Lil Buck’s ‘Memphis Jookin’: Art bursting through 

Lil Buck. Photo by Louis 'Ziggy' Tucker.
Lil Buck. Photo by Louis 'Ziggy' Tucker.

Rose Theater, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, New York, NY.
February 3, 2023. 

Memphis Jookin, a tale of growing up dancing in the southern city, hit the stage at Lincoln Center, and judging from the sheer speed the audience jumped to their collective feet after it was over, it was a great success. Lil Buck, aka Charles Riley, takes the street dance that brought him to fame and plants it right in the face of the audience – in a way that makes you want a second helping of this dance treat. 

Jookin came about in Memphis over 30 years ago, but it was Lil Buck who brought it to a national stage. Influenced by his time studying ballet, he mixed jookin with classical music, creating a mesmerizing result. But this show was nothing of that sort, and told the tale of young kids learning the dance in the streets and at the roller rink, the Crystal Palace. There’s dialogue, a loose plot and a lot of dancing.  

The show takes street dancing to the stage, but it still felt raw, real, and the performers seemed excited to be on the stage. Changing a core element (in this case, street dancing to the stage) of art can be tricky in translation, but the creative team behind this show managed to keep the sincerity of what happens on the street alive and vibrant for the stage iteration. 

Jookin is often referred to as street ballet, and the similarities are evident. The grace and flow of Buck’s skill (and of all the dancers) give it an otherworldly-like effect, in a way that classical ballet also does. Jookin is fluid and flows – some dancers liken it to catching a wave in surfing because once you get on, you just ride. All great dancers understand the importance of flowing with movement, whatever type it is, but in jookin, you can see that flow represented visually, as if the dancers are moving absent of bones. 

While many in this NYC audience were likely only mildly familiar with this style of dance, we all walked out of the theater with an education on the history of jookin in Memphis, a sense of awe and an experience showing that when something is done with heart, the art bursts through with all its humanity.

By Emily Sarkissian of Dance Informa. 

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