Dancer Charles “Lil Buck” Riley

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The dancer who’s been called the Baryshnikov of jookin’ describes the free-style street dance that’s become a sensation.

Charles "Lil Buck" Riley is taking a freestyle-based dance involving intensive footwork, called jookin', to a world stage, working with the likes of Janelle Monáe, Madonna and Yo-Yo Ma—it was a viral YouTube video of his pairing with the celebrated cellist that garnered international dance recognition for his skills. He was born in Chicago and raised in Memphis, where he studied ballet for two years on scholarship and was introduced to the urban street dance style. At age 19, he moved to L.A. to pursue a career and has brought his personal grace and style to the art form, which he's performed in Cirque du Soleil's "Michael Jackson: One" and the New York City Ballet.


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight, a conversation with an amazing young artist named Charles Riley known professionally as “Lil Buck.” His style of dancing is called jookin’ and it was born in the streets of Memphis, but fast becoming a worldwide phenomenon. I assure you it’s one of the most incredible things you’ll see.

We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with “Lil Buck” coming up right now.

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Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Tavis: Charles Riley known professionally as “Lil Buck” can attest to the power of YouTube. A dance performance he did of “The Dying Swan” with Yo-Yo Ma playing the cello, of course, has amassed more than two million views.

His style of dancing is known as jookin’ and it’s won him a devoted following as well as stints with Madonna, the Cirque du Soleil and the New York City Ballet. Let’s take a look at Lil Buck performing “The Dying Swan” with Yo-Yo Ma at China’s National Theater for the Performing Arts.


Tavis: It’s hard to watch you and not look at your feet. I find myself just staring at your feet and then I looked down and saw the shoes you had on today. There’s some nice kicks you got on, man.

Charles “Lil Buck” Riley: Thank you, man, thank you. These are just some Air Force Ones. They’re actually made by this designer named Riccardo Tisci and he’s a really upscale designer. He just collaborated with this really kind of street sneaker where – yeah, they were a gift from Madonna.

Tavis: A gift from who?

Riley: Madonna. She sent them for my birthday.

Tavis: Oh, how nice [laugh].

Riley: Thanks, Madonna [laugh].

Tavis: Yeah, thanks.

Riley: Really nice.

Tavis: Hey, Madonna, I wear size 12 [laugh]. If you want to hook a Negro up, size 12. I could take some of those too. Those are nice. That was nice of Madonna. So let me go from Madonna – we’ll come back to Madonna maybe.

Let me start with my friend Yo-Yo Ma who I adore. He’s been a guest on this program so many times. How did you and Yo-Yo hook up?

Riley: Well, actually it’s funny because me and Yo-Yo hooked up through this guy named Damian Woetzel. He’s the former principal ballet dancer for the New York City Ballet, and very good. He still has it, by the way. Yeah, he actually found the video of me dancing to “The Swan” when I was around like – I believe I was 18 or 19 years old.

I was a company member at this ballet studio I was a part of called New Ballet Ensemble and School back in Memphis, Tennessee. I did a performance with the company and it was for kids in Arkansas. We went to Arkansas. We drove down there and just did this performance and it was to “The Swan.”

I knew nothing about Yo-Yo at the time and it just turned out to be a beautiful outcome and the kids loved it. They were in awe. Their faces were just glowing. You could just hear it all on the camera. They saw that video where actually his wife, here to watch, she saw the video on YouTube and just thought it was amazing.

And she showed Damian and they both thought it was incredible and they were already working with Yo-Yo Ma at the time because they have these things called the Art Strike where they go out and get the arts in different schools in arts and education and really push that into the world with the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities.

So Damian and Yo-Yo Ma already have an established relationship and they just thought it would crazy to just have this collaboration with this like street dancer.

Damian reached out to me on Facebook actually, through Facebook [laugh] and told me he loved my style and that he wanted to get me and Yo-Yo together. I looked up Yo-Yo. I was like who is this Yo-Yo guy? I never heard of a guy named Yo-Yo [laugh].

Tavis: A guy named Yo-Yo, exactly, yeah.

