Letter from the borough where Flex is King
Flizzo stood in the shadows as the other dancers formed a cipher. One of them, known as Soup, glided across the floor in a kind of multi-directional moonwalk. Another, known as Scorpion, ripped off his shirt and twisted his arms behind his head, appearing to pop his shoulders out of their sockets.
When the time was right, Flizzo stepped onto the stage. Shirtless in a pair of red Adidas track pants, he raised an egg into the air, placed it on the ground, and crushed it beneath his sneaker.
As he did so, a Zebra finch suddenly fluttered out of his mouth. The crowd shrieked with joy.
“You know that scene in Looney Toons, where Tweety lights Sylvester’s tonsils on fire?” Flizzo, whose real name is Jermaine Clement, later explained. “That’s where I got that idea.”
Inside the Bond Street Theater in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn last week, an assortment of dancers, choreographers, filmmakers and their friends had gathered to support Flex is Kings, a new documentary about the Brooklyn-based phenomenon known as flex dancing. The film’s Kickstarter campaign had yet to reach its $40,000 goal (which it did on Monday afternoon, three days before the deadline). And so the directors, Deidre Schoo and Michael Beach Nichols, staged a last-minute performance to promote the film, while giving others a chance to see what flexing is all about.
Schoo, a freelance photographer (pictured below), saw her first flex dancer at St. Nick’s Jazz Pub in Harlem in 2008, while on assignment for The Village Voice. She was captivated by the strange hybrid style—a mash-up of break-dancing, modern dance, ballet, and bruk up, a jerky Afro-Caribbean freestyle dance featured in Busta Rhymes’ 1997 video “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See.”
“It’s not as flashy as break-dancing, with all those helicopter spins,” Schoo said. “Flexing is more precise and narrative-based. You have to pay attention to figure out what’s going on.”
Soon after, Schoo began photographing Battle Fests, the one-on-one flex contests that take place at event spaces throughout Brooklyn four times a year. But still images, she realized, didn’t capture the dance’s narrative essence. In 2009, she began filming a number of dancers—including Flizzo, Jamar Campbell (a.k.a. Soup), and Jonathan George (a.k.a. Jay Donn, pictured at right)—as well as a show promoter named Kareem “Ice Cream Reem” Baptiste. By the end, she’d compiled more than 275 hours of footage.
The term “flexing” comes from "Flex N Brooklyn," a variety show on the public access station BCAT, where a group of street dancers from East New York regularly performed in the mid-2000s. One of those dancers, Reggie Grey, divides the dance into three component styles: pausing, gliding, and bonebreaking, a somewhat maudlin maneuver involving extreme contortions of the arms and neck (Scorpion demonstrates in the photo below). Grey, 29, said their routines became legendary in the neighborhood.
“People would stop me on the street, like, ‘Yo, are you Flex?’ And I’d be like, ‘Am I what now?’” Grey, who goes by the names Reg Roc and O.G. Pause, recalled with a laugh. “But then I thought, ‘Maybe that could be name of our style.”
Around 2006, fights began to break out at the Elk’s Plaza Ballroom in Crown Heights, where "Flex N Brooklyn" was shot. In response, Grey and Baptiste organized their own flex events at ballrooms and dancehalls around Flatbush, Brownsville, and East New York. They charged $15 at the door, served only non-alcoholic drinks, and often drew up to 800 people, who encircled the two competitors as they tried to one-up each other.
By the late 2000s, the best flex dancers from Brooklyn formed a kind of all-star team, known as The Main Event. The crew performed on Wild Out Wednesdays, a talent show feature on Black Entertainment Television's "106 & Park" program, and even appeared for a season on the reality TV show America’s Best Dance Crew, at which point they dubbed themselves The Ringmasters.
Those were the early days. Today, flex dancers are everywhere.
If you look closely, you can see two of them in Madonna’s Super Bowl performance. They have appeared in commercials for Adidas and McDonald’s, onstage with Nicki Minaj, and everywhere on YouTube. In April of last year, the director Spike Jonze posted a video of a flex dancer named Charles “Lil Buck” Riley dancing to the strains of Yo Yo Ma. The clip has been viewed over 1.7 million times.
