Lil Buck, the willowy dancer who spins on the toes of his sneakers as if they were point shoes, was a little boy — probably around 6 — when a church choir filled him with such spirit that he got up and began to dance.
“I don’t even know if it could be called dancing, but I just jumped up and started moving around because I felt it so much,” he said in a recent interview from Los Angeles, where he lives. “There’s something about it that just hit me. My mom was like, ‘Oh my God, my son’s got the Holy Ghost!’”
Buck, or Charles Riley, rediscovers the fervor of that moment in a short film, “Nobody Knows”— live this week on his YouTube channel — set to Pastor T.L. Barrett and the Youth for Christ Choir’s version of the gospel song. The video, directed by David Javier, takes place in a moody, shadowy church where the voices of a choir propel Buck to contemplate his struggles as a Black man.
Fueling it all is the emotion that drives his magnetic dancing. There is struggle and pain, joy and healing, and ultimately, a transformation. And throughout, the Black Lives Matter movement informs his dancing, too — a root connecting the past to the present.
“We all have seen what the Black community has been going through,” he said. “This is sadly nothing new for me and where I’m from and my culture. So it just meant a lot to me to be able to speak through movement and tell this story through my own eyes and in my own experience of it and my own feelings.”
Buck grew up to become a star of jookin, a street dance form native to Memphis, where Buck was raised. Now 32, Buck finds himself at a point in his life where he realizes that by facing his past, he can build an enlightened future. One of his missions, along with the movement artist Jon Boogz — together, they lead the socially minded organization Movement Art Is — is to show the world that street dance is fine art and no less rigorous than classical ballet. (Buck and Boogz are featured in the first episode of “Move,” a new Netflix series.)
Buck’s nuanced dance language in the impressionistic “Nobody Knows” makes that abundantly clear, but his message is also more personal. His feelings are transformed into physical actions in which uncanny balances melt into spiraling turns, making it seem that he is floating in the air. Who is this spirit? Midway through he switches from street clothes into an all-white ensemble.
The music stops as he appears in profile slowly leaning backward with an arm raised until his head reaches the floor; this bending is somehow a yielding to an outside force, something bigger than himself. Amid the sounds of church bells and marching feet, a chant — “No justice, no peace!” — can be heard faintly in the background. “That’s me yelling at a protest,” Buck said.
“Nobody Knows” is an especially emotional release, but for Buck, dance has always served that purpose, starting in his difficult childhood. Born in Chicago, he moved with his mother and siblings to Memphis when he was around 8. “My mom was going through a lot of domestic abuse with my stepdad, and so we moved and tried to start all over,” he said.
An introvert, he was frequently bullied. “I was a weird kid that used to just sit in the cafeteria by myself and draw people,” he said. “I would get made fun of. My ears were big when I was little, and I wasn’t from Memphis.”
And then he discovered jookin: “What really opened me up was the power of movement — I was able to get people to understand who I am through dance.”
In “Nobody Knows,” Buck takes that further. Though he made a choreographic outline, he purposely left it loose to allow for spontaneity in the moment: “I want to know what it sounds like, what it looks like and what it feels like,” he said. “Not in that order, but those are the three things I ask myself.”
That makes sense. While his agile physical instrument is astounding, Buck’s power derives from the ability to get to the bottom of what something feels like for him and then to express it to the world. At the start of the film, he moves from a church pew into the aisle — as if activated by members of the clapping, singing choir — and throws his arms up. At that moment, their voices become a reflection of his inner thoughts. Buck is the choir: urgent, mystical, euphoric and self-aware.
“I didn’t used to think about speaking of the importance of certain issues in life,” he said. “I just wanted to be a dancer.”
But, he added: “When someone is speaking to your spirit through dance, that sticks. That’s one of the true powers of dancing. That was the transformation that actually happened in my life: Knowing that it’s not just for entertainment, but that dance can really be used as a tool to help bring change about the world.”