Above: On set with Open the Circle, The Era Footwork Crew and The Empiire Dance Institute in Chicago
If you're not from Chicago, chances are you may have never heard of Footwork, a style of dance and electronic music native to the Windy City. And if you have heard of it but aren't from the area, you may not know just how important it is to the city, and specifically for Black youth in Chicago.
Today we're here to learn about Footwork from the two co-founders of Open the Circle, an organization that focuses on empowering the communities of Chicago and fighting for racial justice through the art of dance. Open the Circle, or simply “OTC” for short, was started by Chicago natives Jamal “Litebulb” Oliver, a lifelong Footwork dancer, activist, and founder of the prominent group, The Era Footwork Crew; and Wills Glasspiegel, a filmmaker, visual artist, and scholar. We'll let them introduce themselves in more detail in just a second, but rest assured that you won't be able to learn the history, power, and significance of Footwork from a more ideal source.
Above: DJ Spinn and Jamal “Litebulb” Oliver
Please start by introducing yourselves, what should we all know about each of you?
Jamal “Litebulb” Oliver: I’m a footwork dancer, artist, community organizer, and dance activist from Chicago, born and raised on the South Side. I’ve been at it for about 15 years. I made a name for myself in the dance community with well known groups like 3rd Dimension, now called Empiire, and from battling throughout Chicago with the group, Terra Squad. In 2009, I was invited by Footwork’s musical pioneers DJ Rashad, and DJ Spinn to travel and perform on international stages, including New York’s PS-1, the Barbican in London, venues throughout Japan, and more. In 2014, I co-founded The Era Footwork Crew (theerafootworkcrew.com) with some of my closest friends in Chicago, and then co-founded the community-based nonprofit Open the Circle (otcprojects.org) in 2017.
Wills Glasspiegel: I’m a filmmaker, visual artist and radio producer from Chicago. I’ve been working with Footwork dancers and DJs for the last eleven years. I got involved with Footwork because I fell in love with the music and produced a story about it for NPR’s All Things Considered. I’m also a scholar getting a PhD in African American Studies and American Studies at Yale. I’m part of The Era Footwork Crew and helped creative direct The Era’s touring performance called IN THE WURKZ. In 2017, I co-founded Open the Circle with Litebulb and other partners throughout the Chicago dance world.
Above: Wills (right) and RP Boo, originator of Footwork music
What exactly is Open the Circle, and what do each of you do for the organization?
Wills: Open the Circle is a community-based nonprofit on the South Side of Chicago, devoted to channeling resources into grassroots creative projects in the arts and education, especially in communities under threat from racism and divestment. Our focus is on the long-running dance and music known as Chicago Footwork. We started with three major projects: creating a Footwork summer camp on the South Side of Chicago, launching a touring Footwork dance performance, and creating a feature-length Footwork documentary. While doing these projects, we accomplished many other things, like distributing thousands of free COVID masks to Black businesses and organizations, and providing performance opportunities for Black Chicago youth to perform on stages across the city like Millennium Park and Navy Pier.
For those readers that may not know, can you describe Footwork dancing?
Jamal: To some people who have no clue, Footwork looks like people moving fast as hell to some crazy music, but it actually has a culture and logic behind it. Footwork dancing is focused on moving your feet, but it’s also about the entire body. Our style incorporates foundational core basics such as Erk ‘n Jerks, Skates, and Ghosts, which join together to make combinations. These combinations are accompanied by spins, hand motions or “Big Moves” that help make up full dance rounds. The key factor about this culture is that all of these frenetic movements are done alongside the music which is usually produced around 160 beats per minute, a real adrenaline rush.
Wills: Footwork is a fast-paced dance that started to the sounds of House Music in the 1980s on the west side of Chicago. The dancing later inspired its own version of house music, also known as Footwork, pioneered by artists and friends like RP Boo and DJ Rashad.
The Era Footwork Crew
Did Footwork music or dance come first? Or did they evolve together?
Jamal: Footwork dancing was around first, but was done to house music. Footwork as a music was born through the work of DJs like RP Boo, DJ Clent, Traxman, DJ Rashad and DJ Spinn, who decided to make music that mirrored their dancing. They sped up house music while adding samples from popular hip hop music and other songs they liked. The music and dance evolved together from that point forward, creating a foundation that helped propel the culture throughout the ‘90s until the 2000s. We must understand that Chicago Footwork has had many stages of evolution over the past 30 years since its inception.
