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By Bob Westal | June 24, 2005

For as long as I can remember, there’s been nothing less “cool,” less “street” than clowns. So, therefore it makes perfect sense that the one of the latest trends in cutting-edge urban street culture is “clowning.” Clowns, baggy pants and all, are now cool, but only if the clown can dance.

Clowning and it’s more recent variant, krumping, are high speed dances that resemble traditional tribal dances combined with moshing and the sort of orgiastic movements common in Pentecostal and other charismatic churches. It’s a dynamic style of dancing that’s could be seen as highly sexualized – especially by an uptight white guy, and I’m not one of those. Still, it’s the speed and intensity that makes the dance style remarkable.

As rendered by still-photographer and music video director David LaChapelle, Rize beings with the story of Tommy Johnston, a/k/a Tommy the Clown, a reformed ex-con who started performing as a dancing clown at children’s parties shortly after the Los Angeles Rodney King riots of 1992. Soon, Johnston was mentoring a growing cadre of youngsters who sport partial clown make-up and dance in the clowning style. Eventually, a more aggressive, alternative style of dance evolved, called “krumping.”

Rize spends most of its length chronicling the struggles of clowning and krumping performers to reduce their level of violence by providing an alternative to gang membership and a form of spiritual release. Even at the moment of the two style’s greatest triumph – a pro-wrestling style clowning versus krumping dance-off at Inglewood’s Great Western Forum – Tommy the Clown’s home is invaded and ransacked.

But dealing with life’s darkness is what this type of dancing is all about. Clown make-up or no, there’s something almost disturbing in clowning and krumping’s spasmodic mock violence, but that’s just a reflection of the war torn environment that created it. And it’s definitely going to be around for awhile. One sure sign: Asian and white kids are already forming clown and krump teams.

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