly, Al Kapone, DJ Squeeky, the Showboys, 8-Ball & MJG, and Three 6 Mafia. The early North Memphis Gangsta Walk style was built around energizing “buck jumps” with a heavy emphasis on air-walking and elaborate footwork.
“The steps look like you’re gliding, but it’s really just a way you step,” Jaquency explains. “It makes it look like somebody is scooting you.”
Uninitiated readers probably assume that the club term “buck” is a reference to wildness, and “getting buck” means going wild. And in some cases, it does. But when you hear a Jooker or Gangsta Walker talking about getting buck they are also describing a zen-like physical and mental state in which the dancer’s body is perfectly in synch with the music and able to respond, not just to the beat, but to all aspects of a song.
Lennon Smith compares getting buck to surfing. “You catch that flow like a wave,” he says.
Variations developed all over town. “South Memphis never came to play,” Jaquency says, explaining how the Gangsta Walk changed as it moved from neighborhood to neighborhood. “They were always buck wild.”
The style that took root in Westwood and Whitehaven was called “Choppin” and defined by an often frantic karate-like chopping of the arms. As the Gangsta Walk moved from North Memphis into Raleigh and then pushed east, the dance started to take on many of the mimetic, and illusion-oriented qualities now ascribed to Jookin.
The 1990s were mostly about the development of turns and slides, with a little bit of waving. “From there we started watching professional dancers and trying to get up on our toes like a ballerina,” says Shamar Rooks. “Then dancers wanted to know how to be contortionists, so they started watching magicians. That’s where you get dancers wearing hoodies and taking their arm out of the sleeve to make it look like they’re breaking their bodies when they’re really not. At the millennium we came out of the box of Jookin, and Choppin, and Buckin, and tried to make our dance style an illusion. We wanted to make it look like it wasn’t really happening at all.”
Gangsta Walking has its own language. “Tutting” describes a style of hand movements that resemble gestures found in Egyptian hieroglyphics. “Icing” is a smooth, illusionary style of Jookin where the dancer creates the impression that he’s sliding on ice. “Pac-Manning” describes one foot hungrily chasing the other foot, heel-toe across the floor like the Eighties-era video game character Pac-Man.
If you didn’t live through it, the best way to experience the landscape in which Gangsta Walking originated is to catch a production of Hurt Village, the critically acclaimed work of dramatic fiction by Memphis playwright Katori Hall that first opened Off-Broadway in February 2012. Shakespearean in scope, Hall’s vision of the infamous Memphis housing project is defined by drugs, violence, and an absence of strong male role models, but it moves well beyond the sensational to establish a real sense of culture and community. Before its New York opening Daniel Price, a Memphis Jooker known for popularizing the “Icing” style, taught the Hurt Village cast how to dance like North Memphis.
“It was completely natural for me to work with all these down-home people who’d made it on the Broadway stage,” says Price, an original dancer with U-Dig Dance Academy.
Since Hurt Village, Price has busied himself developing “Memphis Jookin AR Dancer,” an augmented reality Jookin app for Android and iPhone, and Memphis Jookin G2G, a competitive and instructional video game that will allow users to learn and execute moves from many urban-dance styles.