Perhaps one of Burning Man’s strangest success stories, Santa Cruz’s Kris Kaufeldt—aka ‘White Tiger’—has turned his freaky dance moves into cult fame as a professional festival-goer
On a Thursday night in June at the Cocoanut Grove, ravers of all shapes and sizes wander throughout the carpeted ballroom. Tonight there is an event called Euphoric Bounce, an electronic music festival. From the ceiling drape tapestries of interlocking lotus flowers, making the room resemble the interior of a genie’s bottle. A strobe light flashes. Neon lights in all different colors splash across the walls. The DJ has been on stage for a while now, but it’s relatively early in the night, and the crowd is thin.
There are a few excitable young women who migrate around the room in small herds, wearing mismatched outfits combining a few different genres of fashion: flow-y gypsy skirts, for example, paired with combat boots and thigh-high fishnet stockings fastened with garters. Toward the back of the room, a pudgy young man with a faux raccoon tail dangling from his basketball shorts spins neon-glowing poi balls. It is just after 10 p.m.
To the side of the stage, Kris Kaufeldt stretches. A go-go dancer decked out in a mixture of American flag and zebra print apparel, Kaufeldt, whose stage name is the White Tiger, is here on assignment. His name appeared on the poster for the event as a “Special Guest,” underneath the lineup of DJs.
Doing lunges, he scans the room and listens to the gradual build-up of the DJ’s set, waiting for the right moment to do what he came here to do—bring this party to life.
When he takes the stage, Kaufeldt’s presence is undeniable. Towering 6 feet 7 inches, he takes up most of the space from the stage to the ceiling. The multi-colored laser lights being projected from the ceiling make neon streaks in Kaufeldt’s blond mullet.
With no formal dance training of any kind, ever, Kaufeldt, a 24-year-old Santa Cruz native, radiates confidence. His moves are deliberate, his expression is stone serious. He bounces in place to get warmed up, then he makes fists and shakes his arms in rapid succession like he’s holding shake-weights. He waves his arms above his head and spins around in celebratory fashion, as if there’s an invisible flood of confetti raining down on him. He squats down, then back up again, then back down, then back up. Things get silly quickly: He flaps his arms like a chicken, then swoops them up and down like an eagle. He does a backbend, then thrusts his crotch outward toward the crowd. He marches in place. He jumps an invisible jump rope. He puts one hand on his hip and does the “little teapot.”
All of Kaufeldt’s routines turn into a striptease before too long, and soon it’s time for the main event. He takes off his shirt, then rips off his breakaway Adidas track pants to reveal spandex blue-and- white zebra-striped underpants. Covering his sneakers and his legs up to his knees are zebra-print fabric leg-warmers. This, it has just become obvious, is a man with no shame (Or, as Kaufeldt describes it to me later, “a will to not give a fuck.”) I write in my notebook two words, underlined: “great ass.”
Kaufeldt’s signature move, which he has been perfecting over the last two weeks, is what he calls “upside-down twerking.” To achieve this, he does a headstand with his back toward the crowd, kicks his legs around in the air above him, then pops his hips back and forth in such rapid succession that his butt cheeks clap together.
At this point in the evening, the crowd inside the main ballroom of the Euphoric Bounce event has grown— enormously. Mission accomplished.
“Whether you like it or not,” Kaufeldt tells me a few days before his appear- ance at Cocoanut Grove, “I’m there to have everybody keep moving. I want you to at least be, like, nodding your head if you’re standing on the dance floor.” He’s reclining on a couch at his friends’ Live Oak home (Kaufeldt himself lives with his mother), the coffee table between us strewn with various smoking accoutrements and marijuana shavings. As he speaks, Kaufeldt takes fistfuls of his blonde hair in his hands and pulls on it. He also absently twirls the pale blonde hair on his legs into little spirals. His voice is warm and cottony, one part California surfer and one part kindergarten teacher. He can be shrewd and direct, but most of his sentences end in an upward inflection, and he sometimes pauses mid-thought to give a sleepy grin, like a cartoon bear that just woke up from a nice nap.
“I want to push everybody’s threshold a little bit, just to say we’re only here, like, once, and we wanna re- member what’s going on,” he says. He believes people are inspired by him because they can tell how hard he works up there on the stage. He’ll dance in 15-20-minute bursts and be covered in sweat by the end of each set.
“I do kind of a Batman style,” he says of his appearances on musical festival stages. “My goal is to storm up there, do a 15-minute dance with precision, take off all my clothes, then right when the song kinda dies out, just pack everything up and just frickin’ swarm outta there. I go drink some water, go stretch for 20 or 30 minutes, then go do it again.”
Kaufeldt calls this “Entertainment 101.”
“This is what people want to see. They’ve seen the fire dancers. They’ve seen the hula hoopers. They haven’t seen the whole 6-foot-7-inch guy with a mullet twerk shop. There is no one that I can see right now that is actually taking on the masculine twerk side of this whole frickin’ operation.”