OTC at Chicago's iconic Bean
Why do you think Chicago is the city that birthed this dance style?
Jamal: One answer to the question is that Chicago is a fast-paced moving city, so we adopted that same way of living through our music and way of living, including the dance itself. I know I’ve been moving fast since before I can remember. Another answer would be that just like Detroit Jitting, or Krumping in LA, most major cities have their own native cultures and styles of Black dance that respond to racism and social adversity. When facing these challenges, we end up creating music or using movements to express our feelings, creating culture and communities in the process.
Wills: In some ways, Chicago has a long history of footwork that starts way before the 1980s. You can see some incredible footwork in the roller skate dances that started in Chicago, in Chicago’s tradition of Stepping, even in the history of Tap. There are similar Black dance styles to footwork in many places, not just Chicago. In Chicago, what helped make things different is the rich history of house music. I think footwork is also a response to ghettoization. It's a positive outlet and a way to create new paths and mobilities for those most marginalized and targeted by American racism.
Jamal, can you also tell us about The Era Footwork Crew? And how did you originally link up with Wills to run OTC?
Jamal: We’re an artist collective that started as a group of high school friends with a vision to take our culture to the next level. Back then, we were called Nu Era and we also didn't really know what we were doing, but we were ready to try all of our unfathomable dreams for Footwork (laughs). Over the years, the vision dwindled because life happened and we got jobs of course, and even went to college to support ourselves but we still battled weekly at events. Steelo, another group member, and I worked at “Food 4 Less” while I was still traveling back and forth to perform at world-renowned music festivals with DJ Rashad and Spinn.
In the mid 2010s, I started working with Wills because he was doing a short documentary for VICE about Chicago Footwork that included me called “Making Tracks.” That short film turned out so well that it helped forge a bond between us that grew and continues to grow today almost seven years later. In 2014, I also appeared in an Al Pacino movie called "Manglehorn" with P-Top, a fellow footworker and rival from another group. After that experience, I found out that P-Top and I had some of the same visions for propelling Chicago Footwork. Once back in Chicago, I called a group meeting with everyone at my apartment including Wills and P-Top. From there, we began redesigning “Nu Era” which eventually changed to “The Era Footwork Crew.”
I think the idea of the group comes from me getting bookings overseas and wanting to share those opportunities with my friends and collaborators in Chicago. Fast forward six years later, now we’re all helping to bring equal opportunities to our group and other dancers, artists and youth across the city and world. As Wills and I continued to work together, we realized that we could help win grants for Footwork projects and dancers. This led to us to create Open the Circle, an organization to help bring resources into Footwork and into the divested communities in Chicago that birthed our style. Footwork has never been about just making money, so a community-driven approach of a nonprofit matched what we had always been doing with Footwork.
Why do you think it’s so important to expose the youth of Chicago and elsewhere to the art of dancing? What do you think it is about dancing that differs from other social art forms or activities like music or organized sports?
Jamal: Dance has always been a vessel for expression. Dance is also important to youth because it shows them another outlet for expression and a successful career instead of the usual rapper, singer, and sports lanes. These more familiar careers are always viewed as better bets, but dance also opens up a whole range of opportunities and pathways. It helps build self-confidence, community, and can take you away from the negativity we face daily in Chicago. The competition of dance battles also inspires excellence, similar to other sports and art forms.
Wills: Footwork is a sport, an artform, even an intellectual practice. If you look at it as just one thing, you’ll miss the big picture. You’ll miss the possibilities and the power of Footwork. If this dance and music get appropriated, if it “goes global” but doesn’t serve Black youth under threat in Chicago, what’s the point? Black children and teenagers in Chicago invented this culture. They remain its most important pillars.
Jamal, can you describe yourself as a Dance Activist? How do you incorporate activism into dancing?
Jamal: My vision started from working to reconfigure what being a dancer actually means, and changing the perspective of what dance is and how we value it in our society. Overtime, my vision evolved into looking at what Chicago Footwork needed as a community, and then centering my work around those issues. As we know, dancers of any genre are cast to the wayside by the larger industries or artists surrounding them, which in turn puts a cap on what they can actually achieve in my eyes. Background dancers are great, but I’m a dance activist so that we aren’t just put in the background. I also use my activism to change the way the media talks about our city, trying to help people see beyond the clichés. We are much more than background dancers and bodies. I’m committed to showing how dance artists can also excel in multiple lanes, including, music, art, filmmaking, education, and fashion.
