USA TODAY July 27, 2005


After-school programs and activities for teens on Los Angeles' mean streets near Florence and Normandie — the flashpoint for the riots after the Rodney King trial — are in short supply.
Tommy the Clown, who is considered the godfather of a street-dance style known as "clowning," figures prominently in the documentary Rize.
Lions Gate Films

"In other neighborhoods, they have dance schools and prestigious academies," says a kid named Larry in the riveting documentary Rize. "There's nothing like that around here for us. So we invented this."

What they invented is a street dance that has its roots in African tribal rituals but also is influenced by hip-hop, gymnastics and break-dancing. It's frenetic, athletic and balletic.

"This is our ghetto ballet," says a dancer named Dragon. "It's the only way we can feel like we belong." There is simple poignancy expressed by the kids interviewed, who have street names such as Tight Eyez, Miss Prissy, El Niño, La Niña, Larry and Lil C. They point out that some of the moves may look aggressive, but they're an emotional form of physical self-expression.
About the movie


Director: David LaChapelle
Distributor: Lions Gate Films
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
Rated: PG-13 for suggestive content, drug references, language and brief nudity
Opens Friday in select cities

"A lot of people think what we are is a bunch of thugs," Larry says. "What we are is oppressed. ... This is not just a bunch of people acting wild. This is just as valid as your ballet, only we didn't have to go to school for it. It was implanted in us from birth. "

Photographer and music video director David LaChapelle documents the growth of a dance that has origins with Tommy Johnson, known locally as Tommy the Clown. A charismatic former drug dealer who turned his life around after a stint in prison, Johnson began entertaining at children's parties as "the hip-hop clown" in 1992, attracting fans and followers. He opened his own hip-hop clown academy. Today, about 50 "clown groups" practice the fast-paced gyrating he started, complete with painted faces that resemble tribal warriors more than traditional clowns.

Besides being a pioneer, Johnson has evolved into a father figure and a highly respected force in the community. He teaches potential gang members and disenfranchised kids to channel their anger through this creative outlet. Johnson says it has saved him as well: "If not for clowning, I'd probably have been a very bad person."

His speedy dance moves inspired a related dance called "krumping." There is a protracted segment chronicling a competition between "clowners" and "krumpers" that drags a bit, and the movie starts to feel repetitive. But mostly, LaChapelle reveals the captivating qualities of gritty street dancing, and his film is a touching story of hope, vitality and art rising from the bleakest conditions.

By Claudia Puig