Riley: I was like I ever heard of Yo-Yo was in middle school bathrooms [laugh], yeah. I looked him up and found out all the amazing things he were a part of and all the awards he’s won and how he was this prodigy at a very young age playing for all our presidents. And I just thought it was amazing.

I was like, wow, this is an incredible opportunity. I was living in L.A. at the time by the time they reached out to me. So this is when I was like 19 or 20 years old when they reached out to me. And we just met up. They knew I was in L.A. and Yo-Yo so happened to have a concert at the Walt Disney Concert Hall here.

So I met up with Yo-Yo there. And the first thing he said to me, “Are you Little Buck?” when I saw me and I just told him, I said, “Yes.” And then he just gave me this big hug.

The only thing he said after that was, “I want to try something” and he opened up his case, brought out the cello and just started playing right there in the moment. I just started dancing immediately. I reacted and you’d have to be there to see that magic happen for the first time.

And after that, we gave each other a hug again and we just knew we had that chemistry together. And the next day is actually when we did the performance that Spike Jones caught on camera. That was actually here in…

Tavis: The very next day.

Riley: The very next day, and that was actually here in L.A.

Tavis: Hold on, Buck, hold on [laugh]. So you and Yo-Yo meet one day.

Riley: Yes.

Tavis: On the spot, he pulls out his cello…

Riley: Yep.

Tavis: And says I want to try something…

Riley: Yep.

Tavis: And you just do your thing and ya’ll recorded it the very next day?

Riley: The very next day, they had this meeting for the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities and it was at Bryan Lourd’s place out here. And Yo-Yo was just supposed to…

Tavis: Hold on, hold on [laugh]. I’m just laughing at Buck throwing these names around. Like Bryan Lourd is like the biggest uber agent [laugh]. You were hanging out at his house?

Riley: Yeah. That’s where the video of me took place.

Tavis: At his house?

Riley: Yes.

Tavis: Okay, go ahead.

Riley: So we were there and I think it was just supposed to be Yo-Yo by himself just, you know, for an intermission, a quick, nice little intermission. But they thought it would be fun to actually throw me in there with him and see what happens with that. The reaction was just phenomenal as you saw on the camera. You could hear the reactions from the people and some who cried.

Tavis: How did it all – I mean, I want to get back into your – I’m gonna go into your backstory. You’re so young anyway. The young backstory that you have. It’s a very short story [laugh] out of Memphis.

But how do you come into the presence of the kinds of persons you’ve just mentioned and, artistically, I get the sense that you were not intimidated at all?

Riley: I wasn’t because I was just always doing me, you know. Like nothing’s changed from when I was in Memphis and I moved out to L.A., but the drive I had. I just gained even more drive to really get the style out there.

Because my mission on leaving from Memphis to L.A. was actually for the style to become – to gain just one notoriety around the world, like just a global mass amount of notoriety for the dance.

I wanted people to know about it. I wanted people to see. This is the goal I have for the dance style because we’ve been underground for so long and I’m gonna get more into that as you, you know, talk to me about my younger days.

But, yeah, I just wanted more notoriety for the dance. So when I’m put in front of these people, you know, I just tell me myself you got to do you because that’s what the people love. So I just do me around them. I’m not really too star-struck or anything like that. Yeah, people just fall in love with the talent I have and it’s a great gift.

Tavis: So take me back to Memphis where it all began and tell me how dance became your muse. How did you and dance develop this love affair?

Riley: Well, I’ve always – I can tell you right now, I’ve always been dancing, I mean, not even professionally. Just moving around listening to music as a little kid. I always just had hyper energy. I was always hyper. But I really got into dance when I was 12 years old.

I came home from school in Memphis. I came home from school. In the living room, my sister was dancing. She was doing this crazy little thing with her knees and it looked pretty cool. You know, she was bouncing her shoulders and I never seen her do this before.

And I just asked her, I was like, “What is this you’re doing right now? It’s kind of looking cool.” She was like, “Oh, I’m jookin’. My friend from school taught me how to do this.”

That’s when I actually got into it and then, me and her, we made up our first routine in the living room. We were just like doing like a couple eight counts together and we just made up our first little, you know, whatever, jookie routine. This is when I was having fun with it, but I really took jookin’ seriously the next year when I turned 13 and I…

Tavis: Let me jump in real quick because I should spell this. This is PBS and I should spell jookin’. j-o-o-k-i-n’.