Has OTC and/or The Era Crew done any projects in the last few months that are a direct response to the activism against police brutality and racial injustice that are currently center stage in America?
Jamal: Over the summer, we created a short film “The Testament” for the Pivot Arts Festival in Chicago. Once the world turned upside down, the opportunity presented itself to create a visual that reflected what was around us and what we were experiencing. Throughout the short film, you can see us using dance as a force to release our frustration, but you can also hear our lyrics that mention the victims of police brutality and what we as dancers feel and think in the face of racial and social injustice, not just how we move.
How has OTC changed its strategy in the months since the COVID-19 quarantining started? Have things slowed down at all or are you just switching to alternate methods of presentation like live streaming or socially-distanced performances?
Jamal: Things really didn’t slow down for us, we just had to switch to alternate methods which ended up being more of an online approach. We couldn't host our summer camp, so our focus moved to our other projects while forming partnerships with organizations like Chance the Rapper’s Social Works and Masks4Chi to help facilitate online workshops/learning, panels and even helping to distribute over 4,000 masks throughout the city during the pandemic, ultimately doing what we can to help out our city in need.
Wills: We’re also using the time and space to regroup and to work on completing our project in a documentary film, a movie called Body of the City that I’m co-directing with footwork dancer and filmmaker Brandon K. Calhoun.
The Era with DJ Spinn and Queen Crystal
What have been some of the most rewarding experiences or projects for both of you while working with OTC, and dancing in general?
Jamal: I concentrate on being a positive figure the kids can identify and relate to as someone in the communities they live in, especially myself having grown up in the more challenging areas in the city. Our Dance Downs, which are dance-driven community events that serve thousands of kids and their families, allow people to see Chicago Footwork in its original context. Bringing the dance world in Chicago together with the Chicago Footwork world has been a real reward.
Wills: I think the most rewarding part of this work so far has been to see Footwork become popular again among Black youth in Chicago. At our Dance Downs and public events, you can see the improvement in the dancers, and the community building at pace with their developments. “Doing it for the kids” has been one of the most rewarding parts of this work, especially when you think about the adversity these kids are up against every day in Chicago. They need something like Footwork, and it’s a joy to be able to help create spaces for them to learn, to feel supported and to be happy.
The Era Footwork Crew at the Bud Billiken Parade in Chicago
Sneakers obviously play an important role in Footwork culture. What are some of your favorite sneakers personally? What shoe styles are best for dancing?
Jamal: I used to always rock some low top Supras when battling or doing anything, but when I got some sense, my favorite shoe to date became the Jordan 1. My colorway is definitely the Chicago OG, hands down. Jordan 1’s are literally the only shoe in my closet, unless I got some gifts from brands I’ve worked with or something like that. I love dancing in shoes where you can feel your entire foot, but that still has some sturdiness to them. Believe it or not, some people danced in Timberland boots as a way to train your feet to be lighter in certain situations. So I feel any light weight shoe would be good to dance in, but historically, Jordans (retro numbers only) have always been the shoe of choice alongside Air Force Ones. If you’re dancing, you gotta be flee, too. That’s just how it goes.
I understand that the Era crew currently has a residency at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Is this your first residency? What’s it feel like to be recognized at the level of having a private university grant you a residency?
Jamal: This is our second or third residency. At first, we weren’t big on residencies, because we wanted to keep working in our own contexts. We had to find a real reason to go off to a residency and feel accomplished, instead of just going to a remote place to work. Also, most of the ones being offered were without pay, and we just didn't have the time with everything we had going on. It had to be right. The residency with Wesleyan has been awesome. To have an institution like Wesleyan recognize us and our work means a lot. They actually came to Chicago to see our show, and attended one of our workshops on the Lower East Side at Abrons Arts. They’re really invested in the long-term and the relationship, and they’re putting resources on the table. I think there’s a lot that we can keep doing with schools and educational institutions, and this university work goes hand-in-hand with our work with younger kids in Chicago Public Schools.
Can you let our readers know about any upcoming OTC or Era events that they may be able to tune in to?
Jamal: The Era is in the middle of our digital residency at Wesleyan University. We are doing a panel discussion this Thursday (October 15, 2020) to focus on the work of Open the Circle, and our nonprofit focus on Chicago Footwork. That panel will feature me and Wills along with Shkunna Stewart, who is the founder of Bringing Out Talent Dance group and a fourth-generation dance group leader in Chicago.
You can join us by using this link or following us on social media: