Accomplished photographer and music video director David LaChapelle is known for training his creative eye on stars like Britney Spears, Gwen Stefani and Christina Aguilera, but for the past three years he's been focused on a group of underprivileged young people living in South Central Los Angeles who are at the head of a new dance movement, which they are determined to bring center stage.
LaChapelle helps them realize that aspiration with "RIZE," his first full-length cinematic venture.
"RIZE" is a vibrantly shot, high-octane documentary that takes viewers into the vulnerable and unpredictable lives of these inner-city youth who use a dance called krump to keep their hopes alive and their heads above the water.
Krumping is a high-energy mix of breakdancing, gymnastics and spasm-like movements. The dance is akin to what may go on in a mosh pit, in that it's a raw reflexive response to the music. But instead of slam dancing to rock n' roll, these kids pop their limbs, gyrate their torsos and stomp their feet to hip hop music. And though they closely resemble breakdancers, krump dancers are constantly in high gear and in some cases, flaunt even more dexterity.
The dance originated as clowning under the hand of Thomas Johnson, a.k.a. Tommy the Hip Hop Clown. In 1992, Tommy made an impromptu appearance at a child's birthday party at the behest of a friend who desperately needed entertainment for the kids. Well, Tommy showed up in clown regalia –- makeup, over-sized shoes, wig and all -- threw a few dance moves into his routine, and the kids went crazy.
The routine stuck and so did the kids' interest, and pretty soon dancing clown cliques were popping up all over South Central. Tommy even oversaw a clown dancing academy and organized community events and competitions, a popular one being the Battle Zone.
The Battle Zone is fierce, kinetic, no-holds bar dancing, where the objective – much like with breakdancing – is to put your opponent to miserable shame. So the krumpers and the clowns dance fast and they dance hard to be crowned the best by an audience of their peers.
The whole idea of krump and what it entails may sound a little odd to some, as it did to Rich and Tone Taluegua, professional choreographers and producers who oversaw the soundtrack for "RIZE." As Tone tells it, the two first discovered the exciting dance while working as choreographers for a Coca Cola commercial with LaChapelle.
During a break, the brothers spotted a hired female dancer off to the side clown dancing. Intrigued, they approached her and asked about the movements, and that's when they found out about Tommy the Clown, the dance movement and how it was taking off in places like L.A., Compton and Long Beach.
"After she said they put paint on their faces and go out to birthday parties…it just wasn't normal," Tone concedes. "Everything just sounded so bizarre. A clown dressed up in a wig in full makeup in the middle of the hood?" It didn't make sense to the two, but they had to check it out nonetheless. And when they later shared their discovery with LaChapelle, the photographer/ music video director was just as blown away.
"I was awe-struck when I saw it first," LaChapelle told the Associated Press. "I felt I had to do a documentary. I want people who watch the film to feel what I felt when being in a krump session, which is completely inspired."
As LaChapelle and the Taluegua brothers soon discovered, the krump movement wasn't just about dancing. The youth in "RIZE" have all had rough lives and the dance families provided them with whatever was missing at home or at school. As one dancer Tight Eyez explained in the film, there weren't any after-school activities to join outside of basketball or football. And where they're from, you're either in a gang or in a dance group, dancer Lil' C noted. Yet for others, they krump simply because they enjoy it, and they're excited about the movement's future and their place in it.
In the end "RIZE" is breathtaking, sad, inspirational and hopeful. LaChapelle gives these kids a chance to show how they created something beautiful out of ugly and desperate situations. And despite the death, drug abuse and abandonment that has touched so many of their lives, these kids never express any kind doubt or self-pity.
"There was so much positive energy," Tone says of his time with the dancers. "These kids, they're growing up in poverty stricken areas, surrounded by so much negativity. These kids were actually taking in all this turmoil and pushing it back out in this positive way through dance, which was so beautiful cause it's like so much temptation out there in any type of ghetto, any type of hood around the world."
As for bringing the krump movement center stage, some of the young people involved in the film are now getting a different kind of spotlight. Artists like Missy Elliot and the Black Eyed Peas have featured krump or clown dancing in their music videos. Also, one of the film's stars, Lil' C, has worked with a slew of artists including Missy Elliott, Usher and Gwen Stefani. And another krump dancer, Miss Prissy, is reportedly touring with rapper The Game.
As the krump movement picks up speed, it may surely go commercial and possibly lose its edge as countless other "popular" dances have done. But it seems more likely, as with the kids who created it and what LaChapelle's documentary pays testament to, that krump may endure and evolve into something bigger and better.
As Rennie Harris, founder of the Hip hop dance company Rennie Harris Puremovement, puts it, "Krumping will do one or two things. It will go on to create a codified vocabulary or become a dance form that the next generation may refer back to to inform their dance style…"