From as far back as he can remember, Charles Riley was interested in dancing.
“It’s just always been in me,” he says. “I would dance with my sisters. We loved it. We used to wiggle around and try to do Michael Jackson moves. Sometimes we would get a hold of his tapes from his tours and try to learn the whole choreography.”
The “movement artist,” now known as Lil Buck, brings his style of dance to the Tempe Center for the Arts for What Moves You. He’ll be accompanied by cellist Mihai Marica and fellow dancer and collaborator, Jon Boogz. Buck’s style of dance, called Memphis Jookin, is an amalgamation of hard-hitting street dance and fluid, ballet-type movements.
When he was 8, his family moved from Chicago to Memphis and he learned about the city’s namesake dance: jookin. His older sister came home from high school one day demonstrating moves she learned, and he was hooked.
“I was fascinated with this dance style, because it was similar to Michael Jackson’s, but it was even crazier. In Memphis, you would see it in the streets and in club parking lots because we didn’t really have dance studios.”
Buck was involved in many things growing up—from basketball to drawing—and was exceptionally good at all of them. He could have pursued many different paths.
“But when I saw jookin, I just fell in love with it,” Lil Buck says. “It eclipsed all my other interests. I really wanted to conquer it. I said, ‘This is what I want to do with my life, period.’”
When he was 16 he joined a hip-hop dance company called Subculture Royalty Studio. The owner of the studio made a deal with the artistic director of New Ballet Ensemble and School, in which the hip-hoppers would learn ballet, and in turn, the ballet students would learn hip-hop. Buck was a natural at ballet because many of the movements were like jookin. He was given a scholarship to the ballet school and spent the next few years practicing and perfecting his unique craft.
Things changed for Lil Buck when he started uploading videos of himself jookin on YouTube. The most pivotal video was his moving rendition of The Swan (from Swan Lake), accompanied by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, which quickly went viral. Buck’s videos drew mass attention, and before he knew it, he was being invited to Los Angeles to be part of a music video. After that experience, he knew that his future lie in Los Angeles. With the aid of friends he met on the set of the music video, he was moved to LA permanently.
His days were spent dancing on the streets and auditioning. “It’s just that dancer’s life,” he says. “It’s really hard. There’s a lot of competition in Los Angeles. You really have to make something unique about yourself, because there are so many dancers. I was a specialty, luckily. People would be wowed by me because they hadn’t seen a style like mine before.”
A huge moment for Lil Buck’s career happened when he participated in the Dance for Madonna Smirnoff Nightlife Exchange Competition. Thousands of dancers came from across the globe to compete, and at the end, there was only one winner. “I was the one that reigned victorious,” Buck says. “I became the first pick for her next tour.”
It’s been 10 years since Lil Buck moved to Los Angeles, and in that time, his career and notoriety have skyrocketed. He’s traveled the globe, guest starred and judged on shows like So You Think You Can Dance and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, performed with Cirque du Soleil, and been involved in numerous campaigns for the likes of Lexus, Vogue and Apple.
Now, in addition to dancing, Lil Buck and Jon Boogz have started a company called Movement Art Is (MAI). “We wanted to create a platform for dancers to be able to get their artistry out on high-levels of content, but mostly we believe dance has the power to really reach the human emotion. We also started creating short films that touch on social issues that are happening in the world that people can relate to, because those really hit home.”
At 29 years old, this is only the beginning for Lil Buck. From jookin in the streets as a kid, to producing and touring the world, this is an artist whose talent, passion and vision can only continue to expand throughout the years.
What Moves You, featuring Lil Buck and Mihai Marica with special guest Jon Boogz, Tempe Center for the Arts, 700 W. Rio Salado Parkway, Tempe, 480.350.2822, tempe.gov, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, November 11, $38 and $48.