Lil’ Buck and the Art of Jookin’

The question from a member of the audience at the National YoungArts Foundation’s sixth YoungArts Salon sponsored by Knight Foundation at its Miami campus featuring dancer and choreographer Charles “Lil Buck” Riley said out loud what many in the room had been wondering: “How do you do this? Are you Superman?”
“I’m really glad you asked. The cat’s out of the box,” Riley deadpanned, without missing a beat. “I came here from Saturn …”
The room exploded in laughter — but for anybody familiar with Riley’s astonishing mix of classical dance and jookin’, a style of hip hop dancing developed in Memphis, Tenn., the question, and the answer, sound perfectly logical and possible.

In full flight, Riley, 26, glides across stages with liquid ease, mixing arms fluidly moving in what recalls classic ballet swan gestures with sharp, angular breaks. He constructs narratives mixing freestyle steps and en pointe work in high top sneakers, often bending and twisting his ankles in impossible angles. At pauses, his body seems to vibrate to the music like a plucked string.

His talent was first showcased on a locally produced jookin’ DVD called Memphis Jookin Vol. 1. He was 17 at the time. Two years later he moved to Los Angeles and gained greater notice as a dancer and choreographer of singer Janelle Monae’s video for her Grammy-nominated hit song “Tightrope.”  But he really exploded when a video shot by director Spike Jonze of an impromptu collaboration with cellist Yo-Yo Ma of Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Dying Swan” went viral.

The turning point “was when I did the collaboration with Yo-Yo Ma,” recalled Riley. Ma had seen a video of his dancing “Dying swan” while still in Memphis “and reached out to me through Facebook. I was in LA at the time so ended up meeting Yo-Yo at Disney Hall and when he saw me he lit up like a little kid and got up and gave me this hug and said ‘I want to try something.’ … I didn’t know what was going to go on but he grabbed his cello case [took out the cello and … ]without warning he started playing and I started dancing. And that was when the magic happened. Right then and there. It was beautiful.” (Since, they have performed it together in various settings such as this occasion in this New York City in 2013)

The conversation, hosted by Miami-based writer, dancer, and actor Rudi Goblen, included mentions of his notorious collaborations, especially his work with street artist JR and the New York City Ballet, Madonna, and various videos. But Riley seemed particularly interested in discussing jookin’ (“All jookin’ is balance, it’s a groove. […] It came out of the Gangsta Walk”) and its Memphis roots.  “This is something you might see in the street,” says Riley. “You stop at a stoplight and you might see some kids on the corner just jookin’, the car doors open and the music blasting. And the police won’t bother you they know what it is.”
He noted later that one of the reasons why the style, developed in the mid-80s, took so long to be known outside Memphis was because “We didn’t want to teach people. It was native to the city and jookin’ was one of our possessions and we were very protective. Now that the dance has gotten more complex and […] it’s starting to get respect in the dance culture […] now we are really open to teaching it because now everybody knows where it comes from.”

He spoke of discovering jookin’ when he was 12, coming back from school, and seeing his older sister, Stephanie, doing it. “And I was like ‘What is this? What are you doing?’ and I got her to teach me.” His learning and practicing eventually led him to an encounter at the Crystal Palace roller rink, where he saw BoBo, a local underground dance legend, in action. “I saw this huge crowd, so I make my way to the front and all I see is people gazing at this one guy,” he recalled. “This guy has a mouthful of gold […] and he’s gliding across the carpet like walking on water, and my jaw just dropped. It was the most unbelievable thing I had ever seen. After that, I really fell in love [with jookin’]”

As for the evolution of his craft and distinctive style, Riley spoke about attending the New Ballet Ensemble and noted its founding director Katie Smythe (he also pointed out that agreed to join as long as he didn’t have to wear tights), he spoke of his experience at the since-closed Yo! Academy of Visual and Performing Arts, a charter school, (“It was amazing. I didn’t know there was a world like that I never been around the arts as much as I was in that school.”) and also of his many hours of practice.

“When I was really getting into it I spent countless hours learning how to do it because I felt everybody was already doing it and I had to catch up, “ he said. There were “countless hours in the kitchen, going hard when everybody is sleeping […] on my socks. I would go out to the carport so I wouldn’t make noise and dance and dance, and I would do it until 5 in the morning — and then I had to go to school in two hours.”
As for his superpowers and incredible flexible ankles, “it’s really a gift,” he said. “I have friends who can do crazy things [shows twisting his arms behind his back] I’m really flexible on some spots naturally, but I do work at it. I don’t just use my God-given gift, I do ankle strengthening exercises, and I do my own stretches. […] So yes, all of the above: really strong, Superman …”
The evening closed with a live dance performance by Riley of Raury’s “God’s Whisper.”

There was no need for questions about supernatural powers.


This story was first posted on the Knight Foundation Blon, January 2015

Fernando González