Lil Buck Brings Memphis Jookin’ From the Street to the Theater

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'Memphis Jookin': The Show' arrives on the West Coast for three nights at Cal Performances and Stanford's Bing Concert Hall on Feb. 25, 26 and 28. (Louis 'Ziggy' Tucker)

Maybe it’s the sweltering summer heat or the deeply rooted history of the shuffle, the raw, elegant beat that defined Stax Records’ hits. Tennessee’s environment and culture are inextricably intertwined, and Memphis jookin’ seems to emanate from Bluff City’s self-possessed vibe. Rather than focusing on athleticism or vertical leaps, it’s a Black dance form defined by poised slides, expressive glides and an aesthetic of taut restraint.

With Memphis Jookin’: The Show featuring Lil Buck, Cal Performances and Stanford Live present the West Coast premiere of a new production exploring the origins of the street dance idiom that’s once again projecting Memphis onto the world stage. Running Feb. 25-26 at Zellerbach Hall and Feb. 28 at Bing Concert Hall, the show brings together some of the style’s leading innovators.

The show’s narrative arc was lifted lightly from recent history, vividly illustrating how Memphis jookin’ emerged out of various moves, practices and neighborhood meetups in one of America’s most segregated cities.  With limited resources and a surfeit of creativity, dancers gathered to share their tightly controlled, expertly calibrated moves “built to be able to express ourselves genuinely,” says Charles “Lil Buck” Riley on a recent video call with Memphis Jookin’ choreographer Marico “Dr. Rico” Flake and director Amy Campion.

Also known as gangsta walking, buckin’ and choppin’, the style took shape in the late 1990s amidst sinewy hip-hop beats by influential underground artists like DJ Spanish Fly, Lil Noid, G-Nerd and G-Style. The impromptu freestyle performances meant “you could be yourself, no matter where you came from,” Lil Buck says.


“I’ve experienced releasing my trauma through dance with different styles,” he says. “In ballet, when you learn a choreography you’re learning someone else’s movement. There’s a right way and a wrong way. With Memphis jookin’ you have that freedom and can use that as a platform for your trauma or joy, and that’s a very powerful thing.”

Lil Buck has covered a lot of ground in his career. He spent two years studying ballet via a scholarship at Memphis’s New Ballet Ensemble, co-choreographed Janelle Monáe’s music video for “Tightrope,” toured with Madonna and starred in the Cirque du Soleil show Michael Jackson: One. His breakthrough moment came in 2011 via the ballet connection, when an informal video shot by director Spike Jonze captured cellist Yo-Yo Ma playing Saint-Saëns's “Le Cygne” as Lil Buck freestyled “The Dying Swan,” a dance inspired by Mikhail Fokin’s solo for legendary Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova.

Posted to YouTube, the video went viral, accruing millions of views, and suddenly Lil Buck and Memphis jookin’ became part of the larger street dance lexicon alongside Oakland’s turfing, Chicago footwork and other idioms explored by KQED’s award-winning If Cities Could Dance video series. Dr. Rico and co-choreographer Terran Noir Gary had been thinking about creating a Memphis jookin’ showcase for years, and when the pieces started falling into place with the Orpheum Theatre Group as co-producers, they didn’t let the pandemic kill their momentum.

While it’s a Broadway-style dance show, Memphis Jookin’ came together with far less development time than a Great White Way production. Due to the pandemic, the creative team wasn’t working together in the same space throughout much of the initial planning. For the auditions, they weren’t looking only for spectacular dancers who could execute a time-defying slide.

“Not every street dancer can learn and perform dances created by someone else,” Campion says.


Beyond choreographing the show, Dr. Rico has concentrated on melding the dancers into a crew. Given the distilled nature of the style, which strips movement down to an emotional essence, it’s not surprising to find out that he starts every rehearsal with group meditation. He believes that before dancers can communicate effectively with each other (and audiences), they need to connect with themselves.

“The idea of meditation was teaching them to be present in the moment,” Dr. Rico says. “None of the moves matter more than the intention, the ‘why?’ As a collective, we figured out a way to balance it all, and not exclude tough moments. Aesthetically, the grooves are really based on musical notes related to music’s time signature and how you feel the staccato or legato motion. The choreography is needed, but to keep innovation you have to tap into right now. When we get there, we know it. Let them ride that! We know when we get in that zone.”

Memphis jookin’ is culturally adjacent to a plethora of street dance idioms that have emerged in Black communities across the country. Beyond the deep ties to hip-hop, the styles similarly celebrate freestyle improvisation. The street dance scene seems to thrive on camaraderie. Lil Buck was quick to praise dancers he’s encountered in Oakland over the years.

“We all have appreciation for each other’s style,” he says. “We might have  little competition here and there. We all have respect, and we inspire each other. We know how hard it is to get what we hold so dear out to the world. I love seeing the turf dancers get down. Krumping is one of my favorite styles.”

That said, no matter where he goes, Lil Buck is proud to represent his hometown. Part of the genius of Memphis jookin’ is that the name made the claim. Some older dancers still call it gangsta walking, but Dr. Rico notes that several other cities have street dance styles called jookin’, “but I can’t tell you where they started. With us, you know this definitely came from Memphis.”