Riley: Yeah, absolutely. Just like bookin’ or cookin’.

Tavis: Yeah, bookin’ or cookin’, yeah. We’re talking jookin’ with a J.

Riley: Yeah.

Tavis: All right. Just wanted to make sure everybody’s on the same page. Go ahead. You and your sister were hanging out. Go ahead.

Riley: Yeah. That’s what happened. I saw her and I got inspired by her, you know, just doing that in the living room. And that’s when I just jumped into it for fun and I got really serious with it when I was 13 because that age, the next year, I really started seeing it more in my schools and I started seeing it when I would go out with my friends to these different skating rinks.

Skating rinks are like places back in Memphis where you would see a lot of this being done. You see a lot of jookin’ being done in just empty parking lots sometimes, skating rinks. Really not too much in classrooms at all because it’s a dance that came from the underground streets of Memphis and the underground rap.

Tavis: How does the choreography of it all work, though? You…

Riley: Well, see, that’s the magic of it because it’s a freestyle-base dance style. It’s like 40 or 20 – maybe 40% originality because we do have original steps that make it what it is, I mean, that make you where you can separate it from other dance styles, of course.

Because jookin’ started out as gangster walk, like the gangster walk. It was this kind of line dance, bouncy feel and it evolved as dance evolved upon time to what you see right now, how complex it is. I sort of created my own style within it.

Tavis: Your ankles are like rubber.

Riley: Yeah, they kind of are. They’re super flexible. I found out they were really flexible when I was in middle school, actually. I was doing things like this a lot where my ankles were like this…

Tavis: Hold on! Jonathan, did you get this? Do that again. Do that again.

Riley: You know how some peoples’ really double-jointed in their arms?

Tavis: Right, right.

Riley: I can always do this with my ankles and I used to scare my mom a lot with that [laugh]. But when I started…

Tavis: God, you scared me with that [laugh].

Riley: But when I started dancing, you know, I actually wanted to, you know, see – ’cause I told you it was a freestyle-based dance style. So it’s like 40% originality and like the rest is all your creativity. The rest is whatever happens in your mind.

Tavis: So you’ve never done the same thing twice, which is great.

Riley: Yeah, it is great because…

Tavis: ‘Cause if it’s freestyle, you get into the spirit of whatever Yo-Yo or whoever you’re performing with is doing…

Riley: Absolutely, all in the moment.

Tavis: Yeah.

Riley: Like it’s all in how you feel in the moment. I’m always an abundant person, so I’m always feeling good. I always have abundance for life. But, yeah, it’s a freestyle-base dance style and it does have originality, so you would see some moves in there that you’re familiar with, like the gangster walk or the L step or like the surf boy.

There’s quite a few original steps that make jookin’ what it is. And the bounce in the shoulders are mostly like – jookin’ is really – you don’t really see the true essence of it unless you like see the bounce.

Tavis: I love how you’re describing this. But before we go any further in the conversation, I was online the other day and I saw a piece that – for Vogue?

Riley: Yeah. Yeah, Vogue did a feature on me because I was a part of the New York City Ballet, this huge performance with the New York City Ballet called The Choreographers of the 21st Century.

They wanted to do a feature on me because I was like one of the main dancers in this big show with JR that he was choreographing, who was this like world-renowned visual artist. And they did a feature on me in the magazine as well as a video.

Tavis: Okay. So let me – Jonathan, I want to play this video. It’s so much easier for people to see how brilliant his artistic genius is. It’s much easier to see than for him to sit in this chair and try and describe it. So here’s this Vogue piece I want you to see and then we’ll talk about it.


Tavis: I know what I see when I see this. I was so full when I just saw your gift on display in that way. When you see that, what do you see?

Riley: Well, you know, when most people bring up my work in my videos and everything, they always mention just like what you said and they mention just my expression, how happy I am when I dance. I just see happiness when I look at that video.

I see a lot of work, a lot of hard work [laugh] to get to that point, man, because I been dancing every day, every single day, really never missed a day since I was 13. I been doing jookin’ every day, so it’s been like 14 years now nonstop.

