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Street life to dance life

Krumping credited with diverting teens from a troubled path

By Maria Cramer
Globe Staff / December 31, 2009

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At 16, Daniel Grant carried a gun. When he wasn’t skipping class, he was starting fights at school. His friends were gang members from his South End neighborhood. But then a powerful force diverted him from what appeared to be a clear path to self-destruction.

The force, he says, was a dance - a frenetic form of self expression called krumping that is sweeping urban neighborhoods in Boston and beyond.

With a strict moral code against violence and philosophical demands to abandon any feelings of embarrassment, Grant says, krumping saved his life. And as the dance’s popularity rises, some community activists and police who patrol the city’s toughest neighborhoods believe it has contributed to a drop in street violence.

“We don’t have the crime in Fields Corner like we used to,’’ said Lieutenant William Fleming of the MBTA police, who oversees train and bus lines through Dorchester. “I don’t know whether it’s this, but I’m a firm believer in it. . . . When [commanders] ask me why my numbers are down, I say, ‘It’s krumping.’ ’’

Krumping has no real choreography, but there are rules: No violence, fighting, or cursing. Dancers are to completely express themselves with their faces, hands, legs, and arms.

“It’s keeping a lot of kids quiet,’’ said Grant, 18, a high school senior from Dorchester. He says he has abandoned his gang friends and rededicated himself to school. “When we’re krumping, we don’t worry if there’s food on the table. We don’t worry about the people outside who want to beat us up.’’

Krumping began in South Central Los Angeles, in the early 1990s, where a predecessor of the dance, “clowning,’’ was born as an alternative to corporate hip-hop and the violence it often celebrates. Krump invites dancers to throw themselves into a cathartic frenzy to music that sounds like rap, metal, and orchestral pop rolled into one throbbing rhythm.

Many of its devotees are inspired by the Christian underpinnings of krump, which is popular in evangelical churches, like Jubilee Christian Church in Mattapan.

But for those who take a more secular approach to the dance, krumping is a way to rebel against gang culture.

“It was either the street life or the dance life,’’ said George Ashby, a wiry 19-year-old from Mattapan who began krumping two and a half years ago at home, after he and his sister watched “Rize,’’ a documentary about the dance.

He asked Emmett Folgert, who runs the Dorchester Youth Collaborative in Fields Corner, if he would let him and some friends krump in the back room of the community center. Ever since, they have been going to the dark, bare room three times a week.

On a recent Tuesday, about two dozen krumpers sweated and stomped in the room, making it feel 10 degrees hotter than the rest of the center.

As the fast-paced music pumped from a small stereo, the krumpers parted so that the dancers could leap out one by one and show off their moves.

Teenagers with sinewy limbs popped their chests, stomped hard on the ground, and jerked their bodies so violently they looked as if they were being electrocuted.

Some took their hands to their throats and made a ripping motion. Others dragged their fingers across their skin, a move meant to illustrate the stripping away of evil flesh, Grant later explained. As each dancer tried a new move, he was encouraged by observing krumpers, who howled, screamed, and grunted their approval.

“That was tight,’’ one dancer said admiring another.

The dance moves were almost spastic, the facial expressions dramatic - though not posed. More skilled dancers leaped high in the air, and returned to the ground without wobbling. Others balanced baseball hats on their knees, hands, and arms as the rest of their bodies jerked about.

Krumping allows dancers to release their stress and tension so that they do not take it on the street, explained Eddie Brimage, a part-time krump instructor at DYC who introduced the dance to Grant.

When Grant first started krumping two years ago, Brimage, a former gang member, quickly told him he would have to abandon gang life if he wanted to keep dancing.

“You pretty much have to pick a side,’’ Brimage said. The choice was fairly easy, said Grant, who is now looking forward to graduating from high school in May and is also a part-time krump instructor.

Convincing his mother he was doing something constructive was more challenging, he said.

“She wasn’t into it at first,’’ Grant said. “She thought I had Tourette’s or something.’’

Fleming, the MBTA lieutenant, said he has brought police officers to the community center to observe the dancers so they will recognize krumping when they see it on the street and not misinterpret the aggressive moves as fighting.

As krumping becomes more popular - Roxbury native Russell Ferguson became the first krumper to win the reality show competition “So You Think You Can Dance’’ - some police departments are using it as an opportunity to connect with teenagers in the inner city. Toronto police have begun running after-school programs that bring in college students to teach krumping.

But Folgert said police and community leaders in general should not interfere too much lest they repel teenagers who feel their movement is being co-opted by adults.

“You have to be very careful,’’ he said. “You’ve got to respect it. It’s their thing. It comes from the street. It’s their design. We’re just there on the outside, giving them a place to do it.’’

Maria Cramer can be reached at mcramer@globe.com.