Memphis Jookin: A Ballet for the Streets

Editor’s Note: Step into the shoes of dancers from across the country who dare to imagine what it would look like if their city could dance with KQED’s If Cities Could Dance. Watch a new episode from season two of the video series every Tuesday through May 14, 2019.

“Memphis jookin is called urban ballet for a reason,” says Terrance Smith (a.k.a. G-Nerd). Performed in sneakers as opposed to pointe shoes, the dance is all about footwork: graceful slides, dizzying toe spins and impossible-looking ankle breaks.

The dance style emerged from the local rap scene in Memphis in the ’90s. Young dancers would gather at the Crystal Palace, a skating rink in South Memphis, smoothing the steps of Gangsta Walking into fluid, precisely controlled movements. Some of its biggest stars, like Smith and Lil Buck, are known in dance circles around the world, and locally, the jookin scene continues to thrive. Today, a number of schools in Memphis teach the dance style, and the new generation of jookers meet up in "bump sessions" at parking lots and home garages to practice their moves.

Ten years ago, Smith started the Memphis Jookin Warz, an annual battle where dancers have an opportunity to showcase their skills and connect with the jookin community. “We don't have a lot of platforms, so it’s like we had to build this one from the ground up,” Smith says.

Now Smith (only 30) is part of the “older generation,” watching young dancers like 16-year-old Dra’em Hines—whose dad introduced him to jookin—rise through the scene. “The new generation is bringing originality and just crazy moves,” he says. “They have ability out of this world.”

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Watch G-Nerd and Jookin Warz winners Bryann Rashadd Alexander (a.k.a. Toe Disciple) and Dra’em dance across Memphis—in the parking lots of Hickory Hill, under an I-40 overpass and on the Riverside Drive basketball courts. — Text by Sarah Hotchkiss

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