Music » Music Feature

The Era move footworking into the spotlight

The crews who evolved this grassroots Chicago dance style often end up as sideshows to DJs or rappers—but the Era hope to change that with their first stage production.


The Era: Litebulb, P-Top, Dempsey, Chief Manny, and Steelo - WILLS GLASSPIEGEL
  • Wills Glasspiegel
  • The Era: Litebulb, P-Top, Dempsey, Chief Manny, and Steelo

When Save Money rapper Towkio got invited to play his first Lollapalooza set this summer, he knew he wanted to make a statement—to show the fans who'd converge on the festival from all over the country what he loves about the city that shaped him. So he reached out to footwork dance crew the Era.

Footwork music began evolving in Chicago in the early 90s, drawing on ghetto house and juke but adding complex layers of odd, almost compulsively frenetic rhythms; it grew hand in hand with the athletic, high-octane dance style that shares its name. Towkio had become a fan of footwork dancing as a kid, and in 2015 he enlisted DJ Spinn—cofounder of Teklife, the most important collective of footwork producers anywhere—to open for him at a mixtape-release show. Spinn in turn brought Litebulb, cofounder of the Era, to dance during his set. Towkio already knew about the Era, and that concert helped cement their connection. "I was like, 'I gotta link up with them, because they're the only ones holding it down,' " Towkio says. "There's not really another crew that holds down the footwork culture like them."

Members of the Era appear in the video for Towkio's "Clean Up," which came out in February—among the crowd of friends shaking it on the sidewalk, the footwork dancers stand out, firing off quick kicks on tiptoe or neatly spinning in circles. "The Era are the best footworkers I know," Towkio says. "I had to have that bang in my set, so I'm going to hire the best people."

And the Era are arguably among the best footwork dancers in the world. The crew's five core members are Jemal "P-Top" DeLa Cruz, 27, who grew up in Uptown; Brandon "Chief Manny" Calhoun, 25, from the southeast side; Dempsey Barney, 25, raised all over the south side; Sterling "Steelo" Lofton, 25, who grew up around East Chatham; and Jamal "Litebulb" Oliver, 26, from the Chicago Lawn area. The Era also includes one nondancer: Wills Glasspiegel, a filmmaker, footwork documentarian, and PhD candidate in African-­American and American Studies at Yale.

The five of them founded the Era in 2014, at which point footwork dancing (and footwork music) had been flourishing for decades in underground spaces and neighborhood spots—roller rinks, house parties, school auditoriums, even tennis courts. The Era's dancers sharpened their skills in places like these, including an important footwork arena called Battlegrounds, which since 2008 has occupied a vacant room in a Chatham insurance office. They also built their reputations at a series of dance battles called War Zone, organized by an important booster and documentarian of the scene named Wala Williams, whose show Wala Cam launched on CAN TV in 2003.

Beginning in the early 2010s, DJ Spinn and his late friend and Teklife cofounder DJ Rashad helped bring footwork aboveground, touring the States and Europe—and sometimes they'd bring future members of the Era with them on the road. This increase in visibility has since helped the Era make inroads into cultural spaces far from footwork's humble grassroots origins—they've entered the world of grants, art galleries, private universities, and city-sponsored music-­industry showcases.

In 2014 the Era launched a partnership with Pilsen gallery High Concept Laboratories, which hosts the crew's Lab Sessions (basically parties where fans can learn moves from the pros) as well as straight-up dance lessons taught by its members. In 2015 the University of Chicago awarded Litebulb and Glasspiegel a Crossing Boundaries artists' residency, which they've used to archive the history of footwork. That same year, Vice's electronic-music site, Thump, released a short documentary on the Era made by Glasspiegel. In May 2016, the city booked the crew as a marquee act at its Lake FX Summit & Expo, where they shared the bill with Rhymefest, BJ the Chicago Kid, and Jamila Woods. The Era have performed extensively outside Chicago too, including in New York, at South by Southwest, on a 2015 tour of Latin America with DJ Spinn, and as part of a corporate-sponsored festival that flew them to Kuwait this April.

Chicago Dancemakers Forum named Litebulb one of its 2015 Lab Artists, giving him and the Era a $15,000 grant to work on a stage show—the group's first. After two years of labor, In the Wurkz is premiering this month, and it's a rare chance for the Era's dancers to be the center of attention onstage. The show uses a variety of media—dance, poetry, film—to tell the story of footwork through the eyes of the crew.

The Era are putting on the show for free in a turn-of-the-century auditorium on the grounds of Hamilton Park in Englewood, not far from where a majority of the crew's members live. It's important to them to do something for their community. "We feel like debuting on the south side for free is huge, because we don't even have shit over here," Litebulb says. "Every time it's a huge event, like Lollapalooza or anything, it's downtown."

The Era present In the Wurkz
Sat 8/27, 5 PM, Hamilton Park, 513 W. 72nd, free, all ages

Footwork as the Era practice it wouldn't exist today without Englewood native Anthony "Ant" Brown—"the Michael Jordan of footwork," as Litebulb puts it. Brown says footwork had already been around for ages when he started dancing in 1991. "There's a beginning, but it's not with me," he explains. "Footwork started way before me, because I looked up to other people as well—I'm just the person that probably got it exposed and got it out here to where it's like bananas now."

Brown's contributions to local street-­dancing culture pushed footwork toward its present fast-paced, improvisational style—he was responding to the raunchy ghetto house that DJs had begun playing at house parties and dance performances. Chicago label Dance Mania helped popularize the sound, which eventually evolved into juke and footwork music. "Everything is based off of the DJs and what they could put towards the dancing industry and how they made tracks," Brown says. "There were certain tracks that I liked—west-side-type tracks."

Brown made his first big innovation in 1992 or '93. "DJ