Dancer ‘Lil’ Buck’ Riley brings jookin to the fore

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“Lil’ Buck: Real Swan” comes to the M.V. Film Center for one night, Saturday, March 20. It will also be online for a 24-hour period. This documentary by Louis Wallecan outlines the stunning form of dance called “jookin” that got its start among young Blacks in Memphis, Tenn. Jookin is the unique, fluid form of hip-hop street dancing that evolved from Gangsta Walk, and Charles (“Lil’ Buck”) Riley epitomizes its intricate footwork.

Open since 1981, the Crystal Palace was a roller-skating rink, now defunct, and once skating was over, it gave young Black men a chance to dance. Gangsta Walk became a way to get out anger and frustration without joining a gang, with the violence and drugs that way of life involved. Although it is a minor element in the film, a woman is shown jookin behind the Crystal Palace food counter where she worked, and Lil’ Buck first learned about jookin from his older sister. Jookin dancers worked to make enough money to go to the Crystal Palace. Once the Crystal Palace closed in 2017, its empty space became the biggest stage dancers could perform on. They also danced on concrete, more of a challenge.

According to Lil’ Buck, the jookin culture was like a territorial war for young Black men. “It was like the wild, wild West,” he said. “Rather than be murderers, we’d just dance it out. Jookin kept us out of the street. It’s a lifestyle.” When DVDs of jookin by Daniel Price began to circulate, they gave jookin greater popularity, and Lil’ Buck, in particular, became seen as an incredible dancer.

Lil Buck’s mother, Sabrina Moore, supported his dancing. “His tennis shoes would last one week,” she said. Concerned about the influence of gangs in the gang-infested Orange Mound neighborhood where Lil’ Buck was growing up, she enrolled her son in the performing arts school, Memphis New Ballet, where ability to pay was not an issue. While there, Lil’ Buck decided to add ballet to his jookin repertoire. “I wanted the discipline,” he said. Referring to his ballet instructor, he added, “Katie helped me understand dance, and opened my eyes to the world.”

An important aspect of jookin influenced by ballet was performing en pointe (on dancers’ toes), and Lil’ Buck learned how to improve his jookin toe dancing in sneakers from his ballet classes. Aiming for celebrity, he went to California. “I gave him the last money I had,” his mother said. “It paid for his flight out.”

Buck’s fellow dancers became like family, and he collaborated with hip-hop performers in California. “We gotta show ’em our art,” he said. When choreographer Benjamin Millepied saw Lil’ Buck, he described him as a beautiful dancer, and encouraged him to dance barefoot: “Just to see his body in this pure form.”

Filmmaker Spike Jonze ended up making a video of Lil’ Buck performing Camille Saint-Saëns’ “The Swan” with Yo-Yo Ma on cello, and the video went viral. The “Lil’ Buck: Real Swan” film conveys the fluidity of Lil’ Buck’s movements and his remarkable capacity to interpret music through jookin. Lil’ Buck performed in Beijing with Ma, and later with the Fondation Louis Vuitton in an interpretation of Stravinsky’s “Petrushka” ballet.

When Lil’ Buck returned to Memphis, he combined teaching and activism with performance in a rare combination of them. “Lil’ Buck: Real Swan” is worth viewing for the breathtaking artform that jookin is, and for an appreciation of an important aspect of Memphis culture.

Information and tickets for “Lil’ Buck: Real Swan,” both at the Film Center and virtually, are available at mvfilmsociety.com.