A colorful new dance movement has begun to take over the South Sound. Is jerkin’ a fad or a new way of life?

Photography by Mike Kane

When Keith Carter dances, the only thing the crowd of young men around him can hear is the scrape of his sneakers on the concrete. Pushing his legs out in front of him, the seventeen-year-old skips backwards, in place, in a motion that, to an older generation, looks like the Roger Rabbit in reverse. He closes his eyes, smiles and opens his hands, palms pushing down, moving in rhythm as he listens intently to the song on his iPod. Then his body folds, as if on a string. He bounces on his haunches and pops back up, landing on his heels for a brief pause; then back down, then up on his heels. He reprises that reverse Roger Rabbit and, after a few beats, drops down again. This time he twirls. A few voices yell out approval, but Carter can’t hear. He keeps dancing, in near silence.

A year ago, Carter couldn’t dance even if he wanted to. His jeans were too baggy to allow the intricate footwork he’s mastered since. Back then, Carter listened to the hip-hop songs the older kids in his Tacoma community listened to. “Thug music,” he calls it.

Like many hip-hop fans coming of age in the South Sound, Carter started out listening to thug music because it was one of very few options. Then, in February, he discovered jerkin’, a new style of hip-hop dance that pulled him away from the thug culture, changing his life and those of dozens of other young men (and even a few women) in the South Sound. And it all started when he clicked “play” on a video on MySpace.

“I seen a whole bunch of kids doin’ that runnin’ thing, right?” Carter recalls. “It’s called the reject. I seen them doin’ the reject and it was to this tight beat I had heard too. So I was like, this video is kinda cool. Then I went and searched for it on YouTube. I saw a lot of videos there of the same people from Cali doin’ it. After that I was like, we have to do this.”

The beat Carter heard on the amateur MySpace video was “You’re a Jerk,” by Los Angeles rap duo New Boyz. The song, recorded in the bedroom of one of the New Boyz last year, was one of a few underground songs that crystallized southern California’s nascent jerkin’ culture. Eventually, major record labels picked up on the trend. Warner Bros. signed New Boyz. The official video the label released in May became a viral hit, busting the jerkin’ culture outside its California confines. A polished production, the video features a roving group of smiling young black men flanking the group’s two emcees, everyone outfitted in tight neon jeans and checkers, doing some variation of the reject. Over a quick, dirty beat, the emcees boast, “Got your girl on my swagg / She lovin’ them jerkin songs / Like the new iPod / just touch it and turn her on,” then declare in the chorus the movement’s rallying cry: “I’m a jerk, you ain’t neva lie / But hey, do me a favor, call me jerk one more time.”

Staring at his computer in late February, Carter didn’t know about Warner Bros. and its plans. He only knew that there were dozens of jerkin’ teams in California, all wearing those bright skinny jeans and making their own jerkin’ videos. And he knew that he wanted to be a part of it.

“Up here, no one had heard of jerkin’ at all,” Carter says. He decided to change that. He and a high school friend spent second period every day practicing the steps they saw in the videos — the reject, knee drops and a freestyle move called giggin’. Carter bought his first pair of “skinnies,” bright yellow ones. More jerks joined and Carter soon had a team called the Misf!ts, and each Misf!t had a nickname. After just a couple of weeks, Carter, known to the jerkin’ world as Slinky, posted a video to YouTube called “Jerkin’ in Tacoma.” Opening with a message reading, “Just a preview for yall WEENIES,” the video shows Misf!ts jerkin’ everywhere — in the parking lot, school stairwells and hallways, in the middle of the street — all set to a rapid, deep, distorted beat.

The video resonated, earning more than two hundred thousand views and 838 comments on YouTube. As the Misf!ts kept making videos and taking the dance with them wherever they went, South Sound teenagers started to notice.

“This guy came to our school,” says Tayanna Rector, 16, the only girl jerk City Arts could find. “That was Slinky. I watched him do it and then I went home and practiced in front of the mirror. That’s how I got it.”

Within months at least three new teams — Rector’s Team Avengers, Sick Wit It and Team Incredibles — had popped up across South Sound. Federal Way High staged a jerkin’ performance at a school assembly; when teens from the crowd joined the dancers on the floor, classmates screamed with excitement. As the summer wore on, more and more teens in bright jeans could be seen, earbuds in, doing the reject down the sidewalks of Lakewood, Federal Way and Tacoma. By the end of the summer, jerkin’ had firmly taken hold of a large cross-section of the area’s youth.

Each jerkin’ team has different plans. The Misf!ts want to achieve national recognition like the California crews that first inspired Carter. Team Avengers takes a more entrepreneurial approach, booking appearances in music videos and at parties to raise its profile enough to start charging for performances. Sick Wit It and Team Incredibles, the two youngest teams, seem satisfied with just having fun.

While each team has its own distinct character, all jerks have a few things in common, starting with those Crayola-bright jeans.

