Hip Hop Clowns' Formidable Feat

From street to stage: The Hip Hop Clowns include founder Tommy the Clown, above center and below.
From street to stage: The Hip Hop Clowns include founder Tommy the Clown, above center and below. (Music Center At Strathmore Photos)
By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 9, 2006

You can't be down on Tommy the Clown. I mean, it's almost enough that he wears a rainbow wig the size of a cumulus cloud, a signature look of candy-colored puffiness that telegraphs warm and fuzzy love.

But not only does Tommy dress like a child's dream of fun, with the hair and the face paint and the baggy, spangly clothes (and a few sleight-of-hand tricks up his big sleeves), he's the role model for kids who need it most. Nearly 15 years ago, Tommy the Clown, ne Thomas Johnson, grew his hip-hop-centric birthday-party act into the dance phenomenon known as krumping. He'd invite the kids he'd meet in the worst parts of Los Angeles, where he was based, to turn away from violence and join him in dancing their aggressions away. As krumping grew, with its blend of hip-hop and b-boy (break dance) moves and an added jolt of fierce emotional release, Tommy became a benevolent godfather to prospective gangbangers, offering his "crew" as an alternative to South Central's Crips and Bloods.

Tommy's Hip Hop Clowns spawned dozens of offshoot dance crews, and the movement started seeping into popular culture. Krumping went from street corners to the big screen in last year's documentary "Rize"; Madonna, Missy Elliott and other pop stars have featured it in their music videos. Now krumping is taking its first steps on the concert stage. Tommy and his 10-member troupe of energetic young folks performed Saturday at the Music Center at Strathmore, the first stop of a planned national tour.

Street dance has never had an easy transition from alleyways to the proscenium stage. The intense emotions and competitiveness that bubble up naturally in a neighborhood dance setting are tough to re-create in a concert hall, particularly one with Strathmore's yawning dimensions (which seemed especially acute at Saturday's matinee performance, when the hall was about half full). The huge commercial explosion of hip-hop dance, for example, has not translated into large numbers of hip-hop performances on the concert dance circuit. With a filmmaker's ability to enhance both drama and action with camera angles and close-up shots, krumping, like b-boying and hip-hop before it, looks great on-screen. But some of the rawness, the explosive power, the searing attitude and intensity gets lost in the sanitized atmosphere of the theater.

So a live redux of the best parts of "Rize" this was not. Still, Tommy's show had its rewards, particularly in the second half, a re-creation of the Battle Zone competition he hosts in L.A., in which dancers from opposing crews duel, and audience reaction determines the winner. Tommy's group, ranging in age from 10 to 24, is a fearless lot. Not one of them, he says, is a trained dancer; they all came to him from broken homes or even jail, and under his guidance turned bad beginnings into clean living and fabulous moves. There were back flips and handstands, hips hammering like pistons, and independently pulsing pectorals that seemed ready to burst from the skin.

The best part, however, was when Tommy opened the stage to anyone in the audience who could dance -- and so many eager teens rushed down the aisles he had to turn some away. One by one, the local youths strutted their own rapid-fire moves, in some cases nearly rivaling those of the performers.

A slow-moving first half could have used some judicious editing. Tommy commanded the crowd to show its love for each of his crew members, early and often. We applauded them for not being in jail, for their impressive grade-point averages, even, in the case of "Casper" (a.k.a. Beau Paul Smart), for being white. Yet with the exception of a few short bursts of movement -- limbs popping from their sockets, body parts isolated and heading off in their own directions -- there was little krumping to be seen in the first hour. Instead, Tommy paced the stage with mike in hand, interspersing the personal stories of the young dancers with testimony about his newfound faith in Jesus and leading the audience in chanting "God is good." Apparently, this was a welcome message for many, and Tommy returned to it frequently.

The music, spun onstage by Robert "DJ Sisqo" Harris, was for the most part unremarkable, some of it drawn from "Rize" tracks; at one point Tommy lip-synced a praise song while performing a lengthy display of magic tricks for an assembly of young audience members he had summoned onstage.

Yet there can be no argument with Tommy's overarching message: "You got problems?" he queried the crowd. "Don't fight no more. Bring it to the dance floor ."


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