It’s Wednesday, July 10, and 95 degrees in the shade—of which there’s about four feet on the south end of a worn tennis court in Robert Taylor Park, near State and 48th. But that hasn’t stopped about two dozen kids, mostly girls and mostly between the ages of nine and 16, from gathering on the court to learn dance moves. To get started, the group warms up with stretches and jumping.
Open the Circle, a Chicago nonprofit focused on social entrepreneurship through dance, is holding its second free youth summer camp, Circle Up. It’s a collaboration with OTC’s primary partner, the Era Footwork Crew (who’ve been hired to help instruct the camp), and with two local after-school dance companies: Empiire and Bringing Out Talent (BOT). Each year the south-side camp gives approximately 100 youths the opportunity to “explore dance history, video-making, costume design and DJing” (according to the Open the Circle website) over five weeks of Wednesdays and Fridays from late June through July.
Millennium Park Dance Down
Part of YAS! Fest, featuring performances by the Era Footwork Crew, Bringing Out Talent, Empiire Dance Company, and more, with music by DJ Corey and DJ Clent. Sat 9/21, noon-7 PM, Millennium Park, 201 E. Randolph, free, all ages
Jamal “Litebulb” Oliver, 29, and Wills Glasspiegel, 36, longtime friends and founding members of the Era, launched Open the Circle with Glasspiegel’s college buddy, Drew Alt, in August 2017. But Litebulb says the roots of the organization reach back to the formation of the Era three years earlier. “Right after we started the Era, we immediately went into, well, we have to find a way to finance the projects that we’re doing, or find the right way to tie the resources back to the community,” he recalls. “We got books like ‘Not-for-Profits for Dummies,’ just trying to figure out how to start this thing from the ground up.”
- Highlights from Open the Circle’s summer 2018 programming, including the inaugural Circle Up camp
Footwork was invented by African American youth on Chicago’s west side in the early to mid-90s, evolving from juking and other dance styles. Litebulb caught glimpses of it being performed when he was in third grade, but it wasn’t easy for him to break in and learn the moves—the quick, intricate steps are tough to pick up just by watching. “They would be footworking in the hallways, and at parties there would be juking going on,” Litebulb explains. “When I got to high school, that’s when I really started to experiment with footwork and try to do it myself. But I was so terrible at it.”
In 2004, during his sophomore year, Litebulb joined Alpha & Omega, a dance crew connected with U-Phi-U, which along with groups such as House-o-Matics had established the footwork style. Litebulb then became a member of 3rd Dimension, led by Latisha Waters, who later founded Empiire. Three years later he joined Terra Squad, and with encouragement from Waters, he established himself as a prominent dancer.
Since the formation of the Era in 2014, Litebulb has performed at a showcase by UK Web channel Just Jam in East London, at Womb in Tokyo, and at MoMA in New York; he’s also taught footwork in far-flung locales such as Kuwait and Peru. At the Circle Up camp, kids have access to Chicago’s preeminent footwork dancers, Litebulb among them—which allows them to learn in just a few weeks what earlier generations took years to develop.
On Friday, July 12, inside Empiire Dance Company’s studio (on E. 75th near Jeffery), a group of around 20 kids, about half girls and half boys, form a dance circle in a hot, brightly painted room. Empiire summer instructor Donnetta “LilBit” Jackson, 29, who also teaches tap and dances with the footwork crew Creation, encourages the kids to enter the circle and improvise their first few steps. “Dancing is a conversation. If I don’t understand what you’re trying to say, then I don’t know what to say back to you,” she tells them. A couple of the shyer kids have to be playfully pulled out into the middle, but they gamely try some moves.
In a cooler, orange-painted studio next door, five three- to five-year-old girls listen raptly as Elisha “Eleelee” Chandler, a 27-year-old footwork instructor hired for the camp by OTC, tells the story of how she danced in the Bud Billiken Parade, joined Terra Squad, and became a footworker. In no time, she has three of the girls fast-stepping to Cajmere‘s “Percolator.” “We gotta pull the confidence out of them,” Chandler says, smiling. “But the quiet ones we have to watch out for, because when they come out, whoo!”
For the day’s third session, in a purple room lined with dance-competition trophies, LilBit and Chandler join Litebulb and fellow Era members Brandon “Chief Manny” Calhoun, 28, Jemal “P-Top” DeLa Cruz, 30, and Sterling “Steelo” Lofton, 28. They’re teaching older teens advanced combinations one-on-one, and the space fills with quick, angular movements and the echoes of shoes on hardwood.
