Stomp the Yard (2007)

Director: Sylvain White

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

From the early 60s to about the mid 80s, you weren’t likely to see much dancing on the big screen. Yes, there were Broadway-style musicals, particularly in the 60s, and a few glances toward disco with films like Saturday Night Fever. In general, however, the Free Love generation was amazingly uptight when it came to dancing. Disco died among white Americans, but continued on in the African-American community, changing and growing entirely new forms under the radar of mainstream culture.

The 80s marked the first breakthrough into the mainstream of this vital new dance scene. Beat Street (1984) brought breakdancing memorably to the movies. There seemed to be some money in programming dance films, so a smattering of them for the teen market began appearing. There was definitely something unusual about the way these movies split along racial/dance style lines. Breakdancing, hip hop, crumping, salsa, and other grassroots forms were the province of African Americans and Latinos. White dancers stuck with ballroom and ballet. The first real crossover film, Save the Last Dance (2001), has nondancer Julia Stiles play a thoroughly white-bread ballet dancer who learns hip hop when she ends up going to school on the black South Side of Chicago. This film was very good and a surprise hit in the normally moribund movie month of January. Its honesty about the cultural divide in the way Stiles’ character had to negotiate a world both foreign and hostile to her was a welcome change of pace. Unfortunately, its bold experiment has not yet been repeated. White America is in desperate need of a dance revival, and I hope that a steady stream of African-American dance films will help lead the way.

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Stomp the Yard tells a familiar, even hackneyed, story. DJ (Columbus Short) is the head of a dance crew that battles with other crews in the rough dance clubs of Los Angeles. DJ, a cocky hothead loaded with talent, decides to diss another crew on its home turf. His younger brother Duron (Chris Brown) begs him to back off. DJ says, “I really want this.” Duron reminds him that they are a team and should act as a team, but he eventually agrees to the dance challenge. Payback’s a bitch when DJ and his crew are jumped by the other crew after the dance battle, and Duron is shot and killed. DJ serves a stretch in jail for assault and then is packed off to Atlanta to work as a gardener for his Uncle Nate (Harry J. Lennix) and attend Truth University on a scholarship. DJ’s the quintessential street kid thrown in among the elite of black society to learn lessons in humility and teamwork, and as he says late in the film, “become a better person” through education, brotherhood, and the love of a good woman. In turn, he teaches the straightlaced, sometimes ruthless preppies at Truth University how to get down and be real. We even get a competition at the end that rivals that of any sports movie out there.

So why would I recommend such a formulaic film? Two reasons: the performance by Columbus Short, which is superb and which forms the strong backbone that lifts this film beyond the commonplace, and the dancing and choreography that point to the future of dance in America and around the world.

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DJ moves into a dorm and tries to understand his new and alien world. He walks around campus and sees a dance crew performing the traditional step dancing (“stomping the yard”) on a riser. It is composed of the members and pledges of Theta Nu Theta, a fraternity that has lost the national step competition seven years in a row to the powerhouse Mu Gamma Xis. DJ watches this stiff form of dancing as though he were a traveler from the future looking at the yokels of the past. Indeed, he is—his street dancing is exactly what stepping needs to remain relevant to the younger generation of college students. DJ commits a faux pas when he breaks through the line of the Mu Gammas, who are getting ready to perform, to pursue a girl he was instantly smitten with the first time he saw her—April Palmer (Meaghan Good), daughter of the university provost and girlfriend of Mu Gamma leader Grant (Darren Dewitt Henson).

Freshman hazing doesn’t sit too well with DJ, who fights back. Being told by Grant to leave April alone doesn’t sit too well, either. DJ finds a way to get to know her by signing up to be tutored by her. One night, DJ’s roommates take him to a local club, where he shows off his dance skills. Grant tries to recruit him to pledge Mu Gamma Xi. DJ knows it’s just because of his dance skills. “Stepping’s for pussies,” he spits into Grant’s face. “What do you do?” says an angry Grant. “I battle,” is the answer. His intensity is so real, we can feel it.

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Theta Nu also tries to recruit DJ. Sylvester (Brian J. White) admits he hopes to knock Mu Gamma off their pedestal in the step competition, but he also offers DJ the opportunity to join a brotherhood he can count on the rest of his life. Having just lost a brother, DJ takes this message to heart. He pledges the Theta Nus and begins to challenge their traditional step style. He also wins over April by showing her that he really cares about her as a person, not just as an accessory to the good life, as Grant does. He plays love scenes with just the right touch, intimate without being too forward. One scene really worked for me: DJ becomes a little goofy and tongue-tied when he’s out with April at lunch, a lunch he won by answering her question from his tutoring lesson correctly. He flirts, but she makes a comment about still being with Grant. He says, “You’re fine, but you ain’t all that.” April is warmed by DJ’s bad attempt to cover up his feelings for her. It’s very sweet and real.

