Instead of fighting, we work it out on the dance floor
David LaChappelle
Tommy the Clown, Larry Berry, Dragon, La Nina, Miss Prissy
The Setup: 
Documentary about African-American forms of dance clowning and krumping.

So I've seen enough of those dance movies like Step Up 3D and Stomp the Yard, each time not really understanding the rules and regulations of these dance conflicts, so I decided that I need to rent this documentary in order to help me understand. This gave me some insight and also illuminated the connection between these dances and gangs, which spurred me to rent Crips and Bloods: Made in America, to further understand gangs. And now I have been returned to a state where I can be confident that I know everything.

This is directed by photographer David LeChappelle. We open with a disclaimer that none of the footage in this movie has been sped up in any way. Then we have footage of the Watts riots in L.A., then footage of the Rodney King riots, then go right into footage of these girls enacting police beating another girl on the hood of a car--which is soon revealed to be just a part of their dance routine. I have to say that this moment is really among the best in the movie, and provides the clearest connection to these dances being inspired by the scenes taking place on the streets.

We now focus on Tommy the Clown, this guy who used to be a drug dealer, but at one point decided to dress in clown gear and entertain at children's parties. He started gathering young people in the neighborhood [We're in South Central L.A.] to join him and work on their dances--which is presented as an alternative to gangs. This is one of the things I didn't understand--most of the kids [meaning largely teens and early 20s] feel that this is the ONLY alternative to joining a gang, and say things like "If I wasn't doing clown shit, I would have turned into a very, very bad person." They describe life in a neighborhood that is ruled by gangs, where the only other thing to do is play football--some describe annoyance that of course athletics are the only thing offered to blacks [though I suspect the military isn't too far away, either]--or choose clowning.

Eventually Clowning morphs into Krumping, which is a similar thing but without the makeup and clown getups, and a tiny bit more openly aggressive. Then people dicuss how they are able to get their aggressions out through dancing, where "it's like we're fighting somebody, but we're not." Then we have discussions of various basic moves such as the Stripper Dance, which will be familiar to anyone who has ever seen a hip-hop music video. This is where a woman spreads her legs wide, crouches down, and shakes her ass rapidly up and down. We next see a girl of about eight doing this. Then one of the guys says that some parents object to this, but "No one's touching them, they're having fun."

Now more tales of how life is difficult in the gang-laden streets where "It's hard to walk down the street and know you're not going to get shot today," and we hear some tales of family situations where one or both parents are absent due to drugs or problems with the law--or just because they don't care to be around. The kids claim to take out all these tensions through their dance.

The movie makes a serious misstep in a sequence where it intercuts the kids' krumping with footage of native dances from tribes in Africa. First, just because something looks superficially similar, doesn't mean it is the SAME thing, and I just don't trust that LaChappelle really researched to find out if the meaning of the native dances seen ARE expressing similar things, or just look slightly the same at a casual glance. Secondly, comparing contemporary ghetto kids to African tribespeople may demonstrate a long-held lineage and tradition, it can also been said to demonstrate a number of much more negative things. I think it's an idea best left on the cutting floor.

It continues, through a big dance contest, then wraps up with about ten minutes of uninterrupted dance in a music video style, which is a fine way to end the film and let you see some of the dancing uninterrupted and looking cool.

So, did I come to understand the ins and outs of aggressive hip-hop dancing? Kind of. I certainly wasn't aware of its relation to gangs and the pressures living in gang territory exert.

But there was one unexpected thing I DID understand: Why there are so many movies about hip-hop dancing: Because it's a way to make a movie for African-Americans that shows them doing something positive and resolving conflicts without using violence. If the people in this movie are to be believed, any other movie that wanted to show black life but NOT focus on black yuppies, would pretty much be showing gangs. And since gangs don't send a positive, uplifting message we can all get behind, we end up with all these hip-hop dancing movies, which are all about working hard, often going to school, and resolving conflict non-violently.

So there it is, a pretty good documentary that is both about the dancing and a lot of the social environment and backdrop that spawned them. If you're interested, give it a go.

Should you watch it: 

Sure, if you're interested in where these forms of dance came from.