The dance curriculum is carefully crafted. “We didn’t want to impose our own style on people. We just wanted people to learn the foundation—that’s how we learned—and make their own styles up and make their own way,” Litebulb says. “We have them doing actual battles right in front of the speaker, and we let them dance out whatever they can. Just naturally getting them used to dancing and footworking to reinforce that you learn improvisation, because that’s mainly what footwork is. That’s another foundation—it’s improv.”
Footwork generally isn’t choreographed, but dancers at the camp sometimes practice basic steps in unison. When they enter a dance circle, they do their own moves, building on what they’ve learned and responding to the music—frenetic, stuttering, sample-filled tracks by local producers such as DJ Spinn and RP Boo. Footwork music is typically at least 150 beats per minute, having mutated from ghetto house, which tended to hover around 140 BPM.
- DJ Manny of the Teklife crew made this mix for Open the Circle.
- Another Open the Circle mix, this one by RP Boo
One of Open the Circle’s primary objectives is to keep footwork alive within the communities where it started. “It’s not the most vibrant scene here in Chicago,” Glasspiegel admitted in April, before this year’s camp. “You talk about it being more vibrant in Japan, unfortunately. But a lot of that is just because Rashad died and really left a gaping hole.”
DJ Rashad, founder of the Teklife crew, passed away in April 2014. He was footwork’s global ambassador, crossing cultural boundaries with ease, whether performing at the Pitchfork Music Festival or opening for Chance the Rapper.
Litebulb traveled throughout Europe in 2011 with Rashad and Spinn as part of Planet Mu’s footwork tour. “You go overseas to get treated like a king—it’s the best thing in the world. But when you come back home, you’re either a regular person or they don’t even know what you just did,” Litebulb says. “You’re just a nobody again when you’re back at home, because footwork isn’t popularized in Chicago how it used to be.”
Litebulb compares footwork to hip-hop, which evolved from its roots in breakdancing, DJing, and graffiti into a showcase for MCs, since that’s how money could most easily be made. “If you don’t build a foundation for it within the city that you come from, most artists from these cultures leave,” he says. “Because there’s no opportunity in the place they are, and because people don’t recognize them for what they’ve been doing for so long.”
- Shkunna Stewart of Bringing Out Talent posted this video of the company at Open the Circle’s dance down at Navy Pier on July 11.
A series of OTC dance downs throughout the summer at Navy Pier, Hamilton Park, Austin Town Hall, and elsewhere has allowed the Circle Up camp participants to come together and battle, while also showcasing choreographed dance routines from new and established teams. The next OTC dance down is at Millennium Park on September 21.
Dance companies have been throwing dance downs for years, but traditionally they’re run like talent shows, with prizes for the winners. At Open the Circle’s events, which sometimes involve hundreds of kids, all the participating teams get paid. Open the Circle collaborates with the Chicago Park District and the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events on logistics.
At this May’s House Music Festival in Millennium Park, the Era taught an afternoon footwork workshop in the grass at Wrigley Square’s Fam Jam Stage to people of all ages and backgrounds. I tried a few moves myself, and around me, strangers naturally smiled and mingled as they tried to figure out the basics.
- This mix by DJ Clent is heavy on ghetto house, an ancestor of footwork music, and it includes several tracks favored by footworkers.
As dusk fell, U-Phi-U cofounder Darnell Payne introduced performances by young dance groups, accompanied by sets from juke and ghetto-house producer DJ Clent and his son, DJ Corey. The Era capped off the night with a blistering performance, the crowd holding their phones aloft to capture what they could.
One goal of Open the Circle is to promote gender balance in footwork. As the style evolved in the late 1990s, it became more male dominated and battle focused. Open the Circle makes it a point to include women among the instructors at every Circle Up session, and most of the camp participants are girls.
- A documentary about the women of Chicago footwork by Kenesha Sheridan and Wills Glasspiegel, with music by Jlin
Last summer, as part of the fashion component of the camp, Open the Circle designed a T-shirt that reads “Footwork saves lives.” Delorth “Dee-Dee” Stallworth, 28, one of Open the Circle’s newest board members, says that’s literally true.
“I’ve been in the dance community a while, so I know people who could’ve been on the wrong path that footwork changed their life, whether it’s them just doing it as a stress reliever or doing it as a way to stay focused or stay out of trouble,” she explains. “Some people use it as an outlet for their pain, their frustration, things of that nature. I think OTC, it’s helping with it.
“It also builds self-confidence in the youth. So if you’re telling the youth that they’re able to do these things and showing them how it’s done, I feel like that’s important for our communities,” she continues. “You meet these lifelong friends. Manny and P-Top, I’ve known them since I was 19, and we’re still good friends, so you build those relationships. You can talk about anything together, you can work on anything together. And then you’re not in these streets just doing anything. I think OTC is really focused on that mission of catching kids in their youth and building on it.”
Stallworth is pursuing a master’s degree in social work at Chicago State University. She grew up with many of the Era’s members on the south side, and she works closely with the crew as an adviser and manager. She hopes to incorporate more mental health resources into Open the Circle’s programs, with trauma-focused groups and informational sessions to support communities scarred by violence. Fellow Chicago native and Open the Circle board member Janeca Holbrook, a behavioral health specialist with NextLevel Health, adds her experience in counseling, community treatment, and crisis intervention to the organization.
Open the Circle takes care to uplift people already within footwork culture, rather than impose an outside agenda—Glasspiegel in particular, as a white guy from the north side, is conscious to avoid appropriating or reshaping footwork. Many nonprofits are top-heavy, with large boards drawn from the business community, but most of OTC’s board members are in the field, actively doing the work the organization supports.
“One of our keys is that we show our work through our art very, very well,” Litebulb says. “Whatever people see us recording, it’s true. There’s no flaw or something being staged. Everything is natural. We’re not like typical nonprofits where we’re privatized. We’re a public not-for-profit that is about the community, works through the community. We’re uplifting the community and showing what they are, giving the community a voice.” The Instagram accounts of the Era’s members are particularly active, with photos and videos documenting enthused kids gaining confidence week after week.
“There’s a kind of mom-and-pop approach that we’re taking to the work of social development in Chicago, and I’m really proud of that,” Glasspiegel says. “Footwork was already saving lives in Chicago before Litebulb and I got involved. It was already bringing people together in some of the hardest places to bring people together in this city. It was already giving people self-confidence who were living in environments that were designed to rob them of that. It was giving people a mode of transcendence in situations where they needed transcendence to live. All of that is beyond us. We’re just identifying something good that has been ongoing, that has been keeping people alive, and trying to get other people to recognize the importance of that and the importance of the community that has created this process.”
On Wednesday, July 24, the Circle Up camp’s last day at Robert Taylor Park, DJ and producer Jana Rush shows the BOT dancers how to DJ using a laptop, controller, and turntable. It’s her first time teaching. She explains that sometimes when she’s spinning at a venue with bad monitors or no headphones, she has to match up the audio waveforms by eye. “You’ve got to claim your spot out here. Don’t let nobody tell you what’s not yours and what’s not going to be yours,” Rush tells her students. “That’s my message for you, for females out here. Come out here with the attitude that you own it.”
Bringing Out Talent is run by Shkunna Stewart, 42. Women in her family have been leading dance teams for four generations. “When I think of this summer camp, it’s amazing,” she says. “It’s a great program to show kids how to do other than majorette and hip-hop, show them how to move their legs and stay exercised.”
Bringing Out Talent started working with Open the Circle after Glasspiegel, who’d read about Stewart in the Chicago Defender, messaged her on Facebook last year. Her group consists of 75 children and young adults between the ages of seven and 28. Throughout the year they dance in competitions, some of which BOT hosts. Stewart says parents like the camp because it’s free, it’s something for kids to look forward to, and it keeps them off the street. “It gives them a way to express themselves too. They might come to practice mad, and they just footwork it on out. It eases them, it calms them,” she explains.
During a brief dance lesson on the tennis court, set to DJ Rashad tracks, Litebulb teaches the advanced group a step called “freaky ghost,” calling out “left, right, drop, wiggle, go.” P-Top explains that there are multiple styles of ghost steps “depending on your energy.” All camp participants receive free T-shirts listing footwork moves: “Erk, skate, dribble, ghost.” P-Top’s four sons—Jemarion, Jemal Jr., and twins Cristen and Tristen, all between ten and 12—are in attendance. Meanwhile, Manny works with the beginners. “It’s a learning experience for us and them,” he says, after wrangling dozens of kids who all want to go in different directions.
In addition to the summer camp, Open the Circle is working on two major projects: a documentary and a touring stage performance called In the Wurkz (previewed in 2016). The group intends to fund all three equally, at $120,000 apiece.
