Director: Sylvain White
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 (1977). 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.