On the day I met him—an otherwise normal Sunday afternoon—he was wearing a tank top with a picture of a tiger’s face on it; a tiger pendant necklace; Zebra stripe sunglasses (he allows zebra print, justifying it as basically the same look as a White Tiger); plus a fanny pack and socks with sandals. He wore his socks pulled up all the way to mid-calf, like a 1980’s gym class pupil.
He says the party world, the DJ scene, can become something of a “masculine pissing contest” at times, and with his dancing and his costumes, he aims to break up that dynamic, add some femininity to the mix. Audiences, even fun-loving music festival ones, are still for the most part unaccustomed to seeing a heterosexual male push the limits to the extent that Kaufeldt does.
“Sometimes when I get too high and stuff, I bring some ratchetness [into my dancing],” he says. “Like, I’ll have my Speedo on and I’ll look at the crowd, and I’ll totally pull my Speedo up into my ass as a way to throw some cheek into my twerk, you know? A lot of people look at it like, ‘whoa.’ Just ‘cause I’m a guy. If it was a girl every- one would be like, ‘ahh,’ but since I’m a guy it’s like, ‘whoa, dude—this is weird now.’”
Kaufeldt gets a kick out of seeing people’s reactions to him, especially men. “Some people get so uncomfortable they have to walk away. It’s like, who cares? Let them walk away,” he says. “It’s a very, very empowering thing for me to rip off my pants when I’m on the stage and see a lot of really big tough guys that can’t even look at me. They feel like their frickin’ masculinity just got stomped on. You get to look at them like, ‘Hey guess what? Your girlfriend is gonna stare at this all day long.’”
James Spektrum, the talent buyer for Lucidity Festival, tells me that Kaufeldt is one of the few people he will let dance on a stage he is running.
“He’s pretty much everyone’s favorite dance feature at most NorCal festivals. It’s almost like you haven’t made it until White Tiger dances on your stage.”
Kaufeldt got his start as a dancer at Burning Man in 2009. He attended the festival with his older brother, who at the time was a part of the Dancetronauts, a co-ed dance group whose members don silver jumpsuits and gyrate atop a two-story model of a spacecraft. Kaufeldt was quickly initiated, and at 19 became the youngest member of the troupe. All the Dancetronauts have nicknames, and there’s no grand story behind Kaufeldt’s. It just came to him one night at a party, after he decided he was over saying, ‘Hey my name’s Kris.’” Once he had secured the persona, he developed it further by ensuring his Dancetronauts space suit was lined with faux zebra fur, to make him stand out from the others.
Kaufeldt spent a year and a half as a member of the troupe, and today credits them with giving him “the wings that I needed to become White Tiger the Festie Star.” Eventually, he broke away from the group to pursue his own unique style of solo dancing.
His departure didn’t come without some bad blood: While he was a Dancetronaut, Kaufeldt began a secret relationship with the girlfriend of the troupe’s leader. He claims the ordeal helped make him who he is today—all the sneaking around, seeing his girl with another guy. “It gave me the two things that are what really make me who I am today: No jealousy, and all the confidence in the world to do whatever I want to do.”
Kaufeldt dated the girl for three and a half years, and says it was “awesome.” But he had to break it off earlier this year—a girlfriend didn’t fit so well with the White Tiger mystique.
“I started to pursue my dream of trying to be a sex icon in the music world,” he says. “I don’t want to be looking over my back. If some girl wants to come up and kiss me on the cheek or shove dollar bills down my Speedo, it’s like, that’s a great thing. I don’t want my girlfriend to be like, ‘What the fuck was that bitch doing?’ It’s hard to do it.”
While he loves attention, one thing Kaufeldt does not appreciate is when audience members come onstage and try to dance with him. Spektrum, the talent buyer from Lucidity Festival, says this attitude sets him apart from most other male dancers.
“He’s not trying to dance with the women on stage, he just wants to dance for the sheer pleasure of dancing. If anything, I’ve seen him shoo more women away while he’s trying to dance,” says Spektrum.
At the Cocoanut Grove event, a random guy walked by Kaufeldt, who, at that moment, was standing with his legs in a V, touching the ground and sticking his ass out toward the crowd. The guy slapped Kaufeldt’s ass, and continued walking by. Kaufeldt was unfazed by this; he simply let it go and continued dancing.
While he identifies as heterosexual, Kaufeldt makes a point to be mellow about attention from men in particular. For one thing, he thinks audiences would consider him a “Shallow Hal” if he only responded positively to attention from women. Plus, his first experience at Burning Man when he was 19 did a lot to shift his perspective about sexuality in general.
“When I went to Burning Man my first year I can say that I was a little racist, and I was probably a little homophobic,” Kaufeldt says, widening his eyes. “But the very first day, I remember being on mushrooms, and I remember seeing ten thousand guys ride butt naked—fully just cock and balls hanging out—in a mile-long bike race. I was staring at it going, ‘Whoa this is kinda gnarly.’ Part of me never ever even wanted to look at another naked male—but to see ten thousand of them, you look at it like, ‘this is one of those things that they talk about as knocking down the walls.’ It’s actually a beautiful sight … It’s trippy to even think about that.”
