Jordan Levin

Dancing all over the world: Lil Buck brings his jookin style to Miami

Dance sensation Charles 'Lil Buck' Riley gives a lesson on Jookin', a style of street dance, to a Master's dance class at YoungArts on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015.
Dance sensation Charles 'Lil Buck' Riley gives a lesson on Jookin', a style of street dance, to a Master's dance class at YoungArts on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015. Miami Herald Staff

He’s Baryshnikov in sneakers, Jean-Michel Basquiat for the dance world. He’s Charles ‘Lil Buck’ Riley, a phenom in an obscure Memphis variant of hiphop dance called jookin who has vaulted into the cultural stratosphere as smoothly as he spins on his sneaker-clad toes. Buddy and collaborator with Madonna and Yo-Yo Ma. Star of Youtube and New York City Ballet galas.

And all smiles on his first visit to Miami last Tuesday, teaching a master class in jookin for YoungArts, demonstrating an unlikely combination of joyful attitude and grace. “In jookin we like to show off — yo, check out the kicks, I know you don’t got em!” a wriggling, grinning Riley tells 12 startled dance students from New World School of the Arts and Miami Arts Charter school, in a studio in the YoungArts complex in downtown Miami. Then he’s preaching grace and control. “I want you to really feel elegant,” he says. “I don’t want to hear your foot — I want you to barely graze the floor. You wanna be floating.”

He glides across the floor, feet and arms rippling, as seemingly weightless as a ballerina bourreeing on pointe — then throws in one of his trademark, impossible-looking spins on the side of an angled foot. The students and a watching crowd of media, teachers, parents and YoungArts staff giggle and applaud.

“One of the most important things when you make this a career is to keep the passion alive, because once you’re demotivated it becomes work,” Riley, 26, says later. “So it’s always just as fun as it used to be. I made it my life’s mission to really get this dance style out there and have the world see how beautiful this style is.”

Riley’s (which he calls his “government name”) success is a product of his explosive talent and obsessive hard work, but also of the miraculous-seeming chance connections of the internet. In 2010 he was another hiphop dancer striving to make his way in Los Angeles when Heather Watts, a celebrated former ballerina with the New York City Ballet, was riveted by an online video of Riley improvising to Camille Saint-Saëns’s Swan, the music for the famous ballet solo The Dying Swan. Watts showed it to her husband Damien Woetzel, also a famous former NYCB dancer, who showed it to world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma. They tracked Riley down on Facebook and arranged a meeting at Walt Disney Concert Hall. At the time, Riley had no idea who they were.

“I was like Yo-Yo who? What?” Riley says. “He just gave me the biggest hug and said ‘so you’re Lil Buck.’” The Chinese cellist took out his instrument and played Swan and Riley started improvising. “He just started playing without warning, and I just started dancing, and we just created the beauty right there,” he says. Later that day, they repeated their impromptu performance at a meeting on arts education, which director Spike Jonze filmed on his iPhone. The video, with Riley flowing with idiosyncratic grace to the achingly romantic music, went viral. And Lil Buck became a star.

He danced with Madonna on the 2012 Super Bowl halftime show and will appear with her at the Grammys on Feb. 8. He has repeated his Swan performance at Lincoln Center and on tour in China with Yo-Yo Ma. He has charmed Ellen DeGeneres and Stephen Colbert; been featured in GQ, Vogue, Le Monde, Dance Magazine, the New York Times, and the New Yorker; danced in Spike Lee’s Da Sweet Blood of Jesus and been a guest judge on So You Think You Can Dance.

Woetzel has opened doors to the fine arts world; Riley has performed at the Vail International Dance Festival, where Woetzel is artistic director; been an artist-in-residence at the Aspen Institute, where Woetzel runs the arts programs; spoken at the Aspen Ideas Festival, along with the likes of Robert De Niro and Al Gore. A meeting with the French street artist JR at a TED conference in 2011 led to Riley starring in a New York City Ballet premiere created by JR to launch the company’s season last spring. (Among Riley’s many fans is Miami socialite Yolanda Berkowitz, who brought him in to perform at a fundraiser for the Voices for Children Foundation last weekend, leading to his YoungArts appearance.)

His dizzying array of projects keeps Riley, who nominally lives in Las Vegas (where he plays the spirit of Michael Jackson for Cirque du Soleil), traveling 250 days a year. “He kinda lives on Delta,” says Jai Armmer, Riley’s manager, a music producer and Memphis friend of 10 years. It’s a challenging schedule even for someone with Riley’s inexhaustible energy. “Yo Jai, man,” says Riley, flopping in a chair after Tuesday’s class. “What do I got coming up? I can’t even keep track.”

He’s buoyed by his love for and belief in his art form — and a confidence that keeps him from being awed by the celebrated figures that now fill his life.

“I’m never intimidated because at the end of the day we’re all just people,” he says. “I’m an artist just like they’re an artist. I’m an artist at his highest caliber just like they’re an artist at their highest caliber. So we all have mutual respect for each other. I can do things that they couldn’t dream of doing, and vice versa.”

Born in Chicago, Riley move with his family (he has seven siblings) to Memphis when he was 6. There, he grew up loving basketball, drawing and Michael Jackson. He found his calling when he was 12 years old, when he walked into a Memphis roller skating rink that was a center for the jookin dance scene and encountered a vision named Bobo who could walk on water. He still lights up describing his moment of enlightenment.

“I see this huge circle and I push to the front and I see this guy smiling, ear to ear smile, with gold in his mouth, gliding, gliding across this carpet in sneakers, like water, he was just melting. And I was like no way. I knew what I wanted to do from that moment on. I just felt it. This is it. It’s over. I have to learn how to do this. This is the most amazing thing I ever saw in my life.”

He became obsessed with jookin. He’d stay up dancing till dawn, sneaking out to dance in the carport or sliding around the kitchen in his socks while his family slept, then falling asleep at school. He’d bob rhythmically in the mirror as he washed his face or brushed his teeth. “I would go grocery shopping, and while I pushed the cart I would be gliding,” he says. “I loved it so much, I wanted to get good at it so bad, it became a way of life.”

Jookin had been around since the mid-’80s. But unlike more famous hiphop styles like break dancing, with its head and body spins and uncanny-looking popping and locking, jookin was unknown outside Memphis, where it was a beloved part of local and underground hiphop culture. Riley calls it “a bounce, a groove” — loose-bodied and free-spirited. But he took the dance to a new, more virtuoso and expressive level.

“You see someone balance for 20 seconds — Buck can balance for 80,” says Armmer. “Someone does one spin, he does three or four. He changed the game.”

“It’s more of a feeling than a dance style,” says Riley. “In order to really do the dance, you have to have the emotion that comes with it.”

Relentlessly enthusiastic and ambitious, he was soon posting videos on Youtube, which led to a Los Angeles producer flying him out to appear in a music video when he was 19.

In his YoungArts class, he breaks down steps with the same specificity you’d find in any high level technique class, instructing them with a mix of pop and formal references. “I will use counts, but I prefer to use onomatopoeia,” he tells them. “Anyone ever seen James Brown do this?” he asks, demonstrating a kind of bent-legged kick, before explaining, “this is called the point toe — point that toe and touch the ground whenever your heel hits the ground.”

“It was very different from what we usually do,” New World senior Julia Faris, 17, said afterwards. “But he was able to break it down.”

“It’s really cool,” said classmate Marcel Mejia, 18. “It’s really free — a lot of it’s about finding your inner feeling.”

An openness to other dance forms has been key for Riley. In Memphis, where he attended a performing arts high school, he also studied and performed with the New Ballet Ensemble and School, which teaches a cross-cultural version of ballet and dance. “I used to see ballerinas on pointe and I’d be like ‘I want that!’” he says. It was New Ballet’s director Katie Smythe, who played him the Swan music, that led to his breakthrough.

With his talent, physique and flexibility, Riley could have had a career in ballet — or almost any other kind of dance. But he says he’ll never abandon jookin.

“Nope,” he says. “I’m well aware of ballet and where I could have went with it. But ballet, all these other dance styles they’re already established, already rooted. Jookin’s such a fresh dance style. It changed my life, motivated me to get into dance. It wouldn’t be right for me to learn this style and get good so I could get a scholarship and then just do ballet. I would find that disrespectful.”

That Tuesday evening, Riley was the center of a YoungArts salon, a discussion series that has featured Marina Abramovic, Robert Redford and Joshua Bell. His interviewer was veteran Miami hiphop dancer and theater performer Rudi Goblen, and the two men found they share lots of friends in the hiphop world. The audience was filled with arts patrons, to whom Riley is a kind of exotic wonder. Voluble and articulate, he charmed them. But at the end, when he performed, he was mesmerizing: movement rippling through his body, suspending in balance or sudden changes; he seemed to disappear into the music and his dancing.

He’s driven by those moments, by the freedom that his ability, and now his fame, have given him.

“After you learn the fundamentals you’re on your own, you have to fly,” he says. “It’s beautiful.”

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