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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If readers know the story of rock-and-roll, then they already know Memphis is a city of brilliant cultural convergences. That’s still true today, and although the Gangsta Walk has been measured against ballet in The New York Times and other national publications, flamenco, which evolved out of southern Spain in the late eighteenth century, may ultimately prove to be the better comparison.
Both flamenco and Jookin were born in marginalized communities exposed to flagrant discrimination, and in both cases the stories and the steps were handed down orally from teacher to student.
(“It’s like ‘each one teach one,” Jaquency likes to say.) Both flamenco (cante) and Jookin (Buck and Crunk) evolved in response to new, identity-defining musical styles, full of hope and hot defiance. The relationship between these two styles, separated by an ocean and a few centuries, has never been made more clear than in “Dos,” an original work choreographed by Barcelona transplant Noelia Garcia Carmona, danced by Carmona and Shamar Rooks, for New Ballet Ensemble’s stunning 2012 Spring Loaded concert.
Carmona describes the work as a personal, emotional response to a piece of original music composed by Memphis musician Roy Brewer. “It’s about two things coming together, and breaking apart, and then coming together again,” Carmona says, describing how well the heavily-percussive flamenco fits with a percussion-sensitive style like Jookin. “It doesn’t have to be about love,” she says.
Rooks, who danced the piece with Carmona, compares the stomps and claps of flamenco to the various pieces of a drum kit. Studying flamenco, he says, has helped him to “find the hi-hat” even in music that doesn’t use a hi-hat.
“Since 2003 we’ve had a goal to bring these different styles together in a way that is seamless,” says Katie Smythe, the founding director of New Ballet Ensemble, who first introduced Lil Buck to “The Swan” on a trip to West Memphis to perform for the Delta Arts Council. After years of bringing unique dance styles together under a common banner, “Dos” is, perhaps, as close as New Ballet has come to showing Memphis something that is neither Jookin, ballet, or flamenco, but some new version of rock-and-roll.
Memphis Jookin is hot right now. It’s on TV, at the barre in the ballet studio, and it’s working its way into all sorts of curriculum and classical performances like Hutchison School’s recent production of Romeo & Juliet, which included original choreography courtesy of U-Dig Dance Academy. The better news is that even as it’s being institutionalized, the Gangsta Walk is still being taught on the street, and in neighborhood barber shops.
“It’s always going to be a Memphis thing,” Jaquency asserts. “There will always be Gangsta Walking in Memphis.”
Rhodes College graduate Chris Davis is a staff writer with the Memphis Flyer, where he focuses on the performing arts, compiles the popular “Fly on the Wall” column, and produces the “Intermission Impossible" theater blog.