Mesmerizing Moves

July 31, 2013

Lil Buck transcends all genres, from street to stage.


Photo of Lil Buck by Jayme Thorton.


At a recent gala in New York, the young jookin’ sensation Lil Buck glided out of the wings, propelling himself sideways with subtle, liquid movements of his ankles to the opening bars of DJ Shadow’s meditative “Building Steam with a Grain of Salt.” He seemed to travel on a cushion of air. The crowd went eerily still. Slowly, a ripple began to move across his arms, gradually accelerating, then pausing momentarily in his shoulder, producing a slight shudder that ran diagonally across his torso and down to the opposite leg. The illusion was that of watching the physical manifestation of a sob. It was technically impressive, but, more than that, it was moving.


Lil Buck, a.k.a. Charles Riley, has a unique effect on people. They’re immediately struck by the power and precision of the moves—those glides! that fluidity!—but then, they are drawn in by the awareness of something deeper. He’s not just showing off his “blissful moves,” as he calls them, but going to another place. “We call it goin’ in or zonin’ out,” he told me recently, at a vegan café in Manhattan. (Going vegan, he says, has changed his outlook on life.) “It’s like telling a story. Whatever feeling the music gives me, I find the world within that feeling. It takes me to a certain place, and I tend to stay there until the music is over.”


At only 25, he has already traveled far from the place where he discovered jookin’, in South Memphis, an economically disadvantaged neighborhood of Memphis, Tennessee. He has toured with Madonna, performed in Beijing with Yo-Yo Ma, and appeared at Fall for Dance. But Memphis is where it all began. One day when he was 12, his older sister—Buck is one of seven—came home from school and showed him some steps in a style he hadn’t seen before. He started noticing people at school doing it, too, so he decided to try.


Jookin’ is an integral part of the African-American culture of the city. Developed in Memphis in the 1980s, jookin’—and other related forms like the gangsta walk, buckin’, and choppin’—is a localized derivation of hip-hop dance. Memphis hip-hop has a particular sound, with rat-a-tat-rhythms, and a bit of a soul-funk lilt. “A little southern-ness and a basement-like quality, a homemade feel,” is how Buck describes it. The dance originated as a kind of walking step with a strong rhythmic bounce punctuated by staccato lifting of the knees, like walking on hot coals. As it evolved, the gliding footwork was added, as well as the popping and waving, and, finally, the icing on the cake: Dancers started using the tips of their sneakers to balance on pointe.


Buck has absorbed all of these elements and refined them. He can balance on his toes forever; he can spin multiple times, in slow motion, with his free leg curved behind him in an attitude, and stop on a dime. He spins on his knees, on his ankles, does figure eights on one foot, and he can lean way back with one leg extended forward, as if in a reverse penchée. He can bend his arms and legs in surprising ways, and fold his whole body into a tight ball, one leg hooked over his neck and the other over his shoulder. What is more, he weaves these elements together into a coherent whole.


At Le Poisson Rouge. Right: Yo-Yo Ma is to the left of Lil Buck. Photo by Erin Baiano, Courtesy NYCC/Vail.


How did he learn all this? Like Argentine milongueros—homegrown tango virtuosos—Memphis jookers have traditionally congregated in certain locales to show off their new moves. A skating rink, the Crystal Palace, became the focal point of jookin’ innovation. “There were a lot of jookin’ battles there, people from all parts of town,” Buck tells me. “The energy brings the spirit out because you end up doing things you didn’t know your body could do.” Lil Buck started developing his own variations, the spins and the ankle twists, experimenting, and listening to all kinds of music on the radio. “I was just asking myself questions, like a call and response with my body.”


Then, improbably, he started to study ballet. When he was 17, a hip-hop crew he was dancing with began rehearsing (for free) in a local ballet school, the New Ballet Ensemble and School, located in an up-and-coming area known as Midtown. The founder of NBE, Katie Smythe, is an energetic and devoted former ballet dancer with deep roots in Memphis and a passion for inclusion. She saw Buck practicing one day and promptly offered him a scholarship (along with four of his fellow dancers). He accepted, with one caveat: no tights. Later, after he finished high school, the scholarship became a traineeship with a stipend.


Smythe was impressed with Buck’s ability to absorb lessons from ballet: His turns became more vertical, his hands and wrists more graceful, his footwork more precise. His attitude pirouettes on pointe went from one revolution to two and three. It was Smythe’s idea to have Lil Buck do a jookin’ solo to the music of Saint-Saëns’ “The Swan,” from Carnival of the Animals. On their way to a performance at a school, she played him the music and explained how Fokine had developed the solo with Anna Pavlova more than a hundred years ago. She showed him some of the original poses. With this information, Buck improvised a kind of modern, jookin’ Dying Swan, as steeped in pathos as the original, which he continued to develop, with Smythe’s help, over time. It has become one of his signature solos, a calling card.


In 2007, someone filmed it and put it on YouTube. Three years later, it came to the attention of Damian Woetzel and Heather Watts, both former New York City Ballet stars, now married. “I thought he was incredible,” Watts recently said. “It was so crazily inward and clear and personal.” Woetzel, who is the artistic director of the Vail International Dance Festival and a member of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, showed it to the cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Everyone was amazed by the musicality, the use of the sneaker on pointe, the arms, and what Woetzel calls “a unique kind of charisma.”


By this time—late 2010—Buck was living in Los Angeles and working on music videos and commercials. Still, meeting Woetzel opened up a new world. In Yo-Yo Ma, Buck found a kindred spirit: “We met, we gave each other a hug, and he said, ‘I wanna try something.’ Then he opened his case and just started playing. And the amazing thing is when he plays, he is the music. And that’s what I feel when I dance.” A video of their collaboration, filmed by Spike Jonze at an event in L. A. in April 2011, was viewed over a million times on YouTube. Later that year, Buck was an artist in residence at Vail, and Madonna asked him to join her on tour. In 2012 he was named a Dance Magazine “25 to Watch.”


This summer, Buck will be back at Vail, where he will collaborate with Tiler Peck, a current star of New York City Ballet, among other projects. It won’t be his first encounter with a major ballerina: At the Youth America Grand Prix gala this spring, Buck and Georgian dancer Nina Ananiashvili performed their own versions of The Dying Swan simultaneously. The two got along famously. 


Another thing Buck is enthusiastic about is teaching and working with kids. He embraces the mission of bringing art to schools. “The arts basically saved me,” he says. At Vail, Buck led jookin’ master classes and performed with kids. “I’m thinking about starting a campaign called the Buck Jump for Peace Campaign, like a boys and girls club, but with dance.” But for now, his schedule is booked pretty solid. He is currently appearing in Michael Jackson ONE in Las Vegas.


Damian Woetzel and Lil Buck leading a workshop at Inner-City Arts in L.A. Photo by Alex Pitt, Courtesy Aspen Institute.


This spring, he performed a show at the Le Poisson Rouge, a hip venue in Greenwich Village. Over the course of the evening, which was produced and directed by Woetzel, Buck danced to everything from jazz to klezmer, Galician bagpipe to Stravinsky. Perhaps one day Buck might create his own jookin’- themed show, like Savion Glover’s 1995 Bring in ’da Noise Bring in ’da Funk. Who knows?


What’s clear is that he’s still finding his way, still opening new doors. At Le Poisson Rouge, he danced a piece he had choreographed in collaboration with Woetzel, set to a cello prelude composed for the occasion by Philip Glass. Buck moved in slow motion, almost tentatively, at times covering his eyes, staggering, touching his heart. He looked lost. “There was a story there,” he tells me. “It was the story of me in this world, my world, a kid that just dropped out of the sky into this world of classical music. It’s kind of a dark world, but I’m dancing my way into the light.”


Marina Harss is a freelance dance writer and translator in NYC.