By Joe Lozito
Vanity Fair photographer David LaChapelle has been following the inner city Los Angeles dance phenomenon known as "krumping" or "clowning" since his 2003 short "Clowns in the Hood" (followed by "Krumped" a year later). Ostensibly invented by Tommy the Clown - a young entrepreneur who pulled himself back from drug dealing and jail time by becoming an entertainer at children's birthday parties - the dance gyrations have all the subtlety of an epileptic fit. Mr. LaChapelle's documentary "Rize
" is quick to remind us that none of it has been sped up in anyway.
Dressed in full Bozo regalia, Tommy became a local star in inner city Los Angeles, going on to start Tommy's Hip Hop Clown Academy, a place for youths to learn the dance and, more importantly, to find an alternative to gangs. As one character notes, "we don't all play sports".
It seems a shame, then, that rivalry is inevitable. The film estimates that there are now nearly 50 clown groups in LA, and I just read an article that puts that number closer to 100. As one of the dancers says: with 50 clowning groups, one wants to be the best. So we see the "Battle Zone", a huge dance competition between "clowners" and "krumpers" which serves as the film's climax.
"Krumping" is a separate but distinct form of dance which evolved from some mixture of clowning and something called "the stripper dance". Krumping appears to be a slightly more violent version of clowning. Whereas Tommy describes the central tenet of clowning as entertainment, krumping is more about self-expression. Mr. LaChapelle couches his film in a reminder of the 1965 Watts riots, the aftermath of the Rodney King beating years later and most movingly African tribal dance rituals. There's much physical contact in krumping and lots of stylized posturing. It plays like a sped up confrontation between the Jets and the Sharks of "West Side Story". It's understandable then that some of the artists brag about their "battle scars".
Despite all the pushing and shoving, the kids treat it all like good fun which, considering the frustrations these kids are working out through their dance moves, seems amazing. I was left wondering if Mr. LaChapelle spared us any non-dance confrontations. As it is, the only time we glance the agony of defeat is during a short locker room sequence after the "Battle Zone". But perhaps it's the reality of life in South Central LA which gives these artists the perspective to remember why they're dancing to begin with.
For a phenomenon that is so new, there's a lot of story to tell and Mr. LaChapelle only scratches the surface. It seems like any one of the characters in the film has an interesting enough backstory for a documentary. Most of the kids have absentee parents for one reason or another - jail, suicide, drugs, gang violence. The director certainly has enough footage of krumping in action, and he is able to get its practitioners to speak to the camera with surprising candidness, but Mr. LaChapelle is only able to give us the broadest stokes of their lives in his 84 minute film.
As one character notes, the dance styles change every day. "If you miss a day of practice, we'll know." Such rapid development almost seems antithetical to what Mr. LaChapelle is trying to accomplish. How do you capture something on film which changes its definition daily? The evolutionary spirit of krumping may, in fact, be the point. Formed not only as an alternative to gangs and sports, but also as a reaction to the commercialization of Hip Hop, krumping at its heart strives to defy definition. For all the dance teams in South Central, no two dancers are the same. During the "Battle Zone" it's clear that the winner is the most inventive dancer and it's a tribute to Mr. LaChapelle's film that, by the time we watch the contest, we've been schooled enough in the form to appreciate why the winners prevail.
The fact that these kids not only survive but find a reason to live in dancing is the real story of "Rize". And maybe it's best not to document it too closely. Krumping and clowning gives these kids something to live for, something to call their own. Let's not dissect it or commercialize it. Let's just let them have it.