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Dance Fever

The beat is infectious and the movement is captivating. Raw and natural rhythmic spasms blend with aggressive gymnastics. Solo performers merge into tight-knit groups. Flailing limbs somehow miss each other by a hair's breadth. Faces are painted with lavish colors and intricate designs; there's even a rainbow-colored afro. This is not your daddy's break-dancing. This is "krumping", a physical manifestation of pent-up emotions that combine celebration with rivalry. David LaChapelle captures the spirit of this modern dance craze in his feature debut, Rize.

To make it clear what fuels this frenetic outburst of dance, the film opens with newsreels of the Watts riots in 1965. Then comes footage of the Los Angeles riots in 1992. In response to this periodic madness that erupts around them, some kids created a freestyle dance movement -- in a manner that play-acts or imitates the daily violence they see -- as a sane alternative to the gangs, hustling, and drugs that infest their neighborhoods in South Central Los Angeles. These youth are taking back the streets on their own terms.

To get at the heart of the movement, LaChapelle involves key performers in his film. With names like Tommy the Clown, Dragon, Baby Tight Eyez, Swoop, Daisy, Lil C, and Miss Prissy, among others, you can tell there are plenty of interesting personalities to fill several films. They are proud of what they do. They put not only a lot of energy into krumping, but they adapt to the constant pressure to innovate their moves. Their verve carries the film; without them Rize would be just another banal music video, albeit with good dancers.

Equally important to the film's success is the photography and editing. With its saturated colors, fluid camerawork, and occasional, dramatic slo-mo (but never sped up, according to the opening statement), Rize looks fantastic. Cross-cutting these street dancers with newsreels of African tribal dancers not only reveals striking parallels between many of these kids' dance moves and those of their ancestors a continent away, but implies that this "need for dance" is more than just a fad; it's in their genetic code.

Despite its relatively short 85 minutes, Rize drags in its final act. After considerable build-up to a dramatic arena contest between the Clowns and the Krumpers, the film loses steam and wanders. Some judicious editing would improve things quite a bit. There's nothing more frustrating than sensing a cinematic climax, only to fade-up on yet another tacked-on topic. These last minute additions -- introducing a white guy who krumps and discussing hip-hop merchandising culture -- aren't integrated well with the overall knockout story of positive self-expression as a means of survival.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars