Lil Buck talks about jookin and his show at Le Poisson Rouge

Lil Buck, the jookin sensation, talks about the Memphis dance style and his new show at Le Poisson Rouge.

Lil Buck in The Swan

Lil Buck in The Swan Photograph: Erin Baiano

Lil Buck, the jookin sensation, talks about the Memphis dance style that he reveres as well as ballet in advance of his show at Le Poisson Rouge. In the performance, which is produced by Damian Woetzel, Lil Buck performs with Yo-Yo Ma; one highlight is The Swan, an insanely beautiful duet between the pair. The evening also includes a premiere of a composition by Philip Glass.

The extraordinary Lil Buck, the Memphis dancer who has brought jookin to places as varied as the Vail International Dance Festival, Madonna’s stage shows and—yes—The Colbert Report, is in town for a one-night-only engagement at Le Poisson Rouge on April 2. For Lil Buck, jookin, which developed from the line dance the gangsta walk, is a way of life. (It’s pronounced like book, but with a j.) In the program, directed by Damian Woetzel, Lil Buck appears with Yo-Yo Ma, who will debut a new work by Philip Glass. There are more surprises in store, but one highlight is a performance of The Swan—an insanely beautiful duet between Ma and Lil Buck. This dancer, onstage and off, is, as Madonna might put it, a ray of light. 

Time Out New York: How did you like being on The Colbert Report?
Lil Buck:
I loved it. Colbert was awesome. He’s a very good guy. Funny guy. Very welcoming. He was like, “Okay, when we go out there, I’m just gonna be a totally new person. I’m not going to be me. So just go with the flow.” [Laughs] I was like, “Okay.” But he’s pretty cool.
Time Out New York: When did you start dancing and why?
Lil Buck:
I’ve been dancing since I was six, but I started really getting into it—as far as the style I do right now, jookin—when I was 12 years old.

Time Out New York: When did you discover jookin?
Lil Buck:
It’s nothing I discovered. It’s something that I came across—my sister showed me actually. I was born in Chicago, but I was raised in Memphis, Tennessee, and that’s where the dance is native. So I found out about it when I was 12. My sister was in the living room and I guess somebody taught her some jookin steps from school—she’s older than I am. She was doing this kind of crazy, bouncy-bounce with her shoulders and with her knees, and I was like, “What is that?” She was like, “This is jookin! You gotta learn how to do this. There’s some boys, they good.” [Laughs] I was like, Okay, whatever. But then I started seeing more people do it. There was a time when I went to the Crystal Palace—a skating rink in Memphis—and that’s when I first saw the guy who really inspired me.

Time Out New York: Who was he?
Lil Buck:
They call him Bobo. I was 13, and I saw him gliding across the carpet when I first walked in the door. There was a big circle around this one guy, and they were giving him so much praise. He was gliding across the carpet like it was water, and I’d never seen anything like that in my life. I always looked up to Michael Jackson, and to see somebody who made me think, I can’t believe this guy is better than Michael Jackson,was just amazing. I never thought I’d see the day. So that’s when I really fell in love with the style and I was like, You know what? I wanna try this. I was an artist before I started dancing. I was a great drawer; I still draw and doodle a little bit, but I was fantastic. I used to draw people. I used to play basketball; I used to be into sports a lot. I was into a lot. But when I saw this dance, it captivated me so much that I put all my eggs in one basket.

Time Out New York: How did you master it?
Lil Buck:
I just danced every day. I have mentors named Marico Flake and Daniel Price. My brother—well, I call him my brother. He’s like a brother from another mother, but his name is Jai, and we call him Young Jai. He started the first actual jookin DVD called Memphis Jookin Vol. 1. And that’s what really put the dance style out there because people outside of Memphis could buy it online. I was in the DVD. He had all these jookers lined up to meet at this parking lot outside of a club to make this video. I was kind of nervous. This was after I got kind of seasoned in jookin. This was around when I was 17 years old. So I’m skipping from 13. [Laughs]

Time Out New York: That’s okay, but I might ask you to go back.
Lil Buck:
From 13 on, I was just dancing everywhere—in grocery stores, when I woke up, brushing my teeth—my whole life was jookin. When I was 17 at the Martini parking lot—it was a club—I saw all the jookers for the first time from all over. I’d never seen anything like that—so many people coming together just to dance. Jookin attracted the urban community, you know? People from the  ’hood, people from where I’m from. But from all over Memphis. So you’ve got all these kids from Memphis, Tennessee, outside in this parking lot, and we’re just dancing and it’s so positive. Jookin is such a big thing in Memphis; it’s one of our prized possessions. The police came through, and they saw what we were doing and they just left. They were like, “Oh, keep going kids.” There were like 50 of us.
Time Out New York: Why does it have that effect?
Lil Buck:
I think just because it’s a native thing. It’s like what the blues is to Memphis and what Elvis is to Memphis. Everybody and their mother knows about jookin, pretty much. Like I told you, I got inspired by those two guys. That’s who I met at the jookin session outside in that parking lot. And when I was dancing, I went out for the first time in my little debut, and I was killing. They gave me all kinds of praise. They were like, Oh my God! They’d never seen a style like mine. Because I wasn’t around a lot of jookers when I was starting—just my sister and a couple of people from the neighborhood who did it a little bit, but weren’t too good. I just kept myself in that environment around them, with just a few people I knew. I stayed in Westwood; it was kind of like a cul-de-sac, and I would see the same people every day. But when I saw [the other jookers], they’d seen nothing like my dance style, and they just jumped on me and started working with me. Marico Flake and Daniel are two of the best. They mentored me, trained me and got me to the point where I am now as far as learning jookin right. Because there are original steps that make it so native.

Time Out New York: What are they?
Lil Buck:
It started with the gangsta walk. It used to be called the gangsta walk before jookin. That was kind of like a line dance; it was really confident. It just evolved from gangsta walking to what it is now. But as time evolved and as dance evolved, we added waves and pops and snaps and glides to it, and it just became jookin. The word jookin is basically Memphis slang. People in Memphis are kind of country, so instead of saying, “How you doing, man?” we’re like, “Howyadoin, mah? [Laughs].

Time Out New York: It’s like the dance, it’s like water—it glides right through.
Lil Buck:
Exactly. I believe someone saw it happening and they didn’t know what to call it—they knew what gangsta walking was, but they saw someone adding on to gangsta walking and they were probably like, “That guy’s jookin that beat! He jookin the shit outta that beat!”
Time Out New York: What were you doing that was so different from the others to make your mentors take you on?
Lil Buck:
I’m really flexible in certain parts of my body. Not everywhere. [Laughs]. But I have a natural flexibility. Actually, when I was in fourth grade, my ankle snapped all the way back the other way in an accident—not a car accident, just an accident in school. I went through mad physical therapy. This was when I was in fourth grade, really young, before I even knew about jookin. I went through a lot of physical therapy, and it happened again—not the same way—when I was taking ballet at about 18. I felt something crazy in my ankles. I started taking physical therapy again; my Achilles’ were messing up. And after three months of physical therapy, I was stretching and my ankle popped with a big popping sound, and I felt the rush through my whole body. It was a tingle that rushed from ankle all the way up to my head. It was scary, but it didn’t hurt. It was just like a Sprite fizzing up; that’s how it felt. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know what to do, but it didn’t hurt so I was just like, Okay, I’m just gonna chill. And the next day, my ankles were loose. Bouncy, bouncy and loose, and I was like, Wow, what the fuck? It’s kind of like a superhero story, right?

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