Tavis: Why did you make the move from Memphis to L.A.? What were you hoping to accomplish or what are you hoping to accomplish with your career by being in L.A., say, and not New York?

Riley: Well, here’s the thing. I made the move to L.A. because I don’t know if you heard this before, but I was flown from Memphis. I was flown to L.A. for my first music video through YouTube. This lady, Suzanne Lovejoy, another one of the most amazing people I’ve met in L.A. so far, who really helped me so much in my career, but she saw a video.

I did a video back in Memphis to – actually one of my great friends and my manager, Young Jai. He has music as well and I was jookin’ to one of his songs. I came home from school and he was just like, hey, man, I got this in a song I want you to dance to.

And I danced to it and we put it on video. It’s one of my first YouTube videos ever. And she saw that and she had her own film production company and she thought it would be amazing getting me out to L.A.

So she brought me out here for like three days, just the weekend, and she let me bring my good friend Ron as well, Ron Miles, who’s out here in L.A. with me. And he just did the Billboard Music Awards…

Tavis: Music Awards. Oh, cool.

Riley: Music Awards with Michael Jackson, by the way. He was on stage as one of the dancers with Michael Jackson, a hologram. But back to the point, yeah, I went out to L.A. for – we got flown out there for three days and we just saw all the opportunity.

And compared to Memphis, Memphis is wonderful. I love Memphis for like all the soul I got from living in Memphis. It’s just a beautiful place and I believe I’ve did as much as I think I could do in Memphis as far as like elevating – I wanted more elevation. I wanted to expand my horizons even more.

So when we went out to L.A., I saw all the opportunity. I saw the palm trees, I saw the girls [laugh]. I saw the weather, everything and I was like, wow, this is just incredible. I know I can do something with jookin’ out here.

I know like L.A.’s known as one of the biggest places to really make it as far as L.A. and New York. But L.A. is just one of the places basically I made friends at, that I knew people that can probably help me, so that’s why I made the move there.

Tavis: So give me your sense of how you think the exposure for this art form will lead to greater acceptance of it. I mean, when you’re hanging out with Yo-Yo Ma – and I saw a wonderful piece that my friend Wynton Marsalis did with you for CBS.

You’re hanging out with Wynton Marsalis and he’s exposing your gift and now here you are on PBS. What’s your hope and your dream for the exposure of this art form which I hope will lead to greater acceptance of it?

Riley: Exactly. My hope and dream, my overall goal for just me, what I’m doing right now, what I’m trying to do in getting this dance out, bringing it out to the world, my number one goal is like for it to be on – I want it to be respected.

I believe it has the power to be in the same category as like, you know, modern jazz, ballet, you know, hip-hop, jookin’. Its own thing, you know. And I really strongly believe it’s such a beautiful dance and it’s so different because you have the majority control in it. You’re not really learning it from anybody else.

You learn the basics and, from there, you just tap into your own creativity and you get to learn more about yourself. It’s more than a dance. It’s like a lifestyle almost. You learn more about yourself, the more you learn how to do the dance style.

Tavis: The flip side, I would think, Buck, the flip side to being introduced to so many millions of persons on the internet courtesy of your relationship with Yo-Yo Ma, the flip side of that is that people might tend to think of you as a ballet dancer ’cause they see you, hanging out with a guy like Yo-Yo, a classically trained dancer.

Riley: Well, I know some people have an idea like that because when I jumped into the classical world of like collaborating with a lot of people in the classical world, that’s when I got a lot more notoriety. So people really don’t know much about before. They just know mostly about the after effect from me jookin’.

But I’ve been moving the same way. Like nothing really changed – there was no drastic change in my style that made me elevate, you know, even more or for people to call it ballet or whatever because the style is still jookin’. It stays the same.

The only thing – I’ve taken ballet for two years. When I was 17, I took it until I was 19, so for two and a half years. The thing I did get from ballet was the overall core structure.

We already had core structures of jookers, but the knowledge of how to really use your core strength and just knowing about all of these things, I got that from ballet. And I got a lot of flexibility from ballet, a lot of more elegance because my style was already elegant.

