DANCING WITH ANGELS
TIM DOUGLAS VISITS A DANCE ACADEMY SAVING LIVES IN LA’S MURDEROUS GANGLAND
VICKY Lindsey’s voice falters momentarily as she utters the dates — November 9, 1995, and June 5, 1989 — when her son and his father were shot dead in Compton, in the heart of Los Angeles’ South Central district. But she won’t cry. Not today. No, child. She didn’t cry at the funeral of her 19-year-old son Lionel Whiteside, gunned down just a stone’s throw from his family home and left to endure an agonising death, suffocating on his own blood in the passenger seat of a friend’s car. Tears, she says, won’t bring back her baby boy.
Tears couldn’t help Lionel’s father, Big Lionel Whiteside, murdered in a drive-by shooting, and they won’t return her niece, her son’s uncles and scores of friends’ children slain in gang-related violence.
Lindsey’s family tree is a portrait of tragedy not uncommon in this part of LA: branches truncated, roots poisoned, by the multigenerational street warfare that began in the 1970s with gangs the Bloods and the Crips battling for control of the lucrative street drug trade, a battle that at one point was claiming 1200 lives a year.
‘‘ I ain’t gonna cry,’’ Lindsey says, unshed tears visibly pooling behind heavily made-up eyes. ‘‘ When I went to identify my boy at the hospital, he had a tear in his eye. I don’t know if he cried because he suffered or he was fighting for his life. Maybe he felt betrayed. But that will stay with me forever.’’ NOT far away, in another conversation, death is also on the mind of 19-year-old Smurf, a senior-ranking member of LA’s Inglewood Family Gang. ‘‘ Death is certain,’’ reads a calligraphic tattoo on his bulging forearm. ‘‘ It’s just a matter of when, right?’’ he says, flashing a sly simper that betrays a pair of pinup boy dimples.
‘‘ Yo, don’t let that smile fool you,’’ warns Zoe, a 188cm tall, 120kg reformed senior Crips enforcer, better known in these parts as the Collector. ‘‘ This dawg will mess you up. He’s an ice-cold mother. He’ll kill you. Feel me? Just. Like. That.’’ He clicks two sausage-like fingers and shoots a cold stare across the table.
Smurf, disarmingly handsome and wearing a neatly pressed blood-red shirt below a pair of diamond earrings, leans back in a chair and stares out to the street. ‘‘ The first time I shot somebody, I felt happy. Some people say you feel sick, or you vomit. I didn’t feel none of that,’’ he says. ‘‘ I felt happy because I did what I needed to do: shot the guy who killed my brother — my homie. I don’t know if he lived or died. But I felt good.’’
Smurf removes his baseball cap and rubs the back of his cornrowed head to reveal a deep scar from a bullet graze sustained in a street shooting as a 14-year-old. By that time, he was already an established member of the IG, a Bloods subset. His initiation — a street fight with three grown men — came at the tender age of 12, not long, he says, after his father had been jailed for life for murder. ‘‘ We in the Jungle right here,’’ he says. ‘‘ Lions, tigers and bears. Once I step outside, this gets real. I could get shot in the parking lot.’’ THE Jungle, in the Crenshaw district of south LA, is one of America’s most notorious public housing areas, known as the projects. Made famous by the 2011 Denzel Washington film Training Day, the Jungle is a ramshackle collection of public high-rise housing that winds around a labyrinth of one-way streets and dead ends, populated by third and fourthgeneration gang members. ‘‘ Trust me, you don’t wanna get lost in there,’’ Smurf says.
At the Jungle’s outer limits, across a vacant lot littered with abandoned cars and shopping trolleys, and where disparate groups of black youths occasionally loiter, stands an unassuming white building untouched by the gangspecific graffiti and wanton vandalism that so characterises many of the buildings in this area. It’s a place described by politician and former LA Police chief Bernard Parks as a ‘‘ beacon of hope in Crenshaw’’: the Debbie Allen Dance Academy.
Inside, Allen, star of the 1982 television series Fame, is waving her arms furiously as a studio full of young dancers moves to the thrum of a musical melange of swing and hiphop. ‘‘ Be someone. Take me on a journey. I want to know who you are,’’ she hollers. ‘‘ Yes, child. Nasty! Take me there.’’
Allen and her crew at DADA — the nonprofit dance school she founded with her husband, NBA All Star Norm Nixon, in 2001 — are rehearsing Freeze Frame, a movement-based musical work that will premiere at Brisbane Festival, which begins today. More than 20 performers from Allen’s Crenshaw studio are making the journey from LA to the Queensland capital for one of the festival’s headline acts: a work Allen says gives a human face to ‘‘ the senseless killings we see on a daily basis’’.
