Meet Lil Buck: Jookin Master

"It's all been happening really fast," says Lil Buck, a rising star in the dance world and ambassador for a style of dance from Memphis called jookin. In 2010, former New York City Ballet principal Heather Watts saw a video of the jookin virtuoso on YouTube.  Watts showed the video to her husband, Damian Woetzel, also a former NYCB principal as well as a member of the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities and the artistic director of the Vail International Dance Festival. Woetzel was equally impressed, and arranged for Lil Buck to dance "Dying Swan" to the accompaniment of Yo Yo Ma. "Unknown to them, this was filmed by the director Spike Jonze, using his iPhone. Mr. Jonze posted the clip online, creating a global sensation," explains this NYT article.

 

After that, Lil Buck became a sensation. He's danced on tour with Madonna, traveled extensively as an envoy for arts education, and appeared in numerous music videos. Most recently, he landed the role of dancing MC for Cirque du Soleil's newest Las Vegas show, "Michael Jackson One."  The reviews so far have been raving. He "almost steals the show with his remarkable body movements. Wait until you see what this guy achieves balanced on one toe. Exceptional ... ," raves this LV Sun News piece.

 

I got to see Lil Buck perform "Dying Swan" alongside the great Nina Ananiashvili at the 2013 Youth America Grand Prix gala. (Here are videos of Lil Buck and Ananiashvili dancing the role separately.) Their performance together was stunning, and I was thrilled to have the chance to interview Lil Buck about the partnership, jookin, and his ideas for the future at a recent photo shoot.

What does it take to be great at jookin?

It’s a native dance to Memphis.  To be really good at it in the eyes of original jookers and people who really know the style, you have to go to Memphis and absorb the rawness and energy of it! You can’t learn it all in a class. It was never learned in a class originally—it was always learned on the street by sight and by just being inside the aura, the energy of the style. It has a spirit.

How would you describe the spirit? 

Happy! It’s an abundant spirit that just comes through you as you learn the style. It’s a very special dance. We have a big connection with the floor and the ground.

How does the floor affect the dance?

If you look back to when we started jookin, it started on concrete, outside in parking lots. We just opened the car doors up and let the music play and we’d just get down. So it started on rugged terrain, so for us it’s easy to dance on anything because we started on such rough ground. A floor with a smooth surface is better though. If it’s rugged, it’s OK, but it won’t be as powerful. It’s stronger if you watch us glide on a smoother surface. We look more fluid.

Does jookin involve a lot of specific technique?

Yeah! Jookin has a lot of technicality to it. There’s a lot of intricate footwork. It’s a different kind of moving, period, and especially for people who don’t naturally move like that or who haven’t found their natural style. It’s really a very intricate style and it’s hard to learn if you want to be a master.

How did you learn? 

It meant the world to me! When I was introduced to the dance when I was 11 or 12, it just took me. As a kid, I was crazy active. Once I saw jookin, I saw this guy gliding across carpet making it look like water, I was in its grasp. I put all my eggs in that basket, gave all my energy to learn this style because I knew it would take that much focus to be as good as I wanted to be.  You start out learning from more seasoned jookers. There are amazing dancers in Memphis. 

Now I never really take classes, but I was classically trained for 2.5 years in ballet when I was 17. Before I was classically trained, I’d been spinning on my toes and gliding. But ballet really got my core strong enough so that now I can stay up on my toes.  We do a lot of spins that can relate to ballet pirouettes. Jookin actually has a lot of moves that relate to ballet. We’re in fifth position a lot. That’s how I got into ballet actually. One of my old teachers, New Ballet Ensemble Director Katie Smythe, saw me practicing. She saw me in a bunch of ballet positions and she gave me a scholarship to take ballet classes. I was like, “yeah, as long as I don’t have to wear tights!”

Speaking of ballet, what was it like to dance with Nina Ananiashvili?

Nina’s amazing! She’s an amazing person and incredible to dance with. Her arms! They’re actually a little like mine. As soon as I saw her move them I was sold. She reminded me so much of my style of dance. To see a ballerina wave her arms like that, it was like water! I knew we’d dance well together and get along.

Did you take away any new skills or inspiration from the experience?

I’d like to emulate some of her elegance. She’s so elegant! Watching her move, she’s so soft and effortless. I tried to absorb that from her. I hear the same about me, that my movements look effortless, but it doesn’t feel like that from the inside!

What do you think other styles of dancers would gain by studying jookin?

Studying jookin gives you more freedom of mind. You’ll find a whole new world in your mind of ways to move. Dancers will find themselves doing way more with their minds and bodies. You learn you can control each and every part of your body, down to individual finger joints. It gives you so much freedom to be able to use any part of your body to express yourself and jookin teaches you overall body control. I can control every part of my body.  I just play with it. That’s the fun of dance. I learn my body a lot, mess around a lot to learn what I can move what ways. I’m obsessed with my own anatomy. 

Speaking of your anatomy, you can do some pretty amazing contortions and your ankles support you in some broken-looking positions. Is that safe?

I wouldn’t recommend a lot of the moves I do to anyone. You might break an ankle! This is just how my body works, which I love, but everyone finds their own style of jookin and makes it theirs.

What’s next for you?

Besides the show in Vegas, I see the style as a whole becoming bigger than what it is, having a bigger platform. I think it deserves to be on a platform right next to jazz, contemporary, and ballet. I want to start a show that tells the story of jookin and pays tribute to its history, origins, and the masters through movement with live music. I’ve been thinking of different programs for the kids back in Memphis, too, to benefit them, keep them motivated. I’ve been thinking of a campaign I want to get started called Buck Jump for Peace. It’d involve getting out to different schools in Memphis, targeting schools with kids who aren’t doing so well academically. I see jookin as an art, and I’d like to get kids more excited about all the arts. I think jookin’s a great way to do it.

You must be a hero to kids in Memphis. What does that mean to you? 

I guess I am. It means a lot seeing that kids want to follow a positive track. Kids want to be like a lot of people, lots of artists, singers, rappers, athletes. Doing what I’m doing now is just one way to reach the kids back home and let them know that they can do what I’ve done, too. I’m from the same place they’re from and they see me on TV and in music videos they love. They get excited and it gets them inspired to do something. And they feel like they can, because they know I was right where they are just 5 years ago! That’s a blessing of everything happening so fast. People back home identify with me so I have a powerful chance to be a positive role model. The kids are our future, so that’s my whole goal: to inspire the youth and get them into the arts, because that’s what’s gunna save us.