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Cirque for the soul

Krumpers and clowners channel their emotions into hip-hop and theatrical dances unique to South Los Angeles.

August 21, 2004|Jessica Hundley | Special to The Times

Daisy is 14 years old, with red tennis shoes, pigtails and a broad, sweet face that, when she's krumpin', becomes suddenly lean and cat-like, beautiful in the fierce manner of Egyptian queens.

"It all comes out when I'm krumpin'," she says. "Everything that frustrates me and hurts me, it all comes out. I'm angry when I'm krumpin', but when I'm done, it's all good. When I'm done, I'm calm."

Once you've watched Daisy in a krumpin' competition, this catharsis comes as no surprise. The allure of krumpin', a furiously energetic street dance unique to South Los Angeles, is its no-holds-barred physicality, its encouragement of improvisation and its unexpected and imaginative use of theatrical face paint. Today, Daisy's plump cheeks have been adorned with carefully executed whirls of white, a flowing, vaguely threatening design that gives her the look of a warrior on the eve of battle.

She and several similarly adorned krumpers have gathered in the parking lot of Jesse Owens Park on Western Avenue, looking rather regal and defiantly out of place. A crowd of young children, accompanied by a few puzzled parents, has wandered over from a playground to gawk. Interspersed among the krumpers is another group of dancers, the clowners, so named for their colorful carnival gear -- baggy patchwork pants, faces decorated with bright mosaics of circus greasepaint. Where the krumpers are tribal in their choice of makeup, the clowners have opted for a look reminiscent of turn-of-the-century vaudeville.

"We're all of the same tree, but we're different branches," says a 19-year-old clowner named Rocco. "If we're krumpin', it's more aggressive. If we're clownin', it's more happy and go-lucky. There's a style for every mood."

Suddenly there is a burst of applause. One of the clowners, a pert-nosed 15-year-old who goes by the name 'Lil Tie Dye, has just opened the back of a parked minivan, revealing a stack of enormous stereo speakers. Someone leans in the van's front window and hits a switch. After a moment of suspenseful silence, J-Kwon's hip-hop hit "Tipsy" booms across the pavement.

The battle, it seems, is on.

What follows is a thrilling, nearly gladiatorial display, as the krumpers and clowners form a loose circle around the first dancer, a lithe and tightly muscled krumper called Dragon. Dragon is a handsome 24-year-old with a strong, expressive face and the body of a pro basketball player. He's wearing all white today, a color that nicely offsets the jet-black lightning streaks he has painted beneath his eyes.

As "Tipsy" kicks into a grinding, sexually charged chorus, Dragon begins to dance, punching the air in quick karate-chop bursts and jerking his body in a way that is somehow both violent and gracefully emotive -- imagine Baryshnikov in a really bad mood. The kids in the circle begin to holler out encouragement, a chorus of "Oh, yeahs!" and "Go-go-gos!" that fuels Dragon's movements until he is nothing more than a blur in the afternoon air. The bystanders stand gape-mouthed as Dragon does a quick back flip followed by a neat spin. A wave of heat and excitement emanates from the dance zone, a throbbing pulse that follows the bass line and hits straight in the guts.

Something is happening inside the dance circle, something raw and beautiful, a nascent art finding its form and, simultaneously, a generation finding its voice.

"It's a brotherhood and a sisterhood," says a krumper known as " 'Lil C." "It's us as a people coming together as one cohesive unit, as African Americans. When everyone is dancing and the spirit is going from person to person and then you add the makeup -- it's Africa all over again."

"Our ancestors didn't get a chance to tell our story, because they were enslaved," 'Lil C says gravely. "After all they went through, it comes down to us. We get to tell that story for them, in its raw form. We're expressing something important, we're taking what we learned from Tommy and bringing it to the next level."

'Lil C smiles and bows his head. "So, much love to Tommy."

Clownin's father

Tommy THE CLOWN, as he is better known, was once an unassuming, affable South L.A. denizen with an office job and a knack for making people laugh. Then one day nearly 12 years ago, he was asked to perform as a clown at a friend's party.

"A woman at my work had a kid who was having a birthday," he remembers, "and I guess everyone just thought I'd be good at playing the clown. I like to entertain, ... so I said, 'Sure, I'll try it out.' And I liked it. I liked it so much I wanted to do it again!"

Tommy, who no longer uses his last name, had found his calling. And he found himself in high demand for everything from children's birthday parties to parades and community events. He was evolving into a local spokesman of sorts, an iconic image of a kinder, gentler South L.A. "I think people just wanted to laugh," Tommy says. "They wanted something positive and happy. And that's what I tried to give them."

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