‘‘ It’s about revealing that moment in time, before a trigger is pulled; a chance for people to stop and recalibrate,’’ says Allen, who has
drawn on real-life stories to create the work. ‘‘ I want to put a face to the statistics.’’
The statistics — particularly those pertaining to this disadvantaged corner of the city just 25km from the manicured lawns of Beverly Hills — make for uncomfortable reading. According to the Los Angeles Times’s Homicide Report — the city’s journal of record has a section devoted to the daily murder count — 396 homicides have been recorded this year in LA, a city of 3.8 million. Of the 32 murders last month, more than half were committed in South LA; 80 per cent were gun-related.
Allen’s dancers, many of whom grew up — and some of whom still live — in the low socioeconomic projects around Compton and Crenshaw know well the history of this place, its myriad cultural intricacies, its troubles, its triumphs. And each one — down to six-yearold Alijah Kai Haggins, one of the young stars of Freeze Frame — has a story to tell; a link, tenuous or too-close-for-comfort, to gang violence. ‘‘ Do you need me to cry, Ms Allen?’’ she inquires, eyes wide. ‘‘ I can think of something to make myself cry. It’s easy.’’
‘‘ No, baby,’’ Allen says, smiling. ‘‘ We don’t need you to cry. We need you to dance.’’ IT’S the first day of rehearsals at DADA and the performers are tracking the history of AfricanAmerican dance, from Africa to swing, jive,
rock ’ n’ roll, rap and hip-hop; a riotous colour of movement. Allen watches her vision come to life from the front of the room. It’s a story about a young man who robs a liquor store and the aftermath of that act; eventually a choice is presented to each character: join a gang, or dance. Tap dancers beat out rhythms on tiny fruit boxes as swing dancers twirl each other about the room. A phalanx of male dancers advances in tribal unison, dodging a pair of teenage hip-hoppers who backflip across the floor. A character dances on to the stage, pulls a gun, holds it to another’s head. ‘‘ I’VE been involved in murders,’’ Smurf says. ‘‘ I’ve seen people killed in front of my face; blood all over my clothes.’’ He inspects his shirt — its deep red screams Bloods affiliation — as if checking for stains. ‘‘ My big thing was I would [shoot at] a crowd of dudes. If there was a crowd of like five of them, I would shoot at the crowd until I see somebody fall. As soon as that happens, I stop and go. If that person just killed your homeboy, you don’t care. There’s no empathy.’’
Zoe nods. He spent 11 years in jail for his involvement in trafficking military automatic firearms, with silencers, from South America to the streets. He’s not so forthcoming about his involvement in crime, but the one-time Crips OG — original gangster; a street term for highranking senior gang member — is still well known as the Collector. He worked in payroll, he says with a grin. The lifestyle, as Zoe calls it, is called gangbanging here. It means, loosely, low-ranking gang members doing whatever it takes to get money, drugs and sex in the name of a particular group.
‘‘ For me, I started banging hoods to get what I wanted,’’ says Smurf, who has been brought together with Zoe for this meeting by Moon, a respected mediator and veteran of the hood. ‘‘ I liked all the fancy stuff. I wanted the cars, the luxuries. Everyone I saw were doing good from gangbanging. So I started it too.’’
For Zoe, whose life as the Collector forms an integral part of Allen’s production, there was no conscious choice. He grew up on Grape Street, Watts, in South Central, during the notorious colour wars of the 60s and 70s. He was there during the six-day Watts riots of 1965 that resulted in 34 deaths and 3438 arrests. At four he saw his aunt stab his mother in the back with a bayonet knife. ‘‘ Then I went with my uncle to go kill my aunty,’’ he says blankly. ‘‘ I didn’t never have no counsel. Just life lessons. So when I saw a murder for the first time, it wasn’t nothing for me see a dead body; it wasn’t nothing for me to hold a gun.’’
It’s high summer in South Central and as the temperature rises by the day, so does the murder toll. During the week of my visit alone, 10 people are murdered in the city, five of them killed in this area of LA. Already this year, Compton — a city of just 100,000 — has recorded 22 homicides, all gang-related. It’s the same week Australian baseballer Chris Lane is shot dead in Oklahoma in what is reported as a gang initiation. His death goes unreported in California.
According to Zoe, we have entered what’s known on the streets as the Red Zone. ‘‘ Red Zone means it’s gang season,’’ he says. Smurf explains: ‘‘ School’s out. It’s hot. People don’t got nothing productive to do, and more time to do something bad. Guns are everywhere.’’
The apparent disconnect with death in this city is a notion that has always troubled Allen. She moved to LA in 1982 to appear in Fame, the American series in which she starred as dancer Lydia Grant. But her celebrity — including three Emmys and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame — was overshadowed by the despair she witnessed beyond the Hollywood Hills.
That despair culminated a decade later in the week-long riots sparked by the Rodney King police brutality incident, turmoil that claimed 53 lives.
