catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 17 :: 2005.09.23 — 2005.10.06


Ghetto ballet lessons

When we showed the documentary Rize here at Calvin College last weekend, we handed out a film review that began with this verse from the book of Jeremiah:

Then maidens will dance and be glad, young men and old as well. I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow.

Although this passage isn?t referenced in the film itself, it strikes me as the thesis of not only the documentary, but of the movement it chronicles. Directed by David LaChapelle (previously lauded for his fashion photography and music videos), Rize tells the story of a street dance phenomenon in south central Los Angeles, where young black people flail their arms, jerk their torsos, and thrust their hips in attempt to break free from the violence and injustice that seems written into their everyday lives. This exuberant, dynamic variation on hip hop dancing is called krumping, and it is Jeremiah 31:13 in the flesh.

Rize has remained relatively low-profile since its release earlier this summer, but don?t let that fool you?there is much to glean from its subjects and their mode of expression, particularly for Christians. The transformation described in the Jeremiad is not one I wish to transpose awkwardly on Rize, as so often happens in the course of Christian film criticism. Rather, the core of the krumpers? motivation comprises a vital and explicit religious impulse, steeped in a longstanding African-American tradition of achieving spiritual freedom through bodily expression. With krumping, the young people of the inner-city Watts neighborhood quite literally turn mourning into dancing.

As a former classically trained ballerina, I could never hope to move like the krumpers in Rize?but I understand the impulse to give emotion a material form. According to a krumper called Dragon, ?This is our ballet?our ghetto ballet.? One function of dance is that it embodies that which is deeply felt but unseen. Krumping makes corporeal not only the deeply rooted and long-overlooked hurt of a community under siege, but the struggle of its young people to claw their way into and, as a result, out of that pain. At its most intense, krumping looks like David?s psalms, like spiritual warfare, like the truth setting captives free.

Dragon is clear that this is the point of krumping: "It’s so much like what happens in church when you catch the Holy Ghost or when the spirit takes over you… You’re being used by something supernatural.? Indeed, the hyperkinetic energy of krumping often closely resembles Pentecostal shaking and quaking. In the film, Dragon?s mom, a hard-livin? addict turned church lady, says that the neighborhood kids introduced her krumping, “but I get krumped for Christ.” The off-screen filmmaker asks her, “Is that different from what the kids are doing?” She pauses, then replies that it isn’t, that what they’re doing is a spiritual quest, too.

I have a feeling that some white audiences might not make this connection right off the bat. The centuries-long cultural process that has produced the generically ?white? race in America is too complicated to get into here, but suffice to say that the impulse to dance exuberantly has been squelched along with specific ethnic identities of origin. Additionally, hip hop and any of its related artistic expressions have been labeled with such negative stigma that many white people tune out the second the bass kicks in.

So initially, krumping might appear to be anything but a spiritual discipline, with its seemingly over-sexualized gestures and hyper-aggressive movements. Certainly it is both sexually charged and fueled by frustration and anger?but these aren?t necessarily bad things. Krumping is honest to the experiences of those who dance in this style; their daily lives are subject to the realities of systemic racism, Section 8 housing, the addictions of loved ones, gang wars, seemingly insurmountable poverty. Dancers explain that krumping is a way of encountering and defeating the despair of these situations, describing what happens when they krump as ?cathartic,? ?a moment of release,? ?getting out your anger.? If krumping is the physical expression of struggling with oppression and battling despair, is it any wonder it looks gritty?

In the same vein, one of the best lessons from Rize?s ghetto ballet comes in the form of the women it features, particularly one called Miss Prissy who is an elegant modern dancer as well as a hardcore krumper. Unlike female dancers in mainstream hip hop videos, who are only there as accessories to and for the gratification of the rappers, female krumpers are clearly regarded as peers by their male counterparts. While the female krumpers can hardly be considered ?ladylike,? that?s a compliment to their talent and honesty. In a stern rebuke to mainstream hip hop, their dancing balances their specifically feminine sexuality with a deeply personal reckoning, rather than an attempt to titillate spectators. These dancers are extremely athletic?some of the best, most outrageous krumpers are women?and even when they’re literally ripping the clothes off their bodies, their movements have the quality of breaking free instead of pandering to “the male gaze.”

The meaning I get from Rize, then, is that spiritual battles are mediated nowhere but in the flesh, that the earthly is necessary to understand that which is unseen. Krumping is an extreme example of this, but it is the most unique one I know of that embodies the way in which the ethereal and the physical depend upon and inform one another, as mournful circumstances give way to dancing. Krumping is also a call to courageous, concrete engagement with problems so systemic and ingrained that they can seem too overwhelming to begin discussing, let alone solving. The young people featured in this film are facing these problems head on, body and soul. And though they?ve probably never heard of a Canadian folk singer named Bruce Cockburn, they are the flailing, popping, thrusting, krumping incarnation of his most famous lyric: ?Gotta kick at the darkness till it bleeds daylight.?

Kate Bowman Johnston is the student activities coordinator at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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