Then there’s the video of a Brooklyn flex crew riding the A train in gas masks, which showed up on blogs like Gothamist and Animal New York last summer (it has since been taken down).
Campbell, a member of Flatbush’s Next Level Squad, starred in the video.
“If I were a passenger, I would have been like, ‘There’s a terrorist attack! I’m off this train!” he said at the Flex is Kings event. That morning, he had appeared as a dancer in the pilot episode of “The Carrie Diaries,” Candace Bushnell’s prequel to “Sex and the City.”
Flex dancing’s ubiquity on YouTube has spawned an international following.
“It’s weirdly big in Japan, France and parts of Eastern Europe,” Schoo said. “I’ve got all these friends from Russia on my Facebook page.”
But one of the dance form's most passionate advocates—Jacob Krupnick, director of the indie dance-music film “Girl Walk // All Day”—lives in Greenpoint. Krupnick, whose film follows the young dancer Anne Marsen as she jumps, glides and twirls her way through Manhattan to the soundtrack of “All Day,” an album by the mash-up D.J. Girl Talk, encountered a group of flex dancers on his last day of filming in October, 2010. They appear in a three-minute clip near the end, dancing amid the throng of shoppers on Canal Street in Manhattan.
“I was immediately floored by their level of animation and narrative drive,” Krupnick said at the event, where he and Marsen had come to support Schoo’s film. “I’d been trying to tell a story through dance, and they were doing the same thing. If I’d met them earlier my film would have been totally different.”
He added: “What I love is how literal their movements are, as opposed to those of ballet and classical dance, where everything’s a metaphor. Somebody’s going to write a serious Ph.D. thesis about flex dancing one day.”
Marsen, whose own style is a chimeric blend of more than a dozen dance forms, including salsa, capoeira, tap, and flamenco, has since joined a flex crew known as Street’s Finest, made up of students from Medgar Evers College in Bed-Stuy. Her initiation required that she “battle” one of the members, which she described as a nerve-wracking experience.
“I’m the only girl in the crew, and also the only white person,” she confessed, laughing. “But it’s totally cool. They’re all really supportive.” As a classically trained ballerina, Marsen, who recently dyed her hair pink, doubles as the crew’s physical therapist, offering advice about how to prevent injuries and joint damage.
“The guys who do bonebreaking push themselves really hard, to where they’ll accidentally dislocate their shoulders while dancing,” she said, shivering slightly. “It’s good to explore what your body can do, but you don’t want to be in pain when you’re forty.”
For many flex dancers, the inclination to push their bodies past physical limits reflects the desperation of their circumstances. The dancers featured in Flex is Kings see flexing as a ticket out of Flatbush and East New York, which have some of the highest violent crime rates in the city.
“They’ve created this system to keep themselves occupied and out of trouble, and to creatively express what’s going on in their neighborhoods,” said Schoo.
During the filming, a friend of Soup's was shot and killed outside his apartment during a gang-related dispute. Flizzo, a former gang member who was raised by his grandmother, has the words “Gotta Make It To Heaven” tattooed on his chest above the Manhattan skyline. “I’m gonna get Hell tattooed down here soon,” he said, slapping the blank canvas of his belly, “‘cause that’s where I’m living right now.”
The stories they tell through their dancing can be dark—re-enactments of shootings and suicides, for example—but mostly tend more toward fantasy and escapism, as in Flizzo’s signature bird move. Jay Donn, who embeds L.E.D.s in his clothing, is known for a move in which he punches streetlamps and suddenly lights up.
“We think about it like The Matrix,” said Reggie Grey. “Once you’re plugged in, it’s a free world. You can do anything.” Indeed, during a flex-dance demonstration near the end of the night, Soup and Jay Donn wheeled around one another in a kind of gravity-defying slow motion, like Neo and Agent Smith dodging each other's bullets. Others went through the motions of gliding and pausing as the audience stared, transfixed.
When a woman in the crowd requested a slowed-down version of gliding, Soup gladly obliged, though how he did it remained as mysterious as before.
“So...” the woman said. “Just go home and practice, right?”
All photos by Kevin Tachman.