The Era footwork crew are no stranger to art galleries: they’ve worked with High Concept Labs in Pilsen as part of a 2014 residency and in 2016 curated a photography show at Columbia College’s Hokin Gallery. But last Saturday’s “Prime Time: F00TW3RK” event at the Museum of Contemporary Art was different. It was their first full-scale museum takeover.
The MCA has incorporated elements of footwork into past events—most notably, it featured RP Boo in a 2016 installment of its Prime Time series—but the museum hadn’t really engaged with the local DJ and dance movements until this event. “It’s about time,” says Jamal “Litebulb” Oliver, a founder of the Era. “And it brings some questions up, like, why hasn’t this happened already?”
The museum’s curator of public works, January Parks Arnall, who worked with the Era and assistant curator Christy LeMaster to organize the event, says that the MCA’s goal is “expanding our notion of what contemporary art is, and hopefully making contemporary art more relevant for our local community.” She hopes that this is the first of many events highlighting local arts practices.
Though curated in conjunction with the museum’s newest exhibition, “I Was Raised on the Internet,” the exhibit was clearly not the focus of the Era’s event—the galleries were open for guests to peruse, but most of the action took place on an entirely different floor; the only part of the night’s programming on the same floor was a relatively underwhelming Internet-cafe-style video wall installation.
Rather than highlighting the exhibit itself, the event proved thematically relevant in a more indirect manner: the presence of technology in relation to footwork was made evident all night by the ubiquity of phones. In the periphery of every performance, a member of the Era or a friend live-streamed the show via smartphone, or in the case of the Queens of Footwork’s Kenesha “MurdaMommy” Sheridan, live-streamed even while dancing.
Despite the presence of other visual arts elements (a highlight was Rebirth Garments‘ queer and accessible fashion show, a celebratory dance party of futuristic, sexy Power Ranger-esque couture and plush medieval weaponry), footwork was truly the center of attention. The Era’s two sets were the night’s focal points. Audience members crowded close to witness the synchronized blur of black-and-white athletic gear and Nike Air Force 1’s that was Litebulb, Jemal “P-Top” DeLacruz, Sterling “Steelo” Lofton, and Brandon “Chief Manny” Calhoun.
In particular, “Prime Time: F00TW3RK” emphasized the presence of women, a demographic largely overlooked within the footwork community until recently. “I think the Era has developed a way of thinking about footwork where we always try to think about women in what we do, because women have not been represented enough in footwork’s history” says Wills Glasspiegel, a member of the Era and one of the event’s organizers. The event’s lineup reflected this effort to bring women in footwork to the forefront, featuring DJ sets by Suzi Analogue and Jana Rush and a screening of Glasspiegel’s newest film collaboration with MurdaMommy, titled I Am the Queen, followed by a performance by the Queens of Footwork, featuring MurdaMommy, Crystal “Queen Crystal” James, Alecia Kemp, and Diamond Harden.
The event also illuminated the strong sense of community in Chicago footwork. The Era provided complimentary tickets to a variety of local dancers who were not featured on the bill, and at least 25 local dancers showed up and danced along to DJ Spinn and RP Boo, among them Eric “Tempo” Bitoy, Deryon Webster, Steve “Steve O” Moody, and Isaac “Crossfire” Harris. It was clear the footwork dancers were all close friends or at the very least supporters of each other; they talked and joked between sets. As I sat on the concrete in the front at the the Era’s first performance of the night, I could hear MurdaMommy next to me singing along to the Era’s MC interludes, clearly familiar with their material.
This feeling of community at “Prime Time: F00TW3RK” carries through to the Era’s other work, in particular its newly formed nonprofit, Open the Circle. Named after a move designed to clear space on crowded dance floors, Open the Circle is the Era’s solution to Chicago’s power imbalances, an attempt to redirect resources toward artists and children in underserved communities. Their three main projects at the moment are a documentary film, a stage show, and footwork summer camps—all intended to tell the story of footwork, to grow the community, and to pass footwork along to the next generation. For Litebulb, Open the Circle’s summer camps maintain the tradition of footwork in Chicago. “In a sense, that’s the essence of it,” he says, “passing it to kids because we were kids when we got it.”
Catch the Era at Hamilton Park Cultural Center, 513 W. 72nd, on July 21 from 2 to 5 PM for a curated night of youth dance and local footwork DJs.