“The first time I put skinnies on, I knew I would never go back to baggies,” says Darnell Hamilton, leader of Sick Wit It, running his hands over the thighs of his tight stone-washed pink jeans on a sunny afternoon. “I sold ’em, gave ’em away.”

Hamilton, a.k.a. Flapjack, sits in the concrete amphitheatre outside Union Station with two dozen jerks from his own team and from Team Incredibles, Team Avengers and the Misf!ts. These men, almost all black and between eleven and nineteen, gathered to give a tutorial on jerkin’. The first lesson is the purpose and power of those tight jeans — red, white, yellow, blue. “We don’t wear any one color,” says eighteen-year-old Team Incredibles member Nawan Marvine, a.k.a. Dreadzaka Overboard. “We put on the colors that express the way we feel on the inside.”

This sentiment is shared by every jerk we spoke with. As young black men, the jerks know the social implications of their choice of dress. They see their clothing as an aid to nimble footwork and a means of self-expression; they also see it as an active rejection of a prejudiced public’s warped perceptions.

“I’m not gonna lie,” Carter says. “When people see a group of black men wearing colorful colors and actually fitting clothes, it’s different. All that negative attention of, ‘Oh, he’s wearin’ baggy pants, he might steal somethin’, he might take somethin’ and shove it down his pants’ — it takes all that negative attention away.”

“Now we’re not profiled anymore,” adds Team Avengers co-captain Enriquez Taylor, a.k.a Captain America. “We’re just profiled as jerkers. It’s a lot better to be profiled as a jerker than as a gangster. And jerkin’ keeps kids out of trouble. So it’s really good for the community.”

Wearing tight neon pants is not without its risks. Some jerks report that they have been taunted by schoolmates.

“All the gangsters are like, ‘Why you wearin’ those skinny jeans?’” Taylor says. “They hate on us, and say, ‘Shouldn’t your girl have them jeans on?’ They say a lot of really nasty things. But we’re just different than them. We try to keep ourselves outside that. We just keep it pushin’. We keep on walkin’. Cause then, at the end of the day, when they know us, they say, ‘Oh yeah, you’re the Avengers. You dudes are tight. We seen you on YouTube.’”

As Taylor speaks, a circle forms near the Museum of Glass. Myriad voices sound in rhythm: “Heyyy…heyyy…heyyy.” Then a dozen or so hands begin clapping in double time. An impromptu “jerk-off” — the smirking phrase given to the teams’ dance battles — between Team Avengers and Sick Wit It has begun. As each dancer takes his turn moving from the reject into a series of twists, drops, poses and handstands, both teams howl in approval. Dance circles like this are one of the few holdovers of the hip-hop culture that preceded jerkin’, but they’re not a necessity. Unlike the graying culture of hip-hop that gave rise to the break dancing B-boy, jerk teams embrace the Web as their true arena. It is there, through the jury of online comment threads, that a battle is truly won or lost.

“There are several ways to compete,” says the Misf!ts’ Keith Carter. “You can easily go to somebody’s school or a popular spot in their town, jerk, make your own video and call the other crew out. Post it up. They see it, they take it as a challenge and from then on you have to battle.” Welcome to the age of the long-distance dance battle.

YouTube, social networking and jerk-specific Web sites give young dancers a place to display their talents, learn new steps and show off innovative moves that win a crew respect. The internet is also a place to goof around, a digital playground where boundaries can be tested in the name of a good laugh — sometimes at great risk to the physical well-being of jerks and the stress levels of adults. The Misf!ts are the most daring of the groups. Rifling through Keith Carter’s YouTube account reveals jerks doing the reject on a highway median as passing drivers scream, “Get out of the road!” There are jerks giggin’ at the base of stoplights, doing knee-drops in a 7-11, jerkin’ on top of the Tacoma Mall sign. And there is also footage of jerks disbanding peacefully when mall security shows up.

More than any major-label marketing campaign, it has been these amateur videos that have fueled the rapid rise of jerkin’. This has become the next big fad not because the media has dictated it, but because these young, brightly dressed teenagers have created it. But its practitioners insist that this is not a fad. It is, they say, a new culture. As proof, they point to a single fact: anyone can do it.

“Most of the other dances out here, like crumping or break dancing, you have to be strong and you have to have a lot of moves,” Enriquez Taylor says. “But anyone can do the reject and some drops, make their own team, or just make a video and put it on YouTube, on MySpace, and write about it on Twitter. Then everybody can go see how good you are.”

Outside the Museum of Glass, Team Avengers co-captain Dominic Rashaad Horne, a.k.a. Iron Man, has taken on a new student: this reporter. “You know how to skip, right?” the nineteen-year-old asks the prospective jerk. “So, skip.” The newcomer begins skipping. “Now, skip backwards.” The subject stops skipping, hesitates while figuring out the mechanics of such a move and then successfully manages to skip in reverse. “Now,” Horne commands, “while you are skipping backwards, stay in one place.”

And just like that, a jerk is born.