Check Out Flexing The New Urban Avant-Garde Dance Craze Mixing Art, Sport, Fashion

Originally Published on ArtNet on March 29, 2015.

I make my way to the Boys Club in the Lower East Side. A throng waits patiently for the doors to open for Battlefest League finals. Later tonight, someone will be donning the world champion belt. Maybe it’s Bones, or Dre, or Pumpkin.

The auditorium is set up like a boxing ring, each side flanked with chairs. In the back, a DJ spins a pregame mix while I choose one of the hundred seats facing the stage. As the crowd filters in, the music gets groovier, the voices louder. We number 500, and most are standing room only. A chair is placed inside the ring in one corner. A scantily clad woman walks near the stage’s edge, making sure she has enough room to maneuver with a “Round 1″ sign held high.

Finally, Kareem Baptiste takes the stage, as he has for eight years. Part master-of-ceremonies, part keeper-of-the-flame, he invites a friend from the audience to lead us in prayer, followed by another who sings “The Star-Spangled Banner.” He announces the evening’s line-up of 16 dancers who will face off in three rounds of 90-second duels. They will be judged on the music they choose, their choreography, and the audience’s reaction.

Kareem shouts “Are you ready, say BA!” The audience returns the favor with, “BeeAaaaaaa!” He calls the first two dancers to the center of the ring and requests they touch kicks.

What follows for the next three hours is nothing short of thrilling. A hybrid of sport and dance mixed with theater and fashion, this is the urban avant-garde. This is flexing dance. Flexing lives somewhere between jookin (a street dance brought to popular consciousness after Spike Jonze uploaded a video of the dancer Lil Buck to YouTube) and breakdancing. And yet it’s weirder, freakier, and more rooted in the dancehall culture of the Caribbean.

You could say flexing has been trending. The 2013 documentary film Flex is Kings by Michael Beach Nichols and Deidre Schoo brought the Brooklyn Battlefest scene into the indie limelight. Last month, the New York Times published a story on a collaboration between flex dancers and the opera director Peter Sellars, which features in the Park Avenue Armory’s spring programming.

From dancehall to great hall, flexing has been slow to cross over to the fashion and advertising sectors, who are often the legitimizers of black culture. Kareem surmises, “Corporate America is always late and detached from what goes on in the urban scene. In a sense, it’s a good thing because it allows us to grow and develop. The project with Sellars opens the dancers minds for new ways to express our art. It will also open the eyes of more people in the theater and contemporary dance world for future projects.”

Kareem is a dancer, mentor, entrepreneur, and the tenacious guiding spirit of a local movement in the midst of going global. Dancers from Paris to Oakland, Memphis to Detroit, and L.A. to D.C participate in Battlefest, the glue for a movement that looks more like a community. Kareem and many of his fellow flexers take younger dancers under their wing—focusing on those with hunger, drive, and humility. Others form groups, practicing together and intimidating their peers with self-designed logo shirts and caps. Camaraderie and competition coexist against a social backdrop that is not always provided in prompts for young black males.

Kareem continues, “I want a lane to be created for us in the dance and music industry where our Battle talent is accepted as a sport that lives on TV, in concert settings, and on digital platforms. Our culture has so much value that our dancers should be able to make a living doing what they love.”

The music of NWA pulsates and as its menacing beat overtakes; a masked dancer is consumed and possessed. There is an obsession with double-jointed arms behind backs mimicking serpents and alien robots who have escaped the asylum. Fingers, hands, and elbows make minute gestures that put the audience into a trance. And then suddenly it’s broken by the explosive motion of an arm as sword, a hand as gun, a mouth as cage. It’s a whirl of flying baseball caps and limbs, of scowls and stare downs. I am hooting and hollering like the rest of the room. The noise is deafening, the crowd is going wild and Kareem stands in the center of his boxing ring, smiling assuredly that Battlefest 30 has done its job. Again.