Long before krumpers like Russell Ferguson and choreographer Lil’ C gained a national platform via “So You Think You Can Dance,” Thomas “Tommy the Clown” Johnson was pioneering the style on the streets of Los Angeles. “I started out doing birthday parties for kids, and soon began teaching and training kids [in hip-hop ‘clowning’],” he says. Thanks to the palpable energy and colorful characters involved, clowning spread like wildfire and expanded to include a more rugged, in-your-face style known as krump.
To meet increasing interest, Johnson opened a dance academy in Inglewood, California, and spearheaded regular Battle Zone competitions for local crews. The phenomenon was captured by David LaChapelle in his 2003 short film Clowns in the Hood and critically acclaimed 2005 documentary Rize.
Since then, Johnson has been in high demand, teaching master classes, performing around the globe and judging krump competitions. He was recently featured on an episode of MTV’s newest show, “The Buried Life,” and he continues to serve as the (brightly painted) face of krump.
Dance Teacher: Since krumping is mostly freestyle, how do you teach it in a classroom setting?
Tommy the Clown: We start with the basics: arm swings, chest pops and body rotations. I have my crew there, and we show the dancers a few 8-counts. Then we teach them how to put their own energy and creativity into it. We bring them up in groups of eight to do the routine in front of each other. We top it off with a battle. The energy in the room is crazy; it’s all about motivation.
DT: Does the lack of a rigid technique make krumping more accessible to untrained dancers?
TTC: Krump definitely allows more room for non-dancers. We try to make everyone feel like they are someone. However, when a dancer who is familiar with freestyling does krump, it’s off the chain. Look at Russell [Ferguson] from “SYTYCD”—he is top-notch.
DT: How does krumping fit into the larger picture of similar styles, like hip hop and B-boying?
TTC: When we first started krump, we used it as a tool of expression to release aggression. But it can also be used to accent other styles. You can add it to hip-hop moves to make them pop. The energy of krump makes movement more intense, more crisp.
DT: Thanks to you, krump is now being presented in middle and high schools. Tell us more about Battle Zone League.
TTC: We’re working on doing Battle Nights once a month in different schools. Our focus is saying no to gangs and drugs and staying positive. Schools use our program as a tool to improve test scores. If they get better, we’ll come in and do a big show. Lo and behold, test scores start going through the roof.
DT: What are your plans and goals as krumping continues to expand?
TTC: I would love to tour the U.S. with the movement. I feel that I can motivate and inspire at-risk kids before it’s too late. I have people hit me up on MySpace all the time to come to their schools and studios. If we could get funding to do that, that would be awesome. I started this movement by myself—now it’s time to all get involved and do even more for the kids. DT
A former hip-hop, dance fitness and cheerleading instructor, Jen Jones is a Los Angeles–based freelance writer.
Photo courtesy of Thomas "Tommy the Clown" Johnson