Maybe you've heard that Serena Williams, the greatest female American tennis player of all time, did a controversial dance after winning gold in singles at the Olympics over the weekend.
"I didn't know what else to do," Williams told reporters after her match, which she won, 6-0, 6-1. "I was so happy and next thing I know I started dancing and moving. I didn't plan it. It just happened."
But it wasn't just any dance, as crusty and panicked sports writers will tell you. It was the Crip Walk.
What is the Crip Walk?
The Crip Walk, or C-Walk, is a dance step that was invented some 40 years ago in Compton, in Los Angeles County, allegedly by members of the Crips gang. The story goes that the Crips would dis members of the rival Bloods by spelling the gang's name on the ground and then crossing it out with their feet. In the early aughts, the step was controversial enough to earn school-wide bans in certain neighborhoods. Now it is almost universally used (and abused) by lots of people who are unaffiliated with the Crips, including white people intent on embarrassing themselves on wedding and bar mitzvah dance floors, and Serena Williams.
Wait, wasn't her half sister killed by a Crip?
Yes. If there's anyone in a position to understand the implications of Crip Walking, it's Serena. And if she has decided that the dance lies at a distant remove from actual gang violence, well, that's good enough for me.
How does one Crip Walk?
The basic step is done as you shuffle back and forth. There are two components to the C-Walk: the V-shaped movement of the feet and the step-back. You're constantly making a "V" (heels together, toes pointed outward) then inverting the "V" (heels apart, toes together) while moving to one side or another. To this you can add a shuffle—alternating heel-toe movements in which the front front lands on the heel and the back foot on the toe. (What Serena did in London was a heel-toe with a bit of a "V.") The movement is, ideally, isolated to the waist down. The upper half of the body remains still while the lower half fires off in all directions. Done well, the C-Walk is totally mesmerizing.
Should I, a person with no direct ties to either the Crip gang or the Los Angeles hip-hop community, try to Crip Walk?
Honky, please. The Crip Walk belongs to America now. We know this is true because every asshole who has seen the "Drop It Like It's Hot" music video has tried to Crip Walk, just like every asshole who has seen the "Let's Get It" music video has tried to do the Harlem Shake. The only thing more offensive than Serena Williams, a black American and Compton native, doing the Crip Walk to celebrate winning an Olympic medal in London is EVERYONE ELSE DOING THE CRIP WALK, EVERYWHERE. And yet people do it anyway—Americans Crip Walk at weddings and Crip Walk at bar mitzvahs and Crip Walk at clubs and Crip Walk down the hallways of their Brooklyn apartments because that's what American culture does. Adapt. Adopt. Repackage. Remix. Elvis singing Big Mama Thornton singing a song written by two Jews in Los Angeles in a 12-bar-blues progression. In the past decade or so, the C-Walk has been sublimated and normalized and mainstreamed and even commodified—another form of black expression denuded of its specific meaning and adapted and adopted by lots of Americans with no connections whatsoever to its original context.
Fumbling adaptation of culturally specific traditions is maybe the most American tradition of all. It can be offensive, and it can be wonderful, too. In that sense, the Crip Walk is especially American. What better way for a member of Team USA to celebrate an Olympic gold medal?
So what's the big deal about Serena doing the C-Walk if like everyone else does the C-Walk?
Although lots of people of all colors and backgrounds do the Crip Walk in all kinds of settings, Serena Williams is black and actually from Compton. This means that rather than simply expressing happiness by doing a pop-music dance she happened to have grown up with, she had to have been purposely doing a Black Thing in a White Space. And that is ... problematic. (This is a goddamn cycle by now, after all.) A sportswriter actually wrote that she deserved "a proper British slap on the wrist" for the indiscretion. Jason Whitlock, who always seems to return to his worst tendencies whenever Serena is concerned, suggested that instead of criticizing the people criticizing Williams, we should demand more of Williams so that they don't have reason to criticize her.
It would be better, though, to demand more of Whitlock and of every other dolt who's mad at Serena for celebrating her most dominant win in recent memory with utter joy and a little shuffle.
But that's not how things work for Serena. She tends to break the rules that tennis has made up for her, and she suffers for it. She's yelled at judges. She's posted "revealing" photos. She's stayed injured for a little too long. When Serena's losing we can't believe that she has the nerve to lose; when she's trying very hard to win we can't believe she has the nerve to express anger; now, when she's winning, we can't believe she has the nerve to express her unique joy. Other players—and, sure, mostly white players—don't labor under the same restraints.
Tennis and its commentators aren't really concerned about Williams desecrating Wimbledon's center court (a "sports church" with "tradition and atmosphere," according to Whitlock) or about Serena setting a bad example for her fans; they're concerned about getting a little Compton in their Wimbledon. That's funny. You'd think that a gang of carefully selected, racially homogenous people practicing their own strange folkways and enforcing their own strict dress code would have at least a few things in common with the Crips.
Image by Jim Cooke