Photo by Wills Glasspiegel

Footwork in the Foreground

Through documentation and education, Open the Circle is building a bigger stage for homegrown Chicago dance

Tonight, the Stony Island Arts Bank is wallpapered by projector beams. A clip of feet on pavement covers each of four walls. The scrape of sneakers on tarmac plays on loop over the sound system: it sounds like Chicago. 

 When the dancers walk onstage, they’re in socks, near-silent. But once they lace their sneakers, there’s the constant squeak of rubber soles on hardwood—the sound dance makes in basements and courts and alleys. It’s a constant reminder of the sheer athleticism, the arms swinging in counterbalance, the feet blurred behind fog and strobes. Like the Traxman song, these dancers are footworking on air.

This is footwork: a kinetic, wildly inventive style created by Black musicians and dancers on the city’s South and West sides. You could spend an afternoon breaking down the range of influences that producers and DJs wove into footwork music throughout the 1990s: the manic punch of ghetto house; the 303s of acid house; the erratic rhythms of juke.

But this sound formed in reaction to footwork dance—a style born in the 1980s on the West Side with the “holy ghost,” an animated impression of catching “the spirit” in church. Decades later, the “ghost” remains a standard, and footwork encompasses a dizzying array of moves: skate, dribble, bounce, juke. 

What remains constant is the pulse: a breakneck 160 beats per minute. 

The show is “In the Wurkz,” a multimedia work that traces the dancers’ personal histories across the sites where footwork was formed. The performers onstage are members of The Era (Jamal “Litebulb” Oliver, Sterling “Steelo” Lofton, Jemal “P-Top” De La Cruz, Brandon “Chief Manny” Calhoun) and Partners in the Circle (Elisha “Eleelee” Chandler and “Queen Diamond” Hardiman), and the whole production is a project of Open the Circle, the not-for-profit that The Era runs to support and further footwork’s social impact. 

The “circle” is the dancefloor as proving ground—a clearing where footworkers battle one another and pay their dues. If you’ve never been to a footwork battle, you’ve never seen it, but producers have paid homage to the circle so many times that you might have heard it: DJ Roc’s “Make Em Panic” (“Get em in the circle / make ‘em panic”), RP Boo and DJ Spinn’s “Step n My Circle(“step in my circle / everybody’s getting burned”), DJ Nate’s Footwork Homicide (fair warning to anyone “that step in the circle”). 

Competition remains one of the driving forces behind footwork. But to “open the circle” is to clear space for other dancers—a fitting image for Open the Circle, and for its efforts to support footworkers across the city.

Before Open the Circle, there was The Era, which Litebulb, Steelo, Chief Manny, and P-Top founded in 2014. Though the crew only goes back six years, its members have been involved in the city’s footwork scene for ages: Litebulb and Chief Manny came up with 3rd Dimension, one of the many dance teams under the Empiire collective; Chief Manny, Litebulb, and Steelo were later members of the respected Terra Squad crew.

Wills Glasspiegel, a filmmaker and journalist long involved in the scene, joined The Era shortly after its founding. By then, releases like Bangs & Works Vol. 1 and Double Cup had won over fans around the world. Dancers in Tokyo were putting their own spin on footwork; London clubs were booking Teklife DJs. (In one clip shown as part of “In the Wurkz,” Litebulb footworks in front of Buckingham Palace guards while on tour with Rashad and DJ Spinn.)

But even as footwork music gained a wider audience, the people that created it had lost members of their family. Jeremiah Sterling, a rising member of Terra Squad who might have joined The Era, was killed in 2010. Rashad—who even years after his passing, remains the closest thing footwork has to a household name—died in April 2014. 

And for all the international clout, something about Chicago footwork had been lost in translation. The shows that got booked, whether in NYC or overseas, assumed a “standardized, commercialized model: a DJ and a room full of people that don’t know how to footwork,” said Litebulb in an interview. Glasspiegel affirmed: “A lot happened in there that I think some people miss if they’re just looking at footwork as club music.” 

The lines delivered in the opening moments of “In the Wurkz” put a sharper point on this: “white walls, white faces, thinking they can relate.” 

So in the summer of 2016, The Era put their own stories first. In the span of a few months, they not only prepared a photography exhibition at Columbia College Chicago’s Hokin Gallery and debuted “In the Wurkz” as a stage show at Hamilton Park in Englewood, but channeled the experience into a nine-track mixtape of the same name. 

In the following months, when Glasspiegel and Litebulb decided to form Open the Circle with their colleague Drew Alt, it wasn’t just about getting footwork on a bigger stage—“because man, if we [just] help ourselves, it’s going to be a regular old group of artist men,” said Litebulb. It was about support—artistic, economic, and social support—for a community and culture rooted on the South and West sides. 

 How would you describe that culture? For starters, The Era would like to clarify that footwork has never been about “background dancers.” Sure, they’ve performed in support of high-profile acts (e.g. SAVEMONEY)—but from the iconic Battlegrounds parties to the Rink, dancers always stood in front of the DJs. Litebulb remembers one up-and-coming Chicago band that asked The Era to “background dance” for a music video. The Era stopped returning their calls. 

