Dance of the People

Issue section: 

Review of 'Rize', director David LaChapelle

Rize is a documentary film about a dance culture born in the poor black districts of Los Angeles. Opening with scenes of the 1965 riots, it skips to the present, where the same areas are still run down, and where every day is a struggle with poverty and crime.

From the start the film is interspersed with clips of 'clowning' or 'krumping', a dance form that has evolved - and continues to evolve - on the street. The dancing is characterised by the torso ripples found in African dance performed at high speed, with moves from hip-hop and other dance forms added in. The 'style' depends on the individual performer, but the dancing is always fast, urgent and alive.

We are first introduced to Tommy the Clown, credited with starting the movement. At one time drawn to the world of crime and drug dealing, he now travels to children's birthday parties dressed as a clown, where he entertains and 'clowns' (dances). His arrival at parties is greeted with joy - and above all with dancing, because 'clowning' does not have a passive audience, but instead encourages everyone to join in. Indeed, some of the film's most moving footage is of mothers and young children 'clowning'. Tommy's work has spawned hundreds of 'Clown Groups' throughout LA, directing the energy of young black people away from drugs, and supporting them where family networks have broken down.

Clowning has also spawned 'krumping', a younger, more urgent version of the form, where young people gather to dance, taking turns to perform one or two at a time in a circle of onlookers. Energetic and often joyful, krumping can also look aggressive, but it is not violent. Rather it is a form of self-expression for people who have nowhere else to channel their feelings. It serves as a vent for the anger and frustration that build up from the poverty, prejudice and abuse they face every day.

Krumping is also an expression of sexuality, and this is particularly noticeable when watching the many girls and women who participate. However, unlike the sexism found in some hip-hop and rap culture, krumping seems to allow women a great deal of control. Their dancing is strong, aggressive and individual. And because krumping constantly evolves through the participants bringing new moves and feelings to the dancefloor, women seem to have just as much influence on how the form develops.

My interest flagged a little as the action moved to the 'Battle Zone', where the clowns and krumps formed rival teams in a massive arena, but Rize is otherwise invigorating and moving to watch. After the 'Battle Zone', scenes, the focus is back on real lives, and this is the strength of the film - the way it switches from scenes of dancing to the lives of the participants, the friendships and loyalties created by the clowning and krumping, the tragic family histories behind many of the participants, and the reality of drugs-related crime affecting whole communities.

Rize moved me because it's about the need to dance. Clowns and Krumps dance because they have to - as one participant points out, krumping has evolved because 'we are oppressed'.