‘‘ I felt helpless at the loss of innocent life from gangs, gun violence, mistaken identity and drugs,’’ Allen says. ‘‘ So many beautiful people lost and trapped by their zip code. I thought it was important to bring this story to the world without glorifying it.’’
Freeze Frame has been five years in the making. It was an idea Allen and Brisbane Festival artistic director Noel Staunton, a man
‘‘ fascinated by life in South Central’’, discussed back in 2007. ‘‘ I’d talked to Noel about doing something like this after reading about a mamma walking her baby down the street. She was just walking, when boom: her baby was shot dead,’’ Allen says. ‘‘ I needed to make this work. Then when Noel, a dear friend, became Brisbane Festival director, he called me and said let’s do it. The time’s right.’’ TOUGH love, is how Allen describes it. Her directorial style over her subjects may seem strict; dictatorial, even. She admits to having slapped one dancer when he ‘‘ went off the
rails’’ a few years ago. She expresses disappointment at tardiness, and takes breaks in rehearsals regularly to talk about her dancers’ lives. Indeed, there are moments that are less dance rehearsal and more group therapy. Such familial frankness makes it easy to forget the dancers sitting at Allen’s feet are some of the country’s most talented. There’s Dion Watson, a famous hip-hop dancer who choreographs for the Black Eyed Peas, P. Diddy, Mariah Carey, Usher and Elton John; William Wingfield, runner-up on America’s So You Think You Can Dance; Taylour Paige, star of US TV show Hit the Floor; tap stars B’Jon Carter Burnell and Cathie Nicholas, granddaughter of one of the famous dancing Nicholas Brothers. Then there’s Allen’s and Nixon’s 29-year-old daughter Vivian Nixon, a Broadway star in her own right who studied at the Kirov Ballet.
‘‘ It’s amazing to have Vivian in this show, but really, they are all my children out there,’’ Allen says. ‘‘ This is a family.’’
Allen wrote, choreographed and directs Freeze Frame, but the music has its own personal connections. Her old friend Stevie Wonder composed one of the tracks; her son Thump composed three under the direction of Jay Leno’s Tonight Show and Grammys musical director Ricky Minor. The work also features music by James Ingram, the double Grammy award winner and long-time Quincy Jones collaborator who was also in a former life a gang interventionist in South Central. ‘‘ The reason I’m here, that we’re all [on board] is simple,’’ he says. ‘‘ Everything Debbie Allen does has a purpose.’’
Outside Allen’s office, a tiny room festooned in signed inner soles, framed spats and a picture of the dancer meeting Bill Clinton, Australian-born police officer Garry Hodgson is watching a gaggle of tiny ballerinas file into DADA’s second rehearsal room. He looks anxiously at his watch. He starts work in an hour. On seeing him, his wife Bronwyn Thomas-Hodgson — another Fame alumna — comes streaking down the hallway in a black leotard. ‘‘ I love you,’’ she says, kissing him softly. ‘‘ Be safe. Please. Come back to me.’’
Hodgson, a former musical theatre dancer, is an LAPD gang enforcement cop. The past seven of his 25 years with the LAPD have been spent in the worst of the city’s gangland areas. He knows each group intimately: its history, its members, its prescribed areas, its rivals. It’s a dangerous job. ‘‘ Every time my wife says goodbye, she says it as though it’s the last time,’’ he says. ‘‘ It’s very tough on her. To be fair, she married a dancer, not a cop.’’
Hodgson has watched the gang landscape evolve in the past 20 years; there are estimated now to be hundreds of criminal groups comprising 300,000 gang members across the city, covering everything from Hispanic, African-American, Asian and white skinheads. ‘‘ It’s not as simple as the old codes of colour — blue for Crips, red for Bloods,’’ Hodgson says. ‘‘ There are injunction laws, which means if you’re from this gang, you’re not allowed to wear this colour in this part of the neighbourhood. So we have gangs now that wear the buttoned shirt, skinny jeans, a baseball cap. They look like regular kids, but they’re running guns, slinging dope, shooting.’’
Hodgson says the key to understanding gangs in LA is graffiti, a complex code of information Allen has incorporated into Freeze Frame’s sets with the help of muralist John Valadez. Some of the graffiti, such as can be seen in dangerous Koreatown where the dancers are being photographed in a vacant lot, is elaborately beautiful. Cars full of young men trawl by slowly as the crew — foreigners in this part of town — pose in front of a 60m long mural of colour and code: odes to fallen friends, depictions of bullets and blood, warnings to rivals. ‘‘ It will tell you who’s in which gang, which gangs they’re at war with,’’ Hodgson says. ‘‘ You learn to read it.’’
