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The Exuberant Warrior Kings of 'Krumping'

Lil C and Tight Eyez in David LaChapelle's
Lil C and Tight Eyez in David LaChapelle's "Rize," about the new form of "ghetto ballet." (AP)

In its earliest phase, it was called "wilding out." Dragon and Tight Eyez are ripped and cut with muscle, and in the film their six-pack abs are oiled and on display -- adored by LaChapelle's close camera work, they look like the male models in one of the photographer's Vogue shoots.

But they insist it is not just a new dance trend. "It's not like, 'Oh, let's teach Regis and Kelly the new moves,' " says LaChapelle, though Dragon and the crew went on their morning TV show earlier this month. The dozen dancers in "Rize" have been doing the publicity tour. The buzz has been building for this film ever since LaChapelle screened it at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, where it commanded standing ovations.

The krump, they insist, is not the hustle. "It's not a craze, it's deeper, more beautiful, and darker and more aggressive, with more meaning," the director says.

That is what the dancers keep saying, too. "It's not some commercial hip-hop bling-bling booty thing," explains Dragon, whose real name is Jason Green, 23, now studying to be a minister, he says. "It's something inside you that came out of our world, out of our neighborhood." In fact, Dragon and his friends disparage the popular rap videos that feature faux gangbangers and pretenders draped in gold jewelry, curvy women hanging all over them and their rimmed-out rides, drinking Cristal. "That's about self-glorification," Dragon says. "All that doesn't mean crap. Because they're going to Hell."

Really, sitting in the humble storefront church, sometimes Dragon and Tight Eyez sound like Christian conservatives, warning that the nation has strayed from God, and that the youth -- and everybody else just chasing the dollar -- are losing their souls in a material, oversexed culture running amok. "Krump led us to Jesus and got us saved," says Tight Eyez, who sounds like an urban war veteran, just out of high school.

The movie details the rise of krump in South Central, coming up under the pop culture radar in back yards and parties. "Even the hip-hop aficionados didn't see it," LaChapelle says.

The phenomenon started with Tommy the Clown, Thomas Johnson, a reformed crack dealer who, upon release from jail in 1992, got a phone call from a friend asking him to dress up as a clown and perform at a kid's birthday party, where he could make a few hundred bucks, legit. Over time, Johnson -- dolled up like a ghetto fabulous Bozo -- began to entertain the munchkins at parties not just with balloons and tricks but with dancing, taking standard hip-hop moves and making them more outrageous and antic. The kids dug it, and so did their elders, who saw the minstrel show theatrics as the inside joke it was.

In time, Johnson attracted a retinue of young performers who painted their faces and wore crazy florid T-shirts and came to dance at the birthday parties alongside him, and to attend his Tommy the Clown hip-hop dance academy and later his Battle Zone contests at the Great Western Forum. At first, it was known as "clown dancing," and there rose up dozens of crews and cliques -- the Home Boyz, the True Clowns, Just Clowning, the Platinum Clowns -- to compete at the Battle Zones and birthday party gigs.

But the young dancers eventually found the Tommy the Clown style too tame. "We were vicious dancers," Dragon says. "Too rough and aggressive for the birthday parties."

Says Tight Eyez, "I wasn't an entertainer, I was a raw dancer."

The krumpers were taking the dance to another place -- more pushing and shoving, more pelvic and hot, with the krump looking more like fight night than prom night. Dragon explains that the evolving krump was "for mature audiences only," while the clown dancing was more PG-rated.

"We'd be like anywhere," Dragon says, "and two krumpers would see each other, at the McDonald's or on the street, and it'd be off, let's battle, let's see who's got it," and somebody would crank up a stereo or boombox, and sometimes onlookers would just clap and holler, and the krumpsters would go at it. "Like there was gasoline on the ground, and all you needed was the spark," Dragon says.

In the LaChapelle film, krumping is portrayed by the director and cast as an antidote to gangbanging and crime, and an outlet for athletes who don't play basketball or football, a physical catharsis to free the pain of being raised in households where the kids dragged their mamas out of crack houses and fathers were nowhere to be seen.

"What I learned," LaChapelle says, "is that, yes, there's poverty and oppression in the 'hood, it's dangerous and there's murders -- but there's poverty here, too," meaning the wealthy side of L.A., "but down there, they're dancing, joyfully dancing, on the streets, and why is that?" He says that for all the challenges of life in the ghetto, maybe his krumpers are living a life more full, more real. "I'm in the presence of heroes," he says.

What will happen to the krump scene? There are already crews of Latinos, Asians and white kids, and it has spread around L.A. to Lancaster, the Moreno Valley, Long Beach, Las Vegas and now up in Oakland, where the dance is called "hyphy."

The young dancers themselves? Tight Eyez still lives in a house with seven people, 18 blocks from the storefront church where he sits down with Dragon, who hopes to use the film notoriety to start a fashion line for spray-painted T-shirts, to make gospel records, and pursue a youth ministry using krump as the bait. Lil C, another dancer, has appeared now in videos for Gwen Stefani and Blink-182 and wants to be a choreographer. Ms. Prissy, born Marquissa Gardner, is on tour with the Game, protege of rapper Dr. Dre. She is a professional dancer. Baby Tight Eyez, the youngster Christian Jones, wants to start a krump school and buy his pastor a new church.

"I don't know," LaChapelle says, "what's going to happen to them. I do know this: Will success ruin them? No. But I know failure will."

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