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Review: ‘Lil’ Buck: Real Swan’ Brings Memphis Jookin with a Ballet Twist to the World Stage

Review: ‘Lil’ Buck: Real Swan’ Brings Memphis Jookin with a Ballet Twist to the World Stage

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Since he was a little boy copying his sister’s moves and improving on them, Charles “Lil’Buck” Riley knew he was born to dance.

By the time he was 14 he was an active skater at Memphis’s iconic Crystal Palace Emporium and it wasn’t long before he’d be invited to stay after the rollering finished and the dancing started. Louis Wallecan’s documentary Lil’Buck: Real Swan takes us on Buck’s journey from Memphis jooker to world-renowned hybrid dancer, teacher, and art activist.

Home of the street dance style known as jookin — a fluid method reliant on quick foot movements and flowing arms like dancing underwater — Memphis was a rough place to grow up, but the dance competitions and roller emporium helped keep Lil’Buck and his friends occupied and mostly safe from the harder aspects of their city. When Lil’Buck was coming up the dominant jookin style was shaped by the gangster walk, something that Al Kapone of the Three 6 Mafia called, “dancing for people who can’t dance good.” But they do dance good, though. Better than good. 

Lil’Buck grew up watching these jookers put their personalities, their life stories, and their distinct Memphis neighborhoods into their dance and he mused on how to develop his own. Inspired by Daniel, the “king” of the gangster-walk jookin who was said to be a better dancer than Michael Jackson by everyone who knew and saw him, Lil’Buck tried to find a novel approach to jookin. Which he did through the integration of ballet movements into this Memphis dance style.

In theory the dance-offs and jookin competitions were supposed to help keep people out of trouble — one of Buck’s friends half jokes, “Instead of us becoming murderers, we would just dance it out.” But Lil’Buck’s mom Sabrina Moore grew concerned when her talented son seemed to be falling into the gang-running crowd. Since she was a single mom who worked two jobs to keep their family afloat, she decided to take him out of regular high school and enroll him in the local performing arts academy Memphis New Ballet. It was there that Lil’Buck had his style epiphany. Something he would bring to jookin that nobody else had done before: He’d go en pointe in his sneakers. And this one small adjustment went on to change jookin — and Lil’Buck’s future — forever.

If you’re like me and can’t help but cry at beautiful dancing, make sure and have a box of tissues handy when watching Lil’Buck: Real Swan. The expressionistic movements of jookin, like Jesus walking on water, coupled with its pantomime-style storytelling is literally breathtaking. There’s a scene where Buck jooks to my Sri Lankan sister M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” and I had to stifle a small sob. Dancing heals. Representation heals.

And because Lil’Buck is double jointed throughout his body, it is truly stunning to watch the way his body moves like absolutely nobody else’s. His teachers at Memphis New Ballet saw his immense talent and encouraged him not to limit his style to either jookin or ballet, which he was exceptional at as well. Buck’s toes weren’t only sore and bleeding from learning ballet en pointe. He also taught himself to toe walk in sneakers. For a talent showcase, Memphis New Ballet filmed Buck dancing Tchaikovsky’s Black Swan with only jookin movements, and it would be this video that put Buck on an entirely new path to fame.

Thanks to the wonders of the internet and social media, prodigy cellist Yo-Yo Ma found the video of Buck dancing Memphis street to classical music and reached out to him to collaborate. Filmmaker Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Where the Wild Things Are) was in the audience as Yo-Yo and Buck made singular magic together, and he filmed a portion of the performance. After the event, Jonze decided it was too beautiful of footage not to share — and so unique nobody would have seen anything like it before — that he posted it to the event’s website. The video went on to go viral, and from there Buck began fielding calls from art industry powerhouses for collaborations and choreography. Lil’Buck tours with Madonna now. Go, King.

But amid all these amazing and well-deserved opportunities around the world for this mind-bogglingly brilliant dancer, Buck never forgot his roots. He uses his platform for art activism and awareness, as well as teaching dance at local community centers in Memphis to keep his dream alive as well as stoke the dreams of kids coming up. What a remarkable human being.

Lil’Buck: Real Swan isn’t just about one young man’s journey to follow his dreams and become a world-famous dancer. It is also about how dance is community. When the Crystal Palace Emporium closed down due to unfortunate bouts of violence, sadly gang membership in the community went quickly up. The kids didn’t have anywhere to go anymore to skate and dance, and hone their crafts. Lil’Buck and others are working to change that once again. Buck insists that without ballet he never would have developed the discipline to do what he does now, and this is his key message when talking about how and why dance was able to take him and his family out of the hood.

Even more than all that beauty, Lil’Buck says, “Jookin is all of your life experiences put into movement.” Anger, love, frustration, pain, our bullshit and our history all streamlined into the body’s expression of these and so much more. And through the dozens of dances we see in Lil’Buck: Real Swan this foundation is hypervisible. I have “WOW WOW WOW” written over and over again in my notes because WOW. I was rendered speechless watching Lil’Buck and his cohort as they take over the dance world. Jookin is art. The hybrid jookin-ballet-hip-hop Buck created is art. And this is the kind of art that doesn’t just change lives, it saves them. 

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