The question to dancer and choreographer Charles “Lil’ Buck” Riley laid out what many in the room had been wondering: “How do you do this? Are you Superman?”

“I’m really glad you asked. The cat’s out of the box,” Riley deadpanned, without missing a beat. “I came here from Saturn …”

The audience at the sixth National YoungArts Foundation Salon exploded in laughter. The Tuesday night conversation, one of a series sponsored by Knight Foundation, provided a short introduction to Riley’s graceful and athletic style. But for anyone familiar with his astonishing mix of classical dance and jookin’, a style of hip-hop dancing developed in Memphis, Tenn., the question, and the answer, sound perfectly logical and possible.

In full flight, Riley, 26, glides across stages with a liquid ease. He mixes fluid movements with sharp angular breaks, and arms evoking classic ballet swan gestures. He constructs narratives mixing freestyle steps and en pointe work in high-top sneakers, often bending and twisting his ankles in impossible angles. At pauses, his body seems to vibrate to the music like a plucked string.

Riley’s talent was first showcased on a locally produced jookin’ DVD called “Memphis Jookin’ Vol. 1.” He was 17 at the time. Two years later he moved to Los Angeles and gained greater notice as dancer and choreographer of singer Janelle Monae’s video for her Grammy-nominated hit song “Tightrope.” But he really exploded when a video shot by director Spike Jonze of an impromptu collaboration with cellist Yo-Yo Ma of Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Dying Swan” went viral.

The turning point “was when I did the collaboration with Yo-Yo Ma,” recalled Riley. Ma had seen a video of his dancing “Dying Swan” while still in Memphis “and reached out to me through Facebook. I was in L.A. at the time so ended up meeting Yo-Yo at Disney Hall and when he saw me he lit up like a little kid and got up and gave me this hug and said, ‘I want to try something.’ … I didn’t know what was going to go on, but he [took out his cello and] started playing—and I started dancing. And that was when the magic happened. Right then and there. It was beautiful.”

Tuesday night’s conversation, moderated by Miami-based writer, dancer and actor Rudi Goblen, included mentions of Riley’s most notable collaborations, especially his work with street artist JR and the New York City Ballet, Madonna and various videos. But Riley seemed particularly interested in discussing jookin’ (“All jookin’ is balance; it’s a groove. … It came out of the Gangsta Walk”) and its Memphis roots. “This is something you might see in the street,” says Riley. “You stop at a stoplight and you might see some kids on the corner just jookin’, the car doors open and the music blasting. And the police won’t bother you; they know what it is.”

He noted later that one of the reasons why the style, developed in the mid-’80s, took so long to spread beyond Memphis was because, “We didn’t want to teach people. It was native to the city and jookin’ was one of our possessions and we were very protective. Now that the dance has gotten more complex and … it’s starting to get respect in the dance culture … now we are really open to teach it because now everybody knows where it comes from.”

He spoke of discovering jookin’ when he was 12, returning from school and seeing his older sister, Stephanie, doing it. “And I was, like, ‘What is this? What are you doing?’ and I got her to teach me.” His learning and practicing eventually led him to the Crystal Palace roller rink in Memphis, where he saw BoBo, a local underground dance legend, in action. “I saw this huge crowd, so I make my way to the front and all I see is people gazing at this one guy,” he recalled. “This guy has a mouthful of gold … and he’s gliding across the carpet like walking on water, and my jaw just dropped. It was the most unbelievable thing I had ever seen. After that I really fell in love [with jookin’].”

As for the evolution of his distinctive style, Riley spoke about attending the New Ballet Ensemble in Memphis and noted its founding director, Katie Smythe. He recalled his experience at the since closed Yo! Academy of Visual and Performing Arts, a charter school, (“It was amazing. I didn’t know there was a world like that; [I’ve] never been around the arts as much as I was in that school.”) and talked about the many hours of practice it took to perfect his craft.

“When I was really getting into it I spent countless hours learning how to do it because I felt everybody was already doing it and I had to catch up, “ he said. There were “countless hours in the kitchen, going hard when everybody is sleeping … on my socks. I would go out to the carport so I wouldn’t make noise and dance and dance, and I would do it until 5 in the morning — and then I had to go to school in two hours.”

As for his superpowers and incredibly flexible ankles, “It’s really a gift,” he said. “I have friends who can do crazy things [he twists his arms behind his back] I’m really flexible on some spots naturally, but I do work at it. I don’t just use my God-given gift; I do ankle-strengthening exercises, and I do my own stretches. … So yes, all of the above: really strong, Superman …”

Then the chairs on stage were moved out, the music was on and Riley closed the evening dancing to Raury’s“God’s Whisper.” It was, he noted afterwards, a first performance, and it still had a work-in-progress quality. If anything, it opened a window into his art, watching him work gestures and phrases along and in counterpoint to the music and the words. If jazz is the sound of surprise, Riley’s jookin’ is the art of the unexpected.

No more questions about supernatural powers were needed.

Jan, 2015, Knight Foundation Blog