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On Point, in Their Jeans and Sneakers

Written by New York Times

MEMPHIS — This city, so central to the emergence of blues, soul and rock ’n’ roll, in recent decades has developed a new kind of virtuoso dancing: jookin. Sometime between the 1970s and 1990s (depending on whom you talk to) this dance idiom grew out of — or up with — the gangsta walk. It’s a relative of hip-hop and is widely performed to rap music. Its footwork, especially, is nothing less than phenomenal. Even around this city, however, plenty of dancegoers have never seen it live. And both here and elsewhere there are different versions of its name (which has been confused with jukin, a Chicago dance genre) and its history.

In the last few years Memphis jookin has acquired international celebrity, principally because of the exceptional young performer Lil Buck (real name, Charles Riley). An extraordinary YouTube clip of Lil Buck dancing “The Swan” to the cello playing of Yo-Yo Ma in April 2011 caused a sensation. Another virtuoso jookin dancer, Ron Myles (Lil Buck’s cousin), was enchanting this August at the Vail International Dance Festival, where Lil Buck had also been the artist in residence.

Lil Buck, 23, now tours with Madonna and performed with her at the 2012 Super Bowl halftime show. On Nov. 11 he and Salemah Gabriel will teach jookin master classes at the Alvin Ailey Dance Center in Manhattan.

Last week at the Y.M.C.A. in Jackson, Tenn., I watched some two and a half hours of a jookin “battle” to get a better sense of this movement style. The four sides of the room were lined, when I counted, with 90 people. (Some jookin events are three times as large.) A majority was black; 30 were women. Several children were present; at the age of 57 I was surely the oldest person in the room.

Almost always the central dance space was occupied, usually by a single dancer at a time. A solo would generally last a minute or two, often with four or more moves occurring every second. Maybe 40 of the men danced, some several times; some boys and women also performed. The music was all rap, with lyrics largely unprintable here.

Often dancers just took to the floor to perform solos: though these solos were improvised, it was obvious that these dancers practice a lot. At several moments a dancer would stand, ready; the D.J. would call on him and one other person (from the opposing “team,” though no formal sides were drawn up) to perform.

In one of these duel-like “battles” Dancer A crossed the space and mimed a challenge (sometimes called a “bump”) to the other — the gestures would look like blows or thrusts of defiance — while dancing. Dancer B would stand, often unresponsive, though often his head would be moving to the beat. When it was his turn, Dancer A would stand still the same way. Usually there were two rounds.

The mood of these dance combats seemed full of surface aggression, but what also emerged was intense mutual respect, good humor and keen attention. Usually, when a duel ended, most people in the room would applaud. In one sequence four men stood like a wall, playing their challenge dances, solo by solo, against a rival quartet.

I describe all this as a complete outsider. I’ve seen far too little jookin to define its nature, or even fully to explain central ingredients like the “buck,” “choppin” and the “pop.” To any observer the most evidently sensational feature of jookin is the extensive use of what a ballet observer is bound to call pointwork: the men, in sneakers, go onto tiptoe.

This isn’t ubiquitous, however. In one duel the second dancer moved his feet fast but largely kept heels on the ground; to my eye he was the finer of the two, because of the pulsating richness of his upper-body movement. But many of the men not only rose onto point but also hopped, turned, ran and balanced on point. Ballet people would label some of the steps I saw as tacqueté runs on both points, ballonné hops on point, pirouettes starting from fourth position on point, and balances on point with changes of body position.

Many kinds of footwork and legwork proliferate, some of them far from ballet. Sometimes a dancer would turn and turn by successively twining each leg, bent at the knee, round the other. Flat feet would turn in and out in rapid alternation. There are astonishing (and surely perilous) ankle bends; startling knee bends; and a few dancers, using extreme turnout, would step on the inner sides of their feet.

Much of the verve of jookin, however, comes from the upper body. Frequently a current of isolated impulses passes in sequence down a dancer’s arm: you see each component — the wrist, the forearm, the elbow, each shoulder — but you see also the snakelike rippling fluency that turns these staccato effects into a legato current. Sometimes upper and lower body move at the same time, sometimes with seeming independence; at other times a phrase jumps from lower to upper, or vice versa. Often the dancer keeps his eyes on the floor and his head fixed, although eye contact is certainly maintained in several parts of some challenges.

The speed of the movement is astounding; stillness, repose and relaxation play no real part here. There are dance jokes. One challenger began (I was told) by copying his rival’s signature steps; another suddenly threw his hands on his hips, midphrase, as if in nonchalance; and the mime gestures of defiance are impudent in their bravado and pretense of contempt.

Some mime actions draw attention to individual words in the lyrics. (The word “long” prompted one man to draw out his arms like a length of string.) Many moves drew attention to the music’s percussion effects, as when occasional metallic explosions were answered by casual gestures of gunfire.

To this outsider the evening came as a revelation. It showed the world from which Lil Buck and Mr. Myles come; and it abounded in wit, rhythm and imagination. Perhaps the most remarkable feature was that there wasn’t a dull dancer all evening; every solo was touchingly personal, motivated, musically responsive, intense and fresh.

I was entranced by everything and ardently hope to see more. Underneath all the bluff intensity the temper of the evening kept growing bubblier, happier, sweeter.

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