Black Dance Matters: A Documentary on Chicago Footwork Collective The Era

A new THUMP-produced film by director Wills Glasspiegel shines a light on the dancers whose feet do the work.

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Nov 20 2015, 10:20pm

As Chicago DJs continue to bring footwork music to clubs and major festivals around the world, it can be easy to forget that footwork—at its heart—is as much a dance culture as it is a sound. The dancing predates the music by almost a decade, growing out of stepping, house dancing, and the battle spirit of break dancing in 1980s Chicago. It wasn't until the 90s that footwork crystallized into a distinct musical style, defined by high velocity BPMs, soulful samples, dirty lyrics, and triplet sub-bass lines that bend and dement house music's four-on-the-floor template. This was a sound tuned to bodies of footwork dancers—made to inspire and incite dance battles.

"The music was for the dance," Chief Manny, a footwork dancer from the South Side of the city, told THUMP. "When I hear footwork, I can't not be thinking about dancing. So it's kind of weird that everyone loves this stuff around the world but doesn't know or interact with dancing origins of it on the ground in Chicago."

In Meet The Era, a new THUMP-produced documentary by Wills Glasspiegel, we meet a group of talented young people determined to preserve and push footwork culture forward in Chicago and beyond. Co-founded in 2014 by South Side native Litebulb, now 25, The Era brings together some of the city's finest battle dancers—including Chief Manny, as well as P-Top, Steelo, and Dempsey—all Chicagoans spreading the message that footwork is an art form that brings music and dance together. "Please don't forget who's out there sweating blood and tears every day and giving their everything just for the music and moment itself," Bulb implores. "We bring those tracks to life."

The way the members of the group see it, The Era articulates the same ideas and feelings through movement that stage partners like RP Boo and DJ Spinn express with sound. "We are the people who help tell their stories in dance," Bulb explains. "Sometimes it's hard to understand certain peoples' tracks, but when you see a good dancer express it, you'll get the track and you'll like the track even more. Dancers give people that pictorial image. You need both music and dance to get the full picture of Chicago footwork."

Juke/Footwork family tree, courtesy of Japan's Booty Tune Records.

The Era has two major origin stories. As Bulb tells it, Origin A is the fun, random one: Litebulb and P-Top, dance rivals, were cast to perform in a movie scene with Al Pacino. Through a twist of fate, two Chicago competitors met on a film set outside their home turfs, then found out they had more in common than they realized. A few weeks later, P-Top drove down from his place on the North Side to meet with Bulb and a few of his closest friends, all stalwart footwork battle dancers with broad visions for footwork culture.

Origin B is the deeper story, the history. In this version, The Era started before it had a name, just a group of high school friends from the South Side who loved to footwork together. Litebulb, Steelo, Dempsey, and Chief Manny (along with their current DJ, Jody Breeze) came together at a young age, bonding as members of the Chicago battle crew Terra Squad. Through TS, as Terra Squad is known in Chicago, they also connected with Jeremiah Sterling, a young dancer from the South Side. Jeremiah was considered by many to be a leading light in a new generation of dancers emerging from within the TS family.

"Jeremiah was that diamond in the dirt," Dempsey remembers. " He was the one. He got Litebulb to start teaching footwork." Bulb concurs: " "His vision was my vision," he says. "He inspired us all." Jeremiah garnered the nickname "Miah the Great" and "The Youngest in Charge."

Jeremiah and Bulb at the Bud Biliken Parade in 2009.

In 2011, at the age of 16, Jeremiah was shot and killed in an alley on the South Side. Jeremiah's death shook the footwork community, and it shook the city, too. "The only way I could deal with it is the only way I've always dealt with anything out here," Bulb says. "Always it was footworking."

Bulb says that Jeremiah's spirit still animates the group—as does the memory of DJ Rashad, another major influence on The Era. "Jeremiah and Rashad's dream is what we're living and fighting for right now—dreams about growing this culture, growing our creativity, taking footwork as far as it can go," he says.

Jeremiah and Rashad's dream was about preserving the history and tradition of footwork for future generations. "The blueprint of footwork has been set, been passed down to us through the music and from other dancers like AG and Ant Brown," Bulb explains. "Certain moves stuck. It developed across generations in Chicago; it's still developing. It came from black people from young people from mostly poor people needing to thrive and shine, needing to express themselves in a world that silences, segregates, and sometimes kills us."

As Bulb puts it, the driving force behind The Era's vision is "dance and music together," giving context and meaning to footwork by bringing dance and black dancers into the foreground. The Era is also Bulb and crew's answer to the questions that vex them. How to keep dance vital in Chicago? How to push the limits of the craft in the face of footwork's growing visibility and commercialization? How to communicate to the world and to the city of Chicago that the dance is as meaningful as the music itself?

"We want to put the message out there that black dance matters, black dancers matter, footworkers matter," Bulb explains. "Why say it? Because we are marginalized. Layers of marginalization. Dance is marginalized in the art and in the music world. Black dance is marginalized in the dance world. Footwork is marginalized in the black world—it's not upper class. Not about money. It's not created by a university, or a gallery, or by the mayor's office. It's a do-it-yourself thing."

In Meet The Era, we encounter Bulb dancing at a variety of venues: Battlegroundz, a footwork mecca on 87th St in Chicago; on the stage at Afropunk 2014; at a series of shows and workshops in Japan. The shots filmed of him and others dancing on a blue basketball court were gathered during the filming of RP Boo's "Bangin' on King Drive," another Glasspiegel-directed video co-produced with THUMP. The blue court is where a number of historic footwork battles happened after the annual Bud Billiken Parade in mid-2000s Chicago.

P-Top made a name for himself in a battle squad from the North Side called Goon Squad. He's the one member of The Era who's not from the South Side. Though his body type may seem an unlikely fit for the professional dance world, P-Top would disagree. "I'm a bigger guy, but I use my weight to lean into moves, to generate momentum," he says.

Steelo is considered by many dancers and DJs to be one of the smoothest dancers in Chicago. As P-Top says in Meet The Era, "That's Mr. Clean. You can see everything he do." Steelo works a day job at Shake Shack and is a former member of TS.

Dempsey is a veteran battle dancer. "In high school, I was the type of kid who would battle anyone," he says. "As soon as I found out someone footworked, it'd go down. At bus stops. In the classroom. Wherever." He lives near 79th and Eberhart today, and is still surprised at all the places he's been able to travel because of footwork, from London to Peru. Dempsey was also a member of TS.

Chief Manny—not to be confused with DJ Manny, also from Chicago—is a dancer and head of The Era's media team. He's an animator, illustrator, and has been learning how to make documentary films in his collaboration with Glasspiegel. Chief Manny was also a member of TS. He stays on 77th and King Drive on the South Side, close to Dempsey and Bulb.

THE ERA is managed by Dana Givens and Deedee Stallworth. They organize practices, handle general business and keep the group centered. "At the end of the day, we're all friends," Dana says, "And that's not going to change anytime soon."

Since THE ERA's founding in 2014, Glasspiegel (who is also from Chicago himself) has been filming and traveling with the group for a feature length documentary. The film will tell a series of stories about the world of Chicago footwork, based on the time Glasspiegel has spent with artists from Teklife and the Era since 2009. This short doc, Meet The Era was filmed in 2014 and 2015; it provides an in-the-moment introduction to the group, and serves as a trailer for the film to come. Glasspiegel and Litebulb recently received the Crossing Borders arts prize from University of Chicago, which will allow them to complete a series of multimedia archival projects focused around the history and future of footwork.