With a homicide rate of 300-400 people a year, LA has a long way to go to counter its reputation as one of America’s deadliest cities. Yet the figures are almost one-third lower than the four consecutive years of about 1000 murders recorded during the early 90s. Few people understand the numbers better than city councillor Parks, and not just through his former role as LA’s top cop. In 2000, his granddaughter Lori Gonzalez was gunned down at a fast food restaurant the day before her 21st birthday. The site is a few blocks from Parks’s tiny electoral office on Crenshaw Boulevard.
‘‘ We don’t drive La Brea Avenue much these days,’’ he says of Lori’s murder; she was caught in the crossfire — her passenger was a member of the shooter’s rival gang. ‘‘ People thought my family lived in a bubble. They all thought my family was protected and had security. They drive the same streets, go to the same stores. She was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sadly, it’s a common story.’’
Back in Allen’s office, the 63-year-old buries her face in her hands and bursts into tears. ‘‘ Australia can [ban guns]. Why can’t we do it?’’ she says. ‘‘ I don’t understand why anyone needs a gun. Innocent people are being killed. It’s the story of life here. But it shouldn’t be.’’
Allen’s life is a story in itself. And her own history goes some way to explaining the many whys here: why DADA is not-for-profit; why a vast proportion of its students are on scholarships; why Allen has set up in one of the toughest neighbourhoods in the US, a world away from her star on Hollywood Boulevard.
Allen was born and reared in Houston, and her early interest in dance was snuffed out by Texan segregation laws that forbade black women joining dance academies. Allen’s mother Vivian made the brave decision to move her daughters — nine-year-old Allen and her sister, actress Phylicia Rashad — to Mexico City. ‘‘ She packed us up on a Greyhound bus and told us we were children of the universe,’’ Allen says. ‘‘ I remember we went to a store and sat at a lunch counter. Nobody told us to leave. Mumma was right.’’
The family lived in Mexico for a year, during which time Allen danced with the Ballet Nacional. ‘‘ When I think about the opportunities denied me as a child, I think about opportunities denied children who might be economically disadvantaged today. It’s important to me that if a kid has talent, we use it. I’m always shaking the tin can to make these kids places. Give them a future.’’
One such kid with talent was Watson, who plays the lead role in Freeze Frame. His family and friends have been sucked into gang life but Allen, he says, saved him. ‘‘ If I wasn’t dancing ... I could be one of those ones out there shooting someone over colour,’’ he says. ‘‘ Dance changed my life. It’s not about how easy it is to slip into [gang] life out here, it’s about how hard it is not to slip into it.’’
Watson now runs his own community program for disadvantaged youth in Compton. He travels the world with some of its biggest stars, but he always comes home. ‘‘ This is my family,’’ he says. ‘‘ She’s our mother. When mom calls we come running.’’ LINDSEY hugs Skip Townsend, a respected gang interventionist and long-time friend. ‘‘ Lionel, my boy, had a son,’’ she says quietly. ‘‘ Lionel Jr was born 12 days after his daddy was shot dead in that car.’’ She hasn’t seen her grandson in years — he will turn 18 in November — and fears he may be involved in the gang scene. ‘‘ I hope he can pull himself out and become someone who helps people find the right path,’’ says Lindsey, who now runs CryNoMore, a group for families affected by gang violence. ‘‘ You gotta have hope. Without hope, what else have you got?’’
Zoe has found his path. After decades running gangs and guns across LA, the reformed gangster is a musician, focused on securing a safe future for his five children.
Smurf, too, is a father: he has a son. The baby-faced gangster says a nine-month stint in jail for burglary last year made him reconsider his lifestyle. But he’ll never leave the gang, his family. He smiles when asked about the future for his little boy. ‘‘ I can give him all the tools to ensure he doesn’t get involved in the lifestyle, but truth is if he bangs just one hood, if he gets caught up in it one time, he’s there for life. There’s no getting out.’’ Smurf slips away into the night as the Freeze Frame dancers — gangsters, harlots, criminals for a day — float out of the studio and head for home. Tomorrow they will do it all again.
Dusk envelops Crenshaw and as the Jungle comes alive, the lights stay on at the academy. Allen works into the night imagining new ways to tell the stories — good, bad and tragic — of this corner of LA. She came to Hollywood to find fame but in South Central found purpose. A light in the darkness; queen of this jungle.
Freeze Frame plays at Brisbane Festival, September 19-22. Tim Douglas travelled to LA courtesy of Brisbane Festival.
This page, Debbie Allen and daughter Vivian Nixon, above; and gang member Smurf, below left; opposite page, the Freeze Frame cast, top; and cast members, from left, Dion Watson, Alaman Diadhiou, Nixon and Dempsey Tonks
Cast members of Freeze Frame in LA, top and above left; Debbie Allen’s son Norman Nixon Jr, aka Thump, above right