There's a movement taking place in the parks, basements and recreation centers of one of Brooklyn's most dangerous neighborhoods. Instead of turning to crime, young people in East New York are embracing a dance style unique only to that area: flexing.
This phenomenon is explored in one of our favorite documentaries at Tribeca Film Festival: the invigorating, fierce Flex Is Kings. The heart, creativity and drive of its players spill from the screen, endearing you to their plights and leaving you yearning for a continuation of their stories. You'll sport goosebumps for the entirety of the film, which eloquently immerses you in another world, then endears and inspires you with its human struggles and triumphant spirit.
Two of the movie's main subjects are utter opposites: Flizzo -- a magician-dancer hybrid and legend in the flexing community -- struggles to balance a new baby and a past life of crime with shaky employment scenarios that threaten his ability to continue dancing, while Jay Donn -- something of a daredevil stunt dancer -- is picked up by a well-known Brooklyn theater company to star in their production of Pinocchio. The two work with Reem, the force behind independently created dance showcase BattleFest , to overcome adversity in their community and give dancers a place to showcase their talents.
Codirectors Deidre Schoo and Michael Beach Nichols spent two years filming the flex community, resulting in 300 hours of footage -- and it shows in the film’s scope, as well as their painstakingly detailed eye on every possible aspect of the community -- up-and-coming dancers, competition organizers and established flexors touring with avant-garde companies.
So what's become of the subjects of Schoo and Beach Nichols' beautiful tribute to substance and style? And how can you see this incredible art form in person? We were swept away by the frenetic Flex Is Kings, and we know you will be, too -- so we sat down with Schoo, Beach Nichols, Flizzo and Jay Donn to answer every possible burning question.
The Local (and Underground) Roots of Flexing
Flexing's Wikipedia page is pretty scant, underscoring the fact that this movement is still in its hyperlocal stages. It has Jamaican roots, but the convergence of Caribbean immigrants and East New York's established culture is what has made this art form truly unique to Brooklyn. "It is based on the Caribbean background, but… all the dancers that came out from Jamaica were only sent to Brooklyn," said Jay. "A majority of the Caribbean people in Brooklyn are from Trinidad, and they live basically in East New York and Flatbush. So this is how we were able to get all these dancers that nobody else in the world was able to see or even know about."
So how did the rhythmic, contortionist, highly improvisational movement begin to spread? "I think when the first dance came out, it circled around the whole of Brooklyn -- just one tape," Flizzo remembered. "Then people started doing it, they started showcasing, and that's how it took off."
The flexing community hasn't exactly sought to be particularly underground, it's just that most of its members struggle to elevate themselves beyond the local scene, and -- until Schoo and Beach Nichols began producing the documentary -- events were rarely known, or attended, by outsiders.
Gaining Entrance into the Flex Scene
The unlikely undertaking of Flex Is Kings began in the fall of 2008, when Schoo was photographing a variety show at St. Nick's Pub in Harlem for the Village Voice. That's where she met one of East New York's original flexors, Storyboard. "There were singers, poets, a band -- and then Storyboard gets up and dances and is on the floor and on tables and practically climbing the ceiling," Schoo recalled. "I was just like, 'What is going on, what are you doing?' So we struck up a conversation, he told me about flexing and BattleFest, we stayed in touch and I started going to BattleFest."
One would imagine that a community under wraps would've been a bit reticent to welcome a strange outsider, but that wasn't the case at all. "I took a bus to get there, because it was in the middle of Flatbush or somewhere that I didn't know," Schoo remembered. "On the bus, a dancer was sitting next to me, and we started talking. It was Snow – and so when we arrived, Snow took me and introduced me to Reem, who organizes and runs BattleFest. So I was really well cared for and welcomed from the beginning. … And I had a camera, I was asking questions, so a lot of people -- dancers -- came up to me and were like, 'Who are you? What are you doing? Let me tell you about myself!' They wanted to share, and so it really worked out well." A year later, Schoo brought Beach Nichols to a BattleFest performance, and the rest was history.
An Art Form in Peril
Schoo and Beach Nichols’ arrival onto East New York's flexing scene came at exactly the right time. "At one point, it was starting to die down," said Flizzo. "They stopped airing most of the flexing shows in Brooklyn."
"The reason why it was dying down is not because the show wasn't doing good, but the fact that the dancers weren't getting the respect they deserved because of so much of the negativity going around," explained Jay. "They just kept doing so many negative things, shutting down all the clubs… we had no more spots to even go into. … And by the time Deidre came to the scene, she basically saved the foundation of what we had left, she came at the right time and we really thank her a lot."
Flizzo said it best: "This is a natural, beautiful vibe that was so underground now being mainstream. And I like to say 'mainstream' as in with the help Deidre, with the help of BattleFest, just helping us to get our dance style out there. It's a great thing."
Keeping Up with the Scene
It's not completely impossible to keep up with the scene, but there's a limited amount of information online - we've found that The Brooklyn Gift is a great spot for videos and updates. There are multiple showcases, namely the aforementioned BattleFest League, D.R.E.A.M. Ring, the L.O.U.D. League and World Dance 2, but, as Schoo says, the undertaking of these endeavors without support or monetary gain takes a major toll.