That’s what really got Katie Smythe, who was the artistic director for New York City Ballet – not New York City Ballet, but for the New Ballet Ensemble and School in Memphis. She was my ballet teacher when I was taking it.

But that’s what got her into my style in the first place and into me getting into ballet a little bit was that she saw the elegance already. She saw the grace that I had in my style and she saw all of these characteristics that you can compare to ballet. But I’m basically just doing the same thing, just when it’s done to different music.

When it’s done to classical music, people tend to think it’s ballet ’cause I’m on my toes a lot. And I just enjoy being on my toes. I’ve never put on a pair of point shoes in my life [laugh].

Tavis: Your family? They’re still back in Memphis?

Riley: Yes, they are.

Tavis: And how are they processing all this exposed success?

Riley: Well, they’re loving it. For example, my mom, she’s probably watching this right now – how you doing, Mom? But she’s like my number one fan on social media of all sorts, you know. And my family, they love it. They just love what I’m doing.

They’re really proud of me. They’re proud that I kept it going, you know, no matter how many times my mom told me to stop dancing in the kitchen [laugh] while she’s cooking. They all know now it was worth it in the end.

Tavis: As you travel around the country, are you seeing jookin’? Are you seeing the art form everywhere?

Riley: I am, most definitely, because actually when YouTube came out, that was like one of the most amazing things that could have happened as far as like people knowing about jookin’ because – I’m gonna go back to Young Jai.

Jai was one of the people who actually made the first jookin’, like overall structure, DVD for everybody in each and every neighborhood that was doing the style. As I go around the world, like when I was on tour with Madonna, I would hit up different dances on Facebook and on social media to see like the different dance styles in different areas. There are scenes of jookers like…

Tavis: Everywhere.

Riley: Everywhere. Like in Europe, they have a jookin’ league out there in Europe, man [laugh], and it’s crazy how much notoriety this dance is getting and how fast it’s done.

Tavis: See what y’all Negroes in Memphis have done [laugh]?

Riley: Yep [laugh].

Tavis: See what y’all have done to the whole world? But Memphis done that in a whole bunch of different fronts.

Riley: Yep, that’s for sure.

Tavis: First the blues and now jookin’. We owe Memphis – to say nothing about the barbecue. We owe Memphis a great deal. So I’m gonna let you get out of here so you can get back to whatever you’re working on next. But I am so honored to have had you on this program.

Riley: Man, it’s an honor to be here, Tavis.

Tavis: Man, I enjoyed it. Just to see you work those ankles in person is amazing to me.

Riley: Oh, yeah. Well, you know, I try. I do my thing [laugh].

Tavis: Well, you got it [laugh]. Before I let you go, I got 10 seconds. The nickname, Lil Buck, where did Lil Buck come from?

Riley: That’s the question of the year. So Lil Buck actually came from – it’s really simple. It came from two things. It came from me when I first started. Like I told you, I was 12 years old when I first really got into it and 13 when I got serious. But I was like a real shorty, you know, growing up and I was like super short when I was 13.

And when I was doing the style, the style is called jookin’, but there are two styles within that and one of them bucking and another one is called chopping. Bucking is more the explosive style of jookin’ and chopping is more of just chop-chop-chop-chop. You break it down more.

And I was always known as a bucker because like all of my moves were explosive. But I was this little kid doing all these crazy explosive moves, flipping with my style and everything, so they called me Lil Buck.

Tavis: I get it. You were little and you were bucking. Lil Buck.

Riley: Exactly. Lil Buck.

Tavis: I got that [laugh].

Riley: And, you know, my real name is Charles and, you know, the nickname for Charles is Chuck. I don’t want everybody to call me Chuck like my mom, so Buck seemed to be a nice…

Tavis: Watch Chuck do that buck [laugh]. I love you, man.

Riley: Love you too, man. Thanks for having me.

Tavis: I’m glad to have you on. You can call him Charles, you can call him Buck, you can call him Lil Buck [laugh]. Anyway, he’s a bad man and I have so enjoyed this. I’m sure everybody right now is going to YouTube quickly to watch this stuff…

Riley: Please, check out the videos!

Tavis: To watch these videos. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: June 30, 2014 at 1:19 pm