Jookin, an increasingly popular dance style that originated in Memphis, doesn't claim the flashiest or most difficult of urban dance moves.
The kung-fu windmill spins of break dancing or the spastic aggression of west-coast krumping seem far more physically taxing. But jookin has a unique elegance that — unlike breaking or krumping — allows it to be emotionally poignant in various musical contexts, from rap to classical.
On Saturday evening, in the shadow of the Sears Tower in Crosstown, organizers of a dance "battle" attempted to acquaint jookin's technique and footwork with the world's most established dance form — classical ballet.
In this "Urban Ballet Showcase," staged by Memphis Urban Dance (MUD) Entertainment, competitive stylists paired off in one-on-one matches, competing for a final showdown with one of the evening's two headliners, who were also dueling each other.
A key move in jookin is known universally to ballerinas as being "en pointe," or on the tips of the toes. Jookers, however, are predominately male. Instead of pink satin pointe shoes, they wear colorful sneakers emblazoned with logos such as Nike and Adidas.
The ability to balance on the ends of the toes, frozen in elaborate contortions of torso and limb, is the hallmark of a top dancer. But also, as in classical ballet, the more control a jooker has over his body (especially the feet), the closer he comes to perfecting this mostly improvisational style.
One of the most instructive rounds of the evening, between master jookers G-Nerd and Daniel Price, was danced to a live string quartet playing a Mozart sonata. Their smooth-flowing arms and streamlined footwork might have put a Nutcracker prince to shame.
Personality — aka "showmanship" on the score cards of three anonymous judges — further engaged the audience, and Dr. Rico's humorous costume changes, Spider's mime-like comedy improvisations, and LaShonté Anderson's playful references to Michael Jackson, drew shouts of approval from the crowd of around 2,000.
For the finale, G-Nerd squared off against Division I-ranked Brandon "B. Frank" Franklin. G-Nerd's slow-motion, 360-degree pirouette while dramatically removing his baseball cap resulted in other competitors showering the stage with their own hats. He was declared the winner.
The exhibition was peppered with group dance routines by local schools U-Dig Dance Academy and SubRoy Studios. The Beale Street Flippers also exhibited their skills.
Now that future jookin competitions are in the works, organizers should try to inform viewers about the style's finer points so that distinctions can be made between showmanship and expert technicality. Sure, jookin sizzles to high-energy music. But a quiet Mozart melody reveals it to have unexpectedly light and lyrical soul.