Documentation is particularly important in dance—unlike musicians, dancers don’t routinely connect with their audiences via recordings, so other provisions must be made. To that end Glasspiegel, the only nondancer in the Era, is a filmmaker and documentarian. In 2010 and 2011, while reporting on footwork for NPR Music and All Things Considered, he fell in love with the scene. I’d met Glasspiegel in 2009, when he was researching and coproducing the Afropop Worldwide radio documentary Midwest Electric: The Story of Chicago House and Detroit Techno, and we’ve stayed in touch. He’s in the process of writing a dissertation for his PhD at Yale University on the cultural history of footwork.
Open the Circle executive director Drew Alt, 36, was born and raised in Evanston. He and Glasspiegel met at Yale, then collaborated on radio shows for Afropop Worldwide, traveling to Nigeria and Sierra Leone. Alt is currently an independent consultant for the Gates Foundation, working with the vaccine-delivery team to develop system strategies in low- and mid-income countries. He handles many of Open the Circle’s management roles: submitting grant applications, organizing meetings, keeping minutes, maintaining the website, establishing processes for accepting and tracking donations.
Alt loves working with Litebulb and Wills. “It’s a special opportunity because of the deep friendships that we have,” he says. “The way we think about the fact that we’re working with friends is that we have to hold ourselves to even higher standards than if it was a normal job. The three of us in particular, our skill sets are really deep but in completely different areas, so we complement each other really well.”
According to Alt, Open the Circle has raised $233,000 so far, including a major grant from the Field Foundation of Illinois last year and a recently announced CityArts grant from DCASE. He says that since OTC’s inception, it’s incurred $85,000 in expenses, 84 percent of which have been direct payments to 38 members of the footwork community—including DJs, dance groups, and documentarians—for participating in the dance downs, the camps, the stage show, or the upcoming film.
- This video was made in late May and early June, during the Era’s residency at nonprofit performing-arts center the Yard in Martha’s Vineyard.
In July, the Era received a $90,000 grant from the New England Foundation for the Arts to produce and tour In the Wurkz. The stage show will open in Chicago with a three-night run at Links Hall on December 13 through 15. Tickets are already on sale.
The phrase “open the circle” has a specific meaning for footwork dancers. “In the parties, if it’s real, real crowded, two footworkers, they’ll grab arms and they’ll swing around in a circle in a real fast motion and knock people out of the way until the circle gets real open so everybody can see,” Litebulb explains. It’s also the name of a DJ Rashad track, and to Litebulb and Wills, it’s a metaphor for sharing the wealth.
The idea of working with children came from a conversation Litebulb had with Chance the Rapper in 2017. They were talking after his private Magnificent Coloring World 2 festival in Chicago, and Litebulb asked what the Era could do to bring more attention to footwork. Earlier this month, the Era taught footwork at Kids of the Kingdom, a summer camp that Chance’s great-grandmother helped start in 1978 (and that his SocialWorks nonprofit has supported for a few years now).
“Chance had the inspiration on us, because he showed that you could do social development and you could do nonprofit work at the same time, interweaved with what you’re doing in the market as an artist,” Glasspiegel explains. “That’s not a common way to do it. Usually, you make your money and then you give back.”
“These kids that we worked with last year, that’s almost a hundred new footworkers,” Litebulb says. “To a person like me, that’s a hundred new footworkers we got into the community that know of or know about footworking at an early age. So we did our job, to a degree. Now it’s time to keep replicating it, over and over and over and over again. Every year, it’s going to be more kids.”
Back at Robert Taylor Park, former Terra Squad member “Queen” Diamond Hardiman, 25, teaches a routine to the entire gathering of kids, beginners and advanced students alike, counting off steps in groups of nine. “I love footwork. It really did save my life,” Hardiman says. She’s been dancing since age 12, and she plans to form her own group to provide kids and adults a “place to feel safe.”
Parents start arriving to pick up their children. Shkunna Stewart’s mother is selling flavored ice off to one side of the tennis court. Glasspiegel hands his camera to a nine-year-old girl named Ladybug, who starts taking photos as a couple of serious dance battles break out. In a circle, kids square off one-on-one, staring down their opponents, trying to outdo them with speed and agility. A few kids kick off their flip-flops and dance in socks on the hot, cracked asphalt to speedy, bass-heavy electronic beats. A new generation of footwork dancers is born. v