More often than not, the dancers are DJs, and vice-versa—there’s no line dividing the two. The vocal chops on any given footwork track are filled with nods to dancers and their dance. (Take, for instance, Rashad’s “Ghost”: named for a move from the 80s; filled with shout-outs to dancers like Litebulb). So during “In the Wurkz,” the dancers and their stories are front and center, ad-libbing, dribbling, ghosting, “stepping on necks, stealing crowns.” 

As Litebulb said: “if you really try to distill this whole genre that now stretches around the world, what is the essence of it? It’s the dance.”

But dance is ephemeral: one of the hardest art forms to document, let alone to make a living at. Litebulb and Glasspiegel are frank about this: How many dancers from a Missy Elliott music video can you name? Do you know where that dance on Fortnite or TikTok came from? When the New York Times profiled Jalaiah Harmon, creator of the Renegade dance, it told us that the fourteen-year-old had created one of the most popular dances on the internet—and “no one really knows that.” Black music and culture have found a wider audience in white America, but the profits—and credits—don’t always make their way back to the artists.

 “When you see Black cultural traditions, it’s sometimes too easy to anonymize it—‘oh, it’s folk, it’s more than one author,’” said Glasspiegel. 

 So Chief Manny and Glasspiegel, The Era’s two filmmakers, have made documentation a central part of Open the Circle’s work. Footwork has always circulated in viral clips, from Wala Cam’s recordings of footwork battles to that Michael Myers Halloween video. But Open the Circle’s videos don’t just put names and faces to the dancers—they clear a path to the grants that support their work. Getting “paid in exposure” doesn’t pay the bills. A grant from Chicago Dancemakers Forum, like the one Litebulb won, can. 

Filmmaking also gives Open the Circle an opportunity to set the record straight on what footwork is. Most reporting on the topic revolves around a single scene, Battlegrounds, and a single model: “a fucking one-on-one battle between two footworkers with a crowd of people watching in a hot-ass room with no fan,” Litebulb joked. Women have always been part of the juke and footwork scenes at the War Zone and Battlegrounds (just look at old Wala Cam clips). But to do their scene justice, The Era had to challenge preconceptions about footwork as a boys’ club.  

Part of this is the stories they tell. In 2018, dancer Kenesha “Murda Mommy” Sheridan developed I AM THE QUEEN—a film tribute to the women of footwork—with Open the Circle. Then there’s the blistering “Ladies Thoughts” section of “In the Wurkz,” where Eleelee and Queen Diamond explain why they dance (before outdancing the men on stage). 

But it’s also about making footwork accessible to a new generation. With its first summer camp, held in 2018, Open the Circle not only introduced South Side kids to the form, but provided them with a safe environment. When I visited that summer, I saw dance practice, acrobatics, video screenings, and a “homework” assignment that asked campers to find their favorite footwork music from a list: “RP Boo, DJ Earl, Jana Rush” 

To make this happen, the individual members of The Era rely on the support of the crews and teachers, often Black women, that gave them their start. Litebulb continues to work with his former 3rd Dimension mentor Tish Waters, the dancer who founded Empiire. The group has collaborated at length with Shkunna Stewart of Bringing out Talent (BOT), who had the connections and vision to make the group’s dance downs happen. 

And in many ways, these dance downs are what Open the Circle is all about. Each summer, dance crews from around the South and West Sides—Diamonds, Dynasty, Geek Skquad—welcome the public to a showcase-meets-dance party. 

From outside the scene, you hear footwork described as some force of nature: it’s “difficult,” “aggressive,” “alien.” But at a dance down, you might hear a Top 10 track played at twice the speed, or a Drake dance challenge mixed over a juke classic. Whether you find it “alien” or not, footwork assimilates the mainstream. Chopped Lil Wayne acapellas (DJ Manny), an Evanescence flip (DJ Nate): all fair game. 

To attend a dance down is to see a mash-up mentality in real-time, or faster. 

“What you saw at the dance down was—you saw how footwork was born,” said Litebulb. “It’s not born from an album. It’s born from that environment that you saw.” 

 It’s this environment—being all under one roof, dancing—and this spirit of one-upmanship that inspired The Era’s decision to make their footwork lyrical. You’ll find a DJ chanting or ad-libbing over their set at a dance down (or any footwork party, for that matter), so rapping over footwork made sense as a next step. But when they set out to record the In the Wurkz mixtape, they made the choice to write lyrics that reflected their own experience as Chicagoans, as family men, as people working day jobs, as guys in their late 20s. In too much footwork, said Litebulb, “You only get bounce and break your back. You don’t get our lives.” 

 If being real isn’t all “bounce and break your back,” it isn’t all footworking on air. In its final act, “In the Wurkz” depicts a night at Battlegrounds broken up by a shooting. Police scanners hiss over the speakers; backspins blur the names of the victims. 

There will always be new challenges. In response to COVID-19, The Era has had to cancel shows, reschedule projects, and figure out how to run a socially-distanced summer camp. But when an Open the Circle board member acquired a surplus of face masks last week, the members made a plan to distribute them to low-income communities. When they say that footwork saves lives, they mean it.

Open the Circle is on Instagram at @otcprojects, where they showcase dancers in “Footwork Fridays.” You can also find them (and a new dance challenge, the #footworkchallenge ) on Facebook and at otcprojects.org.

Correction, Thursday, April 30: This article was updated to identify the cofounders of Open the Circle.

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Christopher Good is a senior editor for the Weekly. He last wrote in March about Ajani Jones’ Dragonfly.

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