Dance battles at the Footworkers/Juke DJs Awards at the Portage Theater
Dance battles at the Footworkers/Juke DJs Awards at the Portage Theater Credit: John Sturdy

The stage at the Portage Theater doesn’t usually serve any purpose aside from putting a gap of maybe 20 feet between the first row of seats and the screen. But on the afternoon of Sunday, March 21, it was hotly contested territory.

Dance crews of maybe six to a dozen lined up facing each other across the stage, in front of a crowd of 100 or so clustered at the front of the theater. Competitors from the two crews took turns striding one at a time into the open space between them, usually making a few loping circles before exploding into a blur of high-speed moves—each dancer looked like some combination of Gregory Hines, a whirling dervish, and half a shoving match.

The style is called footwork. At heart it’s a Chicago phenomenon, but a dancer who goes by Bobo—here with the west-side crew Nemesis—tells me it’s starting to spread, mostly to larger cities in the midwest. It was born in the early 90s, around the time of Cajmere’s “Percolator,” and it’s grown alongside juke music, a hip-hop-influenced descendent of house that’s been a staple of south- and west-side clubs for more than 15 years. Like breakdancing, footworking is at its best not in clubs but in the wild. A few venues host footwork events—the Battlegrounds at 87th and East End has one every Sunday night—but the majority of the vast number of footwork videos on YouTube are set in places like high school hallways, outdoor public basketball courts, and bedrooms. Also like breakdancing, footworking thrives on competition and one-upsmanship, whether it’s two rival crews onstage at the Portage or the every-man-for-himself free-for-all of a playground cipher.

The Portage event was organized by a 38-year-old event promoter, talent scout, and footwork fanatic named Wala Williams, who maintains a busy YouTube channel of related videos under the name Wala Cam. In part it was an annual awards ceremony for dance crews and DJs, but those decisions had all been made before anybody took the stage—the best crew, named early in the day, were west siders 187 Murder on the Dancefloor; DJ Gant-Man and DJ Puncho, both pillars of the juke scene, were honored as well, and the troupe Full Effect (part of the Full Effect Dance Theatre) was recognized for giving footwork a national boost by appearing in Missy Elliott’s 2005 video for “Lose Control.” The real excitement was the dancing: though it was supposedly a contest, there weren’t any judges or any formal announcements of winners. The outcomes were determined by the crowd, which was pretty good at telling who’d just gotten faced.

In contrast to breaking, footwork is less about raw athleticism and acrobatics and more about quickness and fluidity. The dancers’ legs go crazy—when I’d only seen it on video, I had a hard time believing some of the footage hadn’t been subtly sped up—but their heads and shoulders are sometimes almost still, seeming to float above the action. You might see graceful tap-dance-style spins or elbows-out arm pumping borrowed from African dance, but in general only feet touch the floor—no headstands, no flares, no hand hops. In a battle setting each routine is maybe 20 to 40 seconds of knotty, rapid-fire motion—like a soccer player juggling a ball or Michael Jackson in his best years, except even faster—with the tension broken only by, say, a pause en pointe or, if a dancer’s feeling really cocky, a playful but firm shove to the chest of an opponent.

Footwork has grown hugely in popularity over the past couple of years, largely because MTV brought it to viewers outside Chicago by playing the video to Dude ‘n Nem’s 2007 single “Watch My Feet” and including footwork in specials like the Chicago edition of My Block, which aired in late 2006. Locals with reputations are often invited to dance competitions in Detroit and Minneapolis, and footwork moves are frequently incorporated into the routines on the MTV show America’s Best Dance Crew. (Full Effect even made an appearance on the program in 2008.) But footwork music—a speedier, weirder offshoot of juke—has yet to make such a leap.

Maybe a quarter of the songs the DJs played at the Portage were straight-up juke—house beats pushed over 140 BPM, given the rhythmic swing of hip-hop, and topped with minimal vocal loops. And according to Williams, juke is still what most footworkers choose for their casual dancing at clubs and parties: “It’s booty-pop music,” he says. But the other three-quarters were footwork music, which is to juke what dubstep is to drum ‘n’ bass—a mutated, alien-sounding descendent of a style that was already pushing the boundaries of dance music.

Footwork music doesn’t feel like something anyone would or could dance to, and not just because it tends to be uncomfortably fast. The beats are twitchy and eccentric and mutate frequently, and the mood is usually dark and tense—pretty much the opposite of a party vibe. Tracks from local producers like DJ Nate and Tha Pope generally are often jacked up to tempos more common in bizarro styles like gabber and grindcore. The low-end drum-machine kicks often use a blunted attack, turning both house-style four-on-the-floor beats and whole-note hip-hop booms into sinister low-frequency smears. The timekeeping layer tends to be electronic snare or hand claps, embellished with machine-gun toms tuned to such tight intervals that the fills seem to slide rather than step, or with snippets of 64th-note hi-hat that sound more like an electrical buzz than percussion. On top of the beat there might be a synth-bass part, plus maybe a snatch of a piano loop, a Sabbath riff, or a vocal sample sped up Kanye-style to creepy effect—and barely anything else. The forefathers of footwork music may be Green Velvet and Gant-Man, but it’s got more in common with Aphex Twin or Burial.

At the Portage, no matter how heated the onstage battles got, nobody ever really seemed mad about anything—except when the DJ put on a song they didn’t like and they’d stop what they were doing to wave him on to the next track. Even then, everyone seemed to agree which songs were too poppy and cheesy. Half the audience was content to watch, and the rest formed small groups at the foot of the stage, with one person at a time jumping into the middle of each circle for a quick dance.

Rashaad Lewis, 16, started off the afternoon onstage, but he spent most of it in these ciphers on the floor, which is where I introduced myself. A skinny kid from the south suburbs, he freestyled nimbly and with a distinctive flair—an oddly balanced pose held for a fraction of a second, for instance, or little foot flips that were somehow even speedier than the already blazingly fast steps everybody else was doing. He might not have been the single best dancer in the building, but he was able to hold his own against top-level competitors with citywide reputations, like Basic from FootworKingz (an all-star crew that appeared on America’s Got Talent last summer) and AG from the up-and-coming Leaders of the New School. If footwork ever crosses over into mainstream pop culture, he could easily be one of its stars, and he seemed to know it. “Some of the big guys, it’ll be hard to beat them,” he said. “I’d have to go as hard as I could. But the shorties, like my age? I don’t think nobody can mess with me, actually.”   

Basic & Kemo vs. Little Kemo & Oreo, March 21, Portage Theater

Dream Team vs. 187, March 21, Portage Theater