He does have boundaries, though. Back in his friend’s living room, he explained protocol: “If someone wants to come up and give me a hug, I’ll give them a hug, but then I’ll just stick my ass fully next to them and usually turn around and do, like, a twerk.” He said he’s had friends come onstage while he’s dancing and ask him for cigarettes, or try to just say hi and hang out. “I have to look at them with a strict look and say like, ‘You better get the fuck down.’ A guy doesn’t come up to a DJ on a set and ask him for a cigarette; don’t come up to me while I’m fuckin’ dancing.”
Kaufeldt has been to 12 festivals in the last year, and says he was paid to dance at the events eight or 10 times. Sometimes he is hired to dance at an event, like he was at Euphoric Bounce. Other times he buys a ticket to the festival like everyone else, but enough people know him that they’ll let him get up onstage and dance anyway.
He doesn’t get paid too much for his dancing—the highest he ever asked for was $500, for a party in Portland. He told the organizers that’s what he would have needed to cover travel expenses, but they said that was out of their price range. For now, Kaufeldt is OK with this. He said he makes a decent living “clipping weed and kinda doing some entrepreneurial stuff,” and he likes the idea of pacing himself, fame-wise.
“I almost think I’m a little too immature right now to make a gripton of cash,” he said to me. “If I got paid more than a thousand bucks a week, I think that could maybe lead to stupid decisions in terms of just, like, blowing money on stupid party shit.” At festivals, Kaufeldt can usually be spotted wielding a “tiger’s jungle juice” container—which is a two-gallon igloo water jug filled with half a handle of tequila plus lemonade, Squirt, and fruit juice. Kaufeldt gave the impression that he’s also typically high on a few different drugs at any given time, at a festival.
“A lot of what I do is like, comin’ down off the stage, frickin’ smokin a joint, frickin’ doing some frickin’ powders or something. When I go wild and wacky, my rule number one is don’t fall off the stage.”
Kaufeldt sees himself as a role model. (He claims he could have “90 percent fun” without drugs or alcohol, but chooses to indulge anyway.) He does Bikram yoga, and makes sure to stay hydrated and get enough rest in order to keep his energy up for dancing. After a full day of jungle juiceing, he generally fills his cooler up with ice water the next day.
His “work hard, play hard” lifestyle, as he puts it, can sometimes be too much for others who try to keep up with him. “It kind of sucks when you have friends that just definitely don’t take care of their bodies good,” he says. “It’s like, dude, you can’t do as much drugs as I’m doing right now. It’s just too gnarly.”
At Euphoric Bounce, I have the pleasure of catching up with Kaufeldt’s mother, Martha, who lets Kaufeldt rent a room out by her garage and helps him shop online for his rip-away pants and Speedos. She tells me that the true origins of the White Tiger date pre-Burning Man, to an event called “Mister Soquel High”—a pageant Kaufeldt participated in his senior year of high school. For the talent competition, he donned a wrestling singlet and performed goofy ribbon dancing, a la Will Ferrell in the movie Old School.
“At first the audience just all stood there with their mouths hanging open, and then all of a sudden they started laughing and then they started applauding. I feel that that was the catalyst,” she says. She suddenly gets distracted, as a young man in a giant head-to-toe penguin suit made his way up the stairs. “That— I’m pretty sure that’s an old Halloween costume I made,” she says, then bursts out laughing.
As far as the future is concerned, Martha thinks her son would make a good club owner or bartender. “For Christmas a while back, I got him a certificate to take the online bartending course. You remember the movie Cocktail with Tom Cruise? I said, ‘You know what I see for you is owning your own club, bartending, and then all of a sudden rip it off and get up there!’ He just cracks up.”
Despite the fact that Kaufeldt describes his mother as “about 50-50 on what she knows, what she thinks she knows, and what she really has no idea about,” he seems to be on the same page as her when it comes to the future.
“I think it would be pretty cool to be a bartender,” he says. “From 10 to 12 you could go dance, and then like, 1 to 2 you frickin’ serve up drinks— cause everybody’d be like, ‘dude no way, White Tiger’s behind the bar, let’s get a drink from him.’”
He has considered becoming a DJ as well, but doesn’t see that in his immediate future. “A DJ has to sit still, and prepare like a week before the set, and make sure they’re not too high before they go onto their set. It’s kind of a stressful job. For a couple hundred bucks it’s not anywhere that I would want to be right now,” he says. “At the end of the day, the DJs get paid, and I feel like I take all of their fame for it. If I go to a festival, every 10 seconds you’ll hear someone yell, ‘White Tiger!’”
Whatever the future brings for him, Kaufeldt says his “number one thing” is to stay humble about what he does.
“Every superstar I’ve ever believed in, they try and stay as humble as they can. They make sure they have enough street credit before they start talking about anything. The people who really try and become legends too quick are the people that are just talkin’ out of their ass.”