Before Zuccotti Park…

Around 2:15 a.m. a police car rolls up flashing its siren. The North Hollywood Ralphs parking lot is empty. Except for a few fast-food stops, the shops are closed. About a dozen silhouettes are gathered under a bright lamp in a circle. A parked car blasts hip-hop music. Some of the spectators nod their heads to the beat, chest popping and foot stomping, waiting for a turn in the center.

The police car slowly approaches, then stops. It beams a spotlight in the group’s direction. Catching sight of the cops, a young man pushes the circle open into a half moon, giving them an unobstructed view.

“Let them see we’re just dancing,” he says. As the people part, a lone male krumper jumps into view. Ignoring the cops, the dancer throws his arms to the sky, hops on one knee and bounces to his feet.

“Show them how you roll, Lil’ C,” someone from the circle yells.

If they recognize the soloist, the cops don’t make it obvious. Lil’ C was one of the stars of Dave LaChapelle’s 2005 documentary Rize, and is seen on TV as a guest judge on FOX’s “So You Think You Can Dance.” Just following orders, the cops are determined to shut down the 818 Session, named after its area code. An officer shouts to the crowd through his megaphone that he has received noise complaints.

Lil’ C still doesn’t stop.

He hits his elbow with his knee, swings both arms alternately through his legs, tilts forward and steps back. Eventually, he plants his last foot stomp and walks off into the already dispersing crowd.

“When we dance, the dance is in warrior movement, so we look like we’re fighting,” says Laila V., a female krumper. “When they see a bunch of African Americans or just a bunch of kids getting together and moving the way that they won’t understand, they’re going to automatically think something is not right. They don’t understand it.”

Lil’ C challenges the logic: “If you see that we’re not doing anything at all that merits you taking us down to the station, then why are you pestering us? I know there’s some sort of robbery going on. There’s some sort of 211 going on; some 187 that just took place. You need to be handling that. Not this over here, because we’re not doing anything. But when they come, we’re used to it. We got backup session spots. We shift it around.”

The 818 Session/Photo by Dan Carino

The 818 Session takes place every Wednesday around midnight in the massive parking lot on the corner of Magnolia Boulevard and Vineland Avenue in North Hollywood. It has become a ritual for the dancers that show up each week. It’s neutral ground, a safe space far from krump dancing’s birthplace in South Los Angeles. Many of the dancers travel from far away to get here. Others, many of the founders of krump, have permanently relocated to North Hollywood from South L.A.

“There are no gang bangers out here,” assures Krucial, another female dancer. “There’s no real violence. It’s the 818, Valley, Hollywood, North Hollywood-type of style. Everybody can meet here. At the 818, it’s not just one group of people that meet here. It’s this group from Compton, this group from Inglewood, that group from Watts, this group from Hollywood. It’s the meeting ground so people can feel like they’re not on one particular side.”

Late-night in the Ralphs parking lot/Photo by Dan Carino

Before Occupy Wall Street set up in Zuccotti Park, these krump dancers were taking over the Ralphs parking lot to assert their humanity. The 818 Session reimagines the use of this public space, which was created to facilitate capital and commerce, and transforms it into an opportunity for creative expression, emotional release and community building. The dancers, for a variety of reasons, including lack of money and available free community space, do not have a more formal meeting place. This weekly performance ritual allows this dance community to gather and express themselves on open, safe ground.

Public space is scarce, and more of it is being privatized each day, which means more of it exists for the haves and less can be used for community interaction and play. Krump and the space in which it is performed facilitate cross-cultural exposure, understanding and the sharing of ideas, and ultimately, has helped grow a South L.A. street dance style into a global phenomenon. Celebrating its 10th anniversary, krump has spilled into public spaces, reaffirming the needs of a multicultural city’s residents to express, bond and interact in safe public space, which is rapidly disappearing.

More images by Dan Carino

Article and re-edited video on KCET.org

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