When asked to describe the perfect jookin’ performance, Memphis legend DJ Paul of Three 6 Mafia answered clearly: “Man, you know how they really kill it? It’s when they float. Some of these dudes look like they fu**in’ floating on air. They’re on their tip-toes, but it’s just like they float on air. You got some guys out here that will do a crazy spin and crazy float. I like sh*t like that because we all grew up watching Michael Jackson moonwalk.”
All this and more is exactly what competitors brought to the Red Bull “Dance Your Style” Memphis qualifier earlier this month (Oct. 10). Hundreds of enthusiastic viewers gathered in the outdoors section of local spot Railgarten to watch 16 rounds of one-on-one dance battles between performers from across the country. Hosted by New Orleans artist-entrepreneur-producer Pell and Memphis artist and dancer Myles Yachts, the event’s proceeds from ticket sales were donated to Hurricane Ida relief efforts organized by MaCCNO (The Music & Culture Coalition of New Orleans).
Hyped by Pell and Yachts, a thick crowd surrounded the dance floor to choose the toughest dancer each round. Memphis dancers had the homecourt advantage which was evident in the crowd-voted results. But skill, talent, and crowd wow-moments were the ultimate sell. The intricate jookin’ freestyle routines were hard to beat. The final two performers, 16-year-old DanceBeastElise and 18-year-old Jadyn Smooth put the homegrown dance style of jookin’ at the forefront, coming in runner up and first-place, respectively.
Jookin’ is a style of dance born in the streets of Memphis. It focuses on footwork and is not to be confused with the footwork style from Chicago or Detroit’s jit style of movement. Jookin’ evolved from gangsta walking and incorporates the balance and poise of ballet, the swagger of Hip-Hop, and the sleekness of Michael Jackson’s best moonwalk.
“This is something that’s been created within our hometown, this is something that’s been created that’s native to our city. It is protected by knowing the right history behind it,” shared Yachts. The musician and dancer shared his known history of Memphis jookin’ with VIBE ahead of the competition.
“This was before my time. This was like, early ’80. I wasn’t even born yet…let’s start off with gangsta walking. Those guys have made the way and shown the steps of gangster walking and for it to be something today. Without gangsta walking, there would be no jookin’.”
When looking to learn more about the distinct dance, most Memphis dancers and fans of jookin’ would direct you to LaShonté Pop, a dance teacher and performer. As a competitor in the Red Bull “Dance Your Style” Memphis qualifier, she was voted out in the first round, defeated by Jadyn Smooth, one of her students.
For LaShonté Pop, jookin’ is not just a celebration of Memphis culture; She uses dance to mentor youth. It is also an extension of her creative prowess as she not only dances to records crafted by southern Hip-Hop acts but is also fueled mostly by her own music. As a small child in the ’90s, she would go to Crystal Palace, a popular, now-closed skating rink with her mother who would gangsta walk.
“My whole purpose and goal is to provide opportunities for the folks who came after me,” she shared after the competition concluded. “I taught in the school system, I taught over 5,000 kids, and a lot of them were in the hood…in the ghetto. That’s [dancing] just the way that they express themselves naturally. It was my job to kind of polish and fine-tune them, and to make sure that they knew their purpose.
“The same focus and things that I want to make sure that the world knows about [Memphis]. I make sure my students have the same mind frame. So when they go out into the world, they’re teaching the same thing and making sure people know the foundation [of jookin’] came from Memphis, know that it is a whole culture and that it’s not some trend or TikTok dance. That’s definitely how I kind of dealt with students, taking them under my wing and just kind of guiding them through as they grow.”
Runner-up DanceBeastElise and winner Jadyn Smooth both learned from Lashonte Pop and are involved Memphis dance circles and communities. All shared pride and appreciation for their opponent and their hometown after the competition ended with jookin’ reigning supreme.
“I really don’t care about losing because I lost my brother, so everything’s cool,” shared an excited DanceBeastElise. She revealed one hiccup for her in the tournament was not knowing some of the music. DJ Mikey Offline spun a mixture of old and new records of all genres, leaving the Gen-Z performer guessing what each song would bring.
“I was really trying to go second (laughs) so that I could learn the beat quickly. When I dance to new music I always try to find the background beats and stuff so that it looks like I’m catching things that people wouldn’t hear in the song.”
Smooth added, “The fact that we do this with each other every day. I work with Elise every day at rehearsals…Lashonte taught me since I was a kid. To be able to get that up on her, that was amazing…a real teacher versus student moment.”
As the winner, Jadyn Smooth left the venue fully prepared for the upcoming battle in the nation’s capital in both confidence and talent. After defeating the array of challengers presented to him, the Memphis-bred dancer had every reason to feel satisfied.
“The top four go to Washington no matter what,” he reflected on his mindset after taking first place. “I was like, as long as I get the top, boom…I’m straight. But actually, I knew I was going to win.”
The Red Bull “Dance Your Style” competition continued with the final regional qualifier in Miami on Oct. 17. The U.S. Red Bull BC One National Finals happened in Washington D.C. on October 22 and 23. Angyil McNeal took home the trophy to move forward and represent the entire country at the Red Bull “Dance Your Style” World Finals in Johannesburg, South Africa from Dec. 4-5.