Memphis Jookin isn’t simply a dance; it’s a lifestyle. Often referred to as “urban ballet,” the 25+-year-old dance staple of the birthplace of the blues consists of the seamless and constant gliding and shuffling of the feet where a moonwalk and a gangsta walk are a few toe taps away from each other. Grown from the ghettos of Memphis, the Memphis Jookin’ style has made it to The Kennedy Center, PBS, NBA 2K, and across the globe. For a dance predicated on constant interconnected movements, stillness could be tantamount to death.
When COVID-19 placed the entire world on pause in March 2020, the Memphis dance community temporarily lost those dance sanctums that helped Memphis jookin’ remain alive. Subroy Dance Studios, where the dance community takes lessons, was closed. The L.Y.E. Academy locations, where freestyle ciphers and sessions occur, were closed. Terrance “G-Nerd” Smith’s annual Jookin’ Warz competition, which every dancer who spoke with CassiusLife described as the Super Bowl of Memphis Jookin’, was canceled in 2020.
“Nothing was happening. Memphis is already scarce of opportunities for creative people. So, with the pandemic, it was non-existent,” Lashonte Anderson told CassiusLife. “Everybody waits for Jookin Wars. It’s like a family reunion. To not have that engagement, the fellowship of your family is detrimental to a lot of people’s mental health.”
For a dance predicated on constant interconnected movements, stillness could be tantamount to death.
Memphis is one of the 10 deadliest cities in America and only recently lost its top spot as the poorest city in America, with its bustling Beale Street only a few miles away from the dilapidated buildings near the Trigg neighborhood. A decade ago, when more than 14% of families in Memphis lived in poverty, 33-year-old dancer Myles Yachts was trying to make money by any means necessary and could’ve been dead or in jail. A decade later, his ebullient smile that stretches from ear to ear is tattooed on his face as he teaches members of the press Memphis jookin’ at a Red Bull-sponsored cooking class with Memphis rap legend DJ Paul of ThreeSixMafia and emcees the Dance Your Style competition. While most in attendance may see a show, for Yachts, the Red Bull Dance Your Style competition is just part of the journey dancing has put him on to save his life.
“I was in trouble. I was doing the most. I almost got killed before I left to go to Cali 10 years ago. Dancing saved my life because I would’ve been gang banging and running the streets to try to make some money,” Yachts told CassiusLife.
Memphis Jookin’ has changed too many Black lives for those people to not fight to keep it alive. It’s why Memphis Jookin icon Daniel “DP” Price and Lil P Da Goat created online jookin’ school DXP901 to teach people jookin’ in the midst of the pandemic. It’s why 21-year-old jookin’ prodigy and Dance Your Style contestant Sina likened the absence of dance cyphers during the pandemic to “not seeing your family for a long time.” And why she remembers private dance gatherings happening at places like L.Y.E. Academy and her own home after COVID-19 vaccines began becoming available in late December 2020.
The Memphis dance community kept one of the Blackest forms of dancing in modern American history from going extinct for more than a year, so Red Bull coming to town for its first-ever Dance Your Style competition in the city felt like more than a return to normalcy. It was the resumption of dance’s expansion beyond Memphis and across the world. “This is probably the biggest opportunity I’ve ever had. Jookin Wars is a good thing, but it’s in the city and I’m battling jookers I see all the time. Red Bull is more international,” Dance Your Style contestant Demarius Todd said.
Held at an old rail yard turned into a spacious open air dining hangout known as Railgarten in Midtown Memphis, Red Bull Dance Your Style had jookers younger than 21-year-old Sina facing off against body contortionists like 32-year-old Nick Fury from New Orleans with an 18-year-old freestyle dancer Jayden Smooth stunning the crowd into a frenzy on enough occasions to take home the crown. The event’s DJ, DJ Mikey Offline, had Black dancers crumping, jookin’ and freestyle dancing to classic records like The Isley Brothers 1959 classic record “Shout” and James Brown’s 1965 soul classic “I Got You (I Feel Good)” before bringing them back to the present with dance floor atom bombs like Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble” and Cardi B’s “Up.” Watching a dancer born in 2000 dancing in a jookin’ style from the mid-1980s to a song released in the late 1950s was a sobering reminder of the intergenerational reach of Memphis’s dance culture in action.
The vitality of a culture is normally measured by the excellence of its youth, and thousands of viewers on live streaming app Caffeine were privileged to witness Memphis dance culture’s evolution. Anderson was defeated in the first round to Jayden Smooth, who is not only 14 years younger than her but one of her former students. Smooth’s age belies his already deep history in the Memphis dance scene. He’s been getting paid to dance since he was six years old and dancing has been the only job he’s ever held for any significant time. He took the time off from school due to the pandemic to hone his skills, working on moves every day instead of succumbing to the pressures of life and taking time away from his gift by entering the job market. “I know plenty of dancers living off of dancing, as do I. I’m never going to get a job. This is what I live for,” Smooth said.
This year you’ll be able to see him dancing for the hometown Memphis Grizzlies and on stage as part of an upcoming Memphis jooking tour with Lil Buck. As people sauntered to their cars at the end of the night, embarking on their separate journeys to their individual destinations, a buzz blanketed the air once pulsating with break beats and cheers. Each person was recounting their favorite move of the night, children of different races spinning their bodies on the pavement in endearing mimicry of the dances they demonstrably couldn’t get out of their heads. It’s in these moments when there is no show entertaining you as a spectator, or gigs paying you as a performer, or indoor spaces able to hold your freestyle cyphers when the innate urge to dance overcomes you proves a phenomenon like Memphis Jookin’ is nearly impossible to kill as long as it’s impossible for it to not move you.
“Memphis jookin is one of those dances that is too legendary. We’re in 2021 and it’s been out since the early ’80s. It’s going to be legendary like poppin, breaking and other stuff. I feel it’ll never die.” Yachts said.