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There are obstacles and dirty tricks thrown in DJ’s way, including suspension for lying about having a criminal record on his scholarship application. The film climaxes at the national step competition, at which the rival fraternities perform stunning routines layered with street moves and special effects. I guess I don’t have to tell you who wins, but the final dance-off really shows how far DJ has come in dealing with his life and responsibility for Duron’s death.

The video below gives a chronological rundown of the dancing in this movie. The flash, rhythm, and unison are obvious. What may not be so obvious is the precise technique of many of the dancers, especially Short, who has a long resume as a professional dancer. So good is the choreography of the club sequences that they seem effortlessly spontaneous and surprising. Short contributed most of the choreography, and he really knows how to work with space and play off other dancers to create the challenges that are so much like jazz musicians who are cutting heads (competitively improvising). On the vast stage of the step competition, he gets in Grant’s face, closing the space and upping the ante for the competitors and the audience.

If you’re not a dance fan per se, there’s probably nothing compelling for you in Stomp the Yard. But if you want to see what will be bubbling up in our culture in the immediate few years and watch a dancer who can act and dance with fire, this is one dance movie you’ve got to see.

  • Fox spoke:
    3rd/04/2008 to 12:12 am

    Good write up!
    I think you would also like *How She Move* – if you haven’t seen it already – based on what you said about *Stomp The Yard*.
    I enjoyed the recent *Step Up 2* as well, but it’s much less class conscious and culturally aware as *Stomp…* or *How…*. It gives you a nice buzz though!
    *Honey* as well, I think, deserves praise for it’s class/cultural probing. Too many people dismissed it. And $10 says the ending makes you cry!
    On the other hand, a film *Take The Lead* is a bust of a film despite good intentions.
    Can you tell that I’m excited for the dance blog-a-thon!!!???

  • Marilyn spoke:
    3rd/04/2008 to 8:37 am

    Thanks, Fox. I’ve heard good things about Step Up 2, for example, Anna Brady Nurse on Move the Frame. I’ve been singing the praises of Honey for a long time; it’s got great dancing and a great role model for young women in Honey (Jessica Alba). I always try to keep in mind with films aimed at teens that formula stories are just fine–entertaining, informative, and developmentally correct.
    I’m kind of warming up for the blogathon, too!

  • Joe Valdez spoke:
    3rd/04/2008 to 11:23 pm

    Excellent article, Marilyn. Normally, I would have little interest in a step movie, but I appreciate the way you worked up the theme of your upcoming carnival into your write-up.
    We may deduce that while the Woodstock generation were rejecting anything their parents liked, movies where characters sing or dance fell into that category. I find that dumb. Nothing in Woodstock measures up to the ballet at the end of An American In Paris for me, not even Janis Joplin.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    4th/04/2008 to 8:42 am

    I do think that the Woodstock generation wanted to express themselves outside formal disciplines. Once Bob Dylan appeared on the scene, every kid picked up a guitar and taught himself or herself how to play. Bill Gates may be the prototype of a Boomer whose natural genius and ruthless business sense propelled him, a Harvard dropout, to the heights of success. It truly was the age of the amateur.
    And with the sexual revolution, you no longer had to dance with a partner to feel their body. However, modern feminism demanded more than just freedom to have sex, it meant more than men felt comfortable with. As a result, there was a real polarization between the sexes. That, I think, is why dance as a prevalent cultural form went into a deep decline. Yes, we reject the hokey contrivances of boy meet girl, boy dances with girl, boy marries girl. But there was nothing to take its place, no real communication between boys and girls (and make no mistake, we are talking boys and girls, not the men and women of yesteryear) until Dirty Dancing.
    It has taken a whole generation for boys and girls to get comfortable interacting physically, and I still read reviews of this film that faulted it for its sexuality, which I thought was mild and respectful.

  • Alex spoke:
    25th/04/2008 to 8:52 pm

    This movie was very interesting and very fun to watch. Not only fun to watch but very entertainingwith beaitful boyz… expecaily DJ i cant believe he looked so good in this movie. Not saying that he was ugly or anything but i would be glad to watch it a thousand times. lol

  • Jennifer spoke:
    15th/03/2009 to 10:08 pm

    I believe that this is a well-known movie. I think that’s it’s such an inspiration for those like myself, to do more with our dancing ability. And having to deal with other things in our lives are tough and for those to get past them it’s just amazing. I really do think it’s such an inspirational movie yet an awesome one too.

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