The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In pain and rage, a protester approached police. And then he danced.

Jo’Artis Ratti found comfort in dance as he searched for a way to express his frustrations during protests against the killing of George Floyd in Los Angeles. (Video: The Washington Post)

Jo’Artis Ratti is sure he looked intimidating to the police officers who were suddenly confronted by his agitated dancing at a California protest Sunday.

“I’m 210 pounds,” said Ratti, 35. “I have tattoos on my neck. I don’t have a passive energy; I’m very enthusiastic. And I know this looks unfamiliar.”

So at the demonstration in Santa Monica, after he’d jabbed the air and flung his arms open, after he’d stomped his feet and thrust his broadly muscled chest forward, unmistakably telegraphing defiance, confidence and strength, Ratti stopped and said to his wary audience in riot gear: “Bro, I’m here for peace.”

Video of Ratti’s astonishingly vigorous display quickly went viral, generating admiration as well as confusion. Some commenters were as baffled as the police: What was going on here?

Ratti, who goes by Big Mijo in dance circles, was krumping. He’s one of the founders of this hard-hitting competitive street dance from South Central Los Angeles. It arose in the 1990s and early 2000s as a corporeal art that channels life in black and brown communities after the Rodney King riots, amid police and gang violence, poverty and drugs. Krump is characterized by outsize muscular attack, far more aggressive than hip-hop. Dancers can look like they’re undergoing uncontrollable spasms, or that their bodies are flying apart one moment, snapping back together the next. Throughout fierce bursts of energy and raw emotional displays, the top dancers’ muscles are so finely controlled, it looks like video trickery is involved.

Mainstream culture was quick to spot the entertainment potential of krump. Madonna, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé have taken krump dancers, including Ratti, on tour, and he and fellow dancers appeared in David LaChapelle’s beautifully made, well-regarded 2005 documentary on krump, “Rize.”

Inside one of the few places where dancers still perform, founded by a glamorous disco impresario

But as krump has journeyed from the streets to screens and stages, it remains a protest art. And that’s why Ratti used it to improvise on a lifetime of rage and despair within a few feet of a police line.

The result is one of the most poignant images to come out of the past week of protests over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police — and the story behind Ratti’s dancing, and what followed, is just as poignant. (More on that shortly.)

What’s initially striking in the videos is the brawly look of Ratti’s body language. He lifts his arms and thrusts a fist, but it hits nothing, breaks nothing and it isn’t meant to. The pantomime of head-butting and jabbing, with moments when his whole body crumples as if in grief, lasts mere seconds. Every gesture is sharp but evanescent, vanishing as quickly as it takes shape. This is a man palpably baring his pain, anger and rebelliousness, and then holding his peace.

Then there’s the immensity of the barrier that Ratti is up against — armed law enforcement — and the futility of one fragile and vulnerably positioned person trying to communicate with it, even with a fellow dancer, his friend Samantha Donohue, buckling and stomping next to him.

Herve Koubi was raised to keep quiet about the past. His dances tell a different story

Powerful choreography such as this is happening across the country and beyond. Where demonstrators have gathered in Floyd’s name to decry racism and police brutality, the streets have become dance floors. Protesters are tapping into dance’s power as an act of rebellion as well as connection, a way to express ineffable emotions and share those emotions with others.

“There aren’t a lot of masculine men who dance,” Ratti said in a phone interview from North Hollywood, “and that’s what keeps me motivated to do it. To show people that you can let your guard down and be vulnerable through art.”

In Puerto Rico, protesters have launched into rippling bomba moves, rooted in the island’s African slave history. In New Zealand, groups have performed the Haka, an ancient Maori war dance of forceful pride and unity.

And at a Newark demonstration, a police officer gently rolled his arms and shuffled his feet to the beat of the background music as he wordlessly invited a group of children into his dance. One little girl accepted — and upped the ante by coolly dropping into splits. Everyone cheered.

All of these dances, so vastly different, hook us in the same way. They tell a story through visceral means that need no translation. We see what inclusion looks like in the Newark officer’s beckoning gesture. What self-confidence and assertiveness look like in a child throwing down a killer move. Even those who’ve never heard of krump can feel the anger, distress and courage in Ratti’s actions. In these spontaneous displays we recognize our own behaviors of defiance and triumph.

Dancemaker Bill T. Jones isn’t always sure art is useful. Here’s why he keeps at it

Yet in the case of most krump dancers, and certainly for those in its early days, the moves stem from a deep well of personal pain. For Ratti, that well overflowed before he danced in Santa Monica.

He and a friend had attended a protest the previous day in Los Angeles, joining a crowd headed to Beverly Hills. The police there “got really aggressive, shooting rubber bullets and beating people with clubs,” Ratti said. “I almost got hit. And I wanted to fight back. But my friend said, ‘Bro, we didn’t come here for that,’ and he kind of knocked some sense into me.

“But later that night, I was like, ‘Man, I want to have a voice. I’ll use my art.’ ”

So the next day, Ratti grabbed his buddy Donohue and a photographer friend and went to Santa Monica. There, he saw a man holding a sign saying that his son had been killed by police. The man was in tears, and Ratti connected to his open emotion.

He approached the line of police officers and started improvising.

“It was just off the top of my head, in the moment,” he said. “It was storytelling, just trying to act out what I felt as far as gun violence and police brutality. That we need to just end this, and trying to convey that in movement.

“I was feeling so many emotions,” he added. “Hurt, tired, frustration, anger — and empathy. Seeing that black man crying, not saying anything, not looting, just standing for a message. I empathized with that, and I wanted to bless the area with my movement.”

In wake of George Floyd’s death, black theater leaders want more than sympathetic words

Ratti grew up in South Central at a time when controversial court orders known as gang injunctions created restrictions for young people. “You couldn’t hang out with three or more of your friends without being harassed by the police,” he said. Krump arose as a dauntless response, as self-taught dancers Christopher “Lil’ C” Toler, Ceasare “Tight Eyez” Willis and others, including Ratti, fueled combative dance battles with nerves and muscles relentlessly on edge in their daily lives.

“Krump was created to bring awareness,” said Ratti, who has built a career teaching and performing it. “It’s a testimony.”

It also has the power to change.

On that Sunday last week, as Ratti began whipping up the air, his body convulsing, one of the officers grabbed his baton “as if he wanted to strike me,” Ratti said.

So the dancer stopped, regained his breath and spoke. He told the police that krump was born in L.A., is part of the larger culture and, really, the LAPD should be more educated.

“I said to them, ‘You’re not connected with the streets, not connected with your people.’ ”

None of the officers responded.

Ratti began to dance again. He didn’t mean to get so close to them, he said — his energy and emotions carried him there. He could tell the police were uncomfortable, saw their shoulders rising.

He danced and stopped, danced again. He said that gradually, “You could tell the attention to what I was doing was different. At first they weren’t looking, but then I had their attention.”

At last, one of the officers spoke up, telling him, “I know of that dance style. Thanks for doing that.”

Ratti was amazed.

“I danced in seven people’s faces, and I felt like I got to confess to each one of them. I felt recognized,” said the man who has traveled the world with an art forged in pain. Those movements brought him comfort — and an unlikely bond.

“I felt like they were finally seeing me.”