I’ll admit it; I love a good dance flick, I pretty much love any dance film, from early ’80s movies such as Beat Street (see “Top Five NYC Subway Movies”), to the recent crop of dance documentaries that include Every Little Step, First Position andPina. And, yes, even Step Up. It’s a guilty pleasure! Following the recent crop of dance documentaries, this latest New York centric dance-umentary flexes its muscles to add a bit of gritty edge and social-economic relevance to the dance-doc genre. Flex is Kingsdirected by Deidre Schoo and Michael Beach Nichols explores the dance movement popularized in East New York (Brooklyn) called flexing. It follows the lives of several street dancers who compete in a dance off competition called Battlefest, a Do-It-Yourself event created and passionately promoted by Reem. Reem does everything, including: maintaining their website (battlefestleague.com), scheduling tours, creating videos, and even providing the dancers a little advice on how to appear more professional (no low riders). Reem is a man who clearly cares about his community and one of those rare people whose actions makes a difference, which is something needed in an area where the crime rate is high, employment options are low and gang violence is common. Rather than fighting it out on the streets, these gifted young men fight it out on the dance floor where they present a sort of narrative that reflects the violence in their neighborhood.
The film is not limited only to the events surrounding Battlefest; it also follows one of the dancers, Jay Donn, who is cast in the role of Pinocchio with a contemporary dance company, Company XIV, that travels to Edinburg, Scotland to participate in the Fringe Festival. His story is rather inspiring as he is able to adapt and hold his own against the other classically trained dancers. Jay Donn seems set to become one of the first of the Battlefest dancers to become commercially successful. It’s a joy to watch Jay Donn excel in his art and realize his dreams. His joy is palpable, when he shares the news with his mother; her tears of pride are—at least, to this viewer—infectious (I’m rarely a weepy push over). The film also focuses on a pudgy, conflicted, inspiring and definitely creative bear of a dancer called Flizzo. Flizzo is the flex legend that everyone respects but wants to bring down so they can be champ. Out of the all the artists featured in the film, Flizzo is the most compelling and multi-dimensional. He may not excel in the relationship with the mother of his daughter, but he excels as a respected leader among his fellow dancers, and this flex master can certainly dance—and battle
The music by Chris Lancaster and Jerome Begin of Tranimal provides the film with a layer of emotional power that complements the dance scenes as we watch them move from an internalized place of focused, in-the-moment, bliss that only a dancer can understand. One particular moment that stands out for its poetic beauty occurs when we see one of the artists alone, dancing in the snow. He is indeed, at one with his dance, with his environment, doing what he loves best and the city is his stage.
As a former small theater owner in Manhattan, I can’t help but have empathy for the DIYers and the small performing artist companies trying to survive in the thankless, fame-driven, shiny commercial goal oriented environment of today’s entertainment world. Reem has that passion and drive to do what he loves and affect people’s lives in a positive way. Flex Is Kingsmay lack some history on the evolution of the dance movement, and I would like to have seen the film go deeper in its exploration of the featured dancers lives, but the moments of dance are beautiful, inspiring, and ultimately satisfying for any dance film fan.
—John David West