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Footworking: Chicago’s Culture Turned Dance Legacy...

Footworking: Chicago’s Culture Turned Dance Legacy

Local dancers build up their communities through classic Chicago footwork.

On the southeast side of the city, Chicago natives gather in a dance studio with music queued, and bodies readied to practice a fast-paced dance style born in Chicago.

Brandon Calhoun a.k.a. Chief Manny has been interested in Chicago footworking since he was in grammar school.

“My older sisters were in dance groups and stuff like that so it got me into a dance group,” said Calhoun. “Within dance groups, they always used to have a footwork routine at the end…. so for me, I kind of gravitated more just towards the footworking part.”

Footworking is a style of dance native to Chicago that got its start in the house music era of the 1990s.

“It was just something that urban youth created with the resources they had, which was not very much, so dancing and just using your own body to create a whole new language in a sense or hobby was how it came about,” Chicago footworker Sterling “Steelo” Lofton said of this dance style.

House DJs at the time were asked to speed up the music they played, resulting in footworking music today being at 160 bpm. Although footworking is a style of dance, its emphasis is more on making a statement.

“The essence of it is a battle,” said Calhoun.

Footworking originated as a battle between two dancers. Battles can either be more relaxed and unofficial, or they can be more curated with judges deciding a winner at the battle’s end.

“Every time there was a battle at a party, the energy in the room automatically went up,” said Chicago native Jordan Poole. 

Poole, who went to high school in Chicago, found footworking to be a big part of every party or event that he was a part of.

“As soon as that fast beat came on, everybody knew what was up,” Poole said.

Since its onset, footworking has evolved around the city with different dance crews and individual dancers competing and performing. 

“You know we used to go to the Bud Billiken parade, and the highlight of it was the footworking part.” Calhoun said.

ERA Footwork is just one of several footworking crews around the city that performs. ERA Footwork is made up of six members and is based out of the southeast side of Chicago. They come together to practice four days a week and work to cultivate footworking as an experience that goes beyond just dancing. 

Growing up in the city, footworkers like Calhoun and Steelo know the realities of the challenges this city brings to young people who don’t have access to extracurriculars. 

“Footworking was an outlet for us to just turn up and have fun while doing something positive,” Poole said.

With a recent string of crimes linked to unsupervised youth downtown and a newly enforced curfew by the mayor for youth in the downtown area, it is apparent that for some youth, a lack of resources can be detrimental.

“Chicago is looked at as this bad state, especially the youth from Chicago…but it’s just [be]cause they don’t have the resources. That’s simple. They don’t have the resources to do, to be, to learn other things. So now you got them downtown just running wild,” Steelo said.

Within ERA Footwork, its members strive to make sure they make space for youth in the city to come, learn a craft and spend time doing something positive. Some of ERA Footwork’s members teach footworking in CPS schools and others host footworking classes for kids during the summer. They hope that passing on this art form will inspire the younger generations to continue what started before them.

“Down the road, I just want the work we put in to be recognized. I want the work that people before us put in to be recognized,” Calhoun says. “I just want people to, just immerse themselves within the culture, learn what’s what and learn where it came from.” 

“I would just want what we are doing to grow and expand like the youth under us to take it and grow. Just keeping that instilled in them to do so and push footworking in other ways. If we weren’t footworking, who knows where we’d be,” says Steelo of his experience in the footwork community.

Although footworking is well known around Chicago by those who grew up around it, some say the city could be doing more to support it.

“If you look at a dance like ballet, for example, they get support from grants from different types of organizations and foundations to host classes or to be an official thing, versus finding yourself in basements or alleys. Some people rented out storefronts which would be a common battle [location] every Sunday,” Calhoun said.  

Calhoun also recounts having footworking parties get shut down by the police when he was younger and feeling like this would not have happened if footworking had a designated facility and structure geared towards the dance.

Today, the footworking community has begun to shrink in Chicago, according to ERA Footwork members. 

Most of the dancers who grew up performing and battling often do not find a way to continue to lucratively fit it into their lives as they get older.

“Once you get like, 17/18, it’s like, you still footworking, or alright now it’s time to get a job. I can’t be a teenager just footworking and going to parties for work, like, now I gotta do something,” said Calhoun.

The love some footworkers have for the dance form coupled with the realities of having to leave it behind as life progresses is one of the reasons Calhoun is so passionate about being a member of ERA Footwork. 

“We’re kind of like one of the first generations to create a living off of footworking, you know, still be able to do it, still be able to teach it to the young,” Calhoun said.

Footworking is an art form that originated in the city several decades ago, and one that the members of ERA Footwork hope to be around for several more. While footworking has taken off in other countries in the world including Japan, which has a large footwork following, Chicago footworkers hope that those who pick it up will never forget where it began.

“Down the road, I just want the work we put in to be recognized. I want the work that people before us put in to be recognized,” Calhoun says. “I just want people to, just immerse themselves within the culture, learn what’s what and learn where it came from.”

While ERA Footwork continues to perform and teach the art form, they hope the work they are doing in the community aids in continuing to keep this dance-form alive in the future. 

Header illustration by Julia Hester