The frenzied and electronic music of Chicago footwork, which brings London clubgoers to their feet and puts Japanese avant-gardists in awe, has never before been performed at Yale. The dance of Chicago footwork — a style favoring feet as fast as 165 beats per minute that crank out moves like the “erk-n-jerk,” “shake-n-bake” and “gerbil” — has never enjoyed the campus spotlight either.
That will change on Wednesday morning, when Wills Glasspiegel GRD ’21, a Chicago native and fourth-year doctoral candidate in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, present the regional culture he has documented for nearly a decade to the Yale community.
At 11:45 a.m., Glasspiegel will deliver a talk about his work in the footwork community, focusing on his relationship with seminal players, like “the father of footwork” RP Boo and the Era Footwork Crew, one of the most visible and influential footwork dance groups. Following the talk, two members of the Era, Jamal “Litebulb” Oliver and Jemal “P-Top” De La Cruz, will host a dance workshop at 7 p.m. They plan to demonstrate basic footwork moves and discuss the history of the dance.
Footwork was born in Chicago’s South Side during the 1990s from the improvisations hip-hop dancers added to their routines during “dance downs,” or dance battles between various troupes.
Today, footwork has grown beyond its spin-off roots into a unique art form, with its own dancers, DJs and battle cliques who have begun to amass wealth and recognition as a result of the dance’s increasing popularity. The first time Litebulb ever got on a plane was to lead a footwork workshop in London. And for those involved, footwork has changed their lives in more fundamental ways.
“Anyone who’s been a part of footwork will say it’s saved them, that it’s kept them out of harm’s way,” Litebulb said.
Both Litebulb and P-Top began footworking in high school. Now in their late 20s, the two men have spent more than a decade honing their craft. In 2015, Litebulb won a prestigious $15,000 dance grant from the Chicago Dancemakers Forum, and over one weekend, P-Top’s steps went viral in a Facebook video.
“Here are two guys who you might just say are dancers,” Glasspiegel said. “But actually there’s so much else going on: They’re choreographers, cultural organizers [and] historians for an underground dance community in Chicago.”
In March 2015, Litebulb and P-Top founded the Era Footwork Crew with fellow dancers Chief Manny, Steelo and Dempsey. The group began to rap over various DJs’ tracks, refreshing them and making them their own. As the footwork movement gained steam, the Era started hosting workshops.
“Bulb is passionate, just like I am,” P-Top said. “You know, we didn’t do it to get famous, never to get money. We did it to escape. It’s physical therapy. You can be mad, you can be sad, and just take it out on the dance floor. It really is a release. It works wonders.”
When Glasspiegel discovered footwork in 2009 while reporting with National Public Radio, the regional subculture was taking off at festivals and clubs worldwide — but primarily as a form of music rather than dance.
“As a radio journalist, I sensed that there needed to be another type of coverage brought to this subject,” Glasspiegel said. “Mainly visual coverage, because there’s an imperative to document the dance alongside the music.”
Glasspiegel had spent his career up to that point cultivating his photography and documentary skills, and he decided to use those skills to broadcast footwork. After touring Chicago with cameras, conducting interviews and gaining the trust of footworkers like those in the Era, Glasspiegel put together his first short documentary, “Juke + Footwork.” Today, the documentary has more than 240,000 hits on Youtube.
Glasspiegel recently shifted his focus to the women of footwork — a traditionally male-dominated community P-Top likens to both “a fraternity” and “the NBA.” During his talk on Wednesday, Glasspiegel will debut his most recent documentary, “I am the Queen.” Glasspiegel worked on the four-minute video with Kenesha Sheridan, and it stars exclusively female footworkers.
Both Glasspiegel and the Era are looking to the future: Glasspiegel is currently working on a full-length documentary on footwork, and the Era continue to give workshops, engage in dance battles and innovate with their craft.
“There’s always ways to be making new moves,” Litebulb said. “In this day and age, the dance has evolved so much, and there are so many aspects you can add. I’m always trying to find new ways to stay motivated.”
Glasspiegel’s talk will take place in room 105 of the Hall of Graduate Studies, and the dance workshop will be held at the Afro-American Cultural Center.
Brianna Wu | firstname.lastname@example.org