"To put on a live event of the scale of BattleFest or D.R.E.A.M. is a really heavy load," she explained. "And it kind of seems to be the pattern that these guys can do it for four or five years and then they kind of burn out or they need to evolve. They're not making any money and their lives aren't really changing. Everyone is still really struggling to be recognized for the contribution that they're making to flex, and flex is really in this place where it's sophisticated enough to go to another level, but it's having a hard time finding a home."
Schoo underscores that the biggest lacking resource for the community is funding for a community arts center. Many of the dancers are forced to practice in basements and parks (even in the dead of winter -- beautifully captured in the film). Even finding venues for competitions is a constant struggle -- the entire movement could be saved by the donation of a rehearsal space. "So, Brooklyn City Council, mayor's office -- there needs to be some community outreach and support of the arts that are coming out of the street and out of schools," said Schoo.
In the meantime, Flizzo and Jay won't let adversity hinder the ability for them to mentor young people in their community. "I really don't have a set location, but since it's getting nice again I'll be in the park every day with my boys," said Flizzo.
What to Expect at a Flex Show
The packed locales of dance battles are filled with cheering crowds and emcees on mics introducing beloved dancers, who then dance off against each other in a caution tape-lined ring. Since the winner of each battle is largely determined by the folks watching, the crowds get in on the action, to put it lightly.
There are a few reactions a dancer definitely wants to see from their adoring public, including the throwing of hats and the mimicry of shooting guns into the air. Also, "You want to hear 'B-A!' B-A is a universal cheer, like -- you're doing an amazing job, you're going off the richter," said Flizzo. "And the hats, it's like -- you're going too much, in a good way, and they can't help themselves, they've gotta throw something. There's been times when people have been doing so good in the ring, people have run into the ring and grabbed them to stop them!"
So what's the kiss of death, in terms of audience reaction? "You don't want to see them quiet," said Jay. "To see them quiet with no facial expressions hurts."
All About the Stunts
There's an etiquette to flexing, even if there isn't a set of standardized movements -- and a large part of it is that you can never steal someone else's moves or repeat stunts. This is illustrated to incredible effect in Flex Is Kings, when Flizzo re-creates one of his most infamous stunts involving a live bird, an incarnation of which Beach Nichols saw during his first foray into the BattleFest scene. "Flizzo came up with a way to do that move again by having a mini version of Flizzo doing the dance -- kind of miming Flizzo's moves," Beach Nichols remembered. "He opened his mouth, this 10-year-old, and the bird flew out. It was just like, 'Did you see that?' The bird trick was my moment of conversion."
So what are some of the most insane stunts Flizzo and Jay have seen? "One of the craziest tricks I've ever seen was Jay, when he did the head drop," said Flizzo. "He made his head drop into his hands!" "I've seen this man explode himself with nothing but fireworks on his chest," Jay explained, pointing to Flizzo. "And he got it done, he didn't burn his beard or mess himself up at all!"
"We have some moves that have certain names for them," said Flizzo, "And also it's choreographing and having little kids dance the way that you dance. You can't really teach it, but you can give the guidance and the methods on how to go about it. It's all about your heart and how you want to move your body." Common terms include "Gun 'Em Down" when a dancer is moving with imaginary guns, "The Boxer" when throwing shadow punches, as well as "The Warlord," "The Gun Man" and countless others.
A Fitting Soundtrack
Chris Lancaster and Jerome Begin -- the duo behind techno-classical-synth-electro group Tranimal -- composed the film's score, which bears a similarly kinetic and improvisational similarity to the movie's on-screen dance techniques. As with many other aspects of the movie's production, the pairing with musicians and filmmakers was a serendipitous one -- Lancaster and Schoo went to undergrad school together in California. "Chris and Jerome have been playing with dancers for more than a decade," explained Schoo. "When Chris heard that I was working with flex dancers, he wanted to come out to BattleFest just to experience it, and then he said, ‘How can I play with these guys?’”
Schoo and Beach Nichols first had Tranimal write the score for the film's Kickstarter trailer. "They just knocked it out of the park," said Schoo. "So from that point we said, 'Would you score the film?' And it's been a real beautiful evolution in that they've started playing live with the flex dancers."
How to Stay in the Loop
The release of Flex Is Kings (and - let's hope - the eventual distribution) will surely shed light on the flex community and its insanely talented dancers, which means you'll likely be seeing much more of them. In the meantime, the best way to stay updated is to follow Flex Is Kings and BattleFest on Facebook. The Flex Is Kings website will be updated accordingly, as well, with dancer profiles, new content, Web-exclusive deleted scenes and event info.
Schoo also teased some possible live performances this summer. "The director of the Brooklyn BEAT Festival has contacted us, and so we're trying to figure out a way to work flex dancers into that," she said. "We hope to have some screenings in New York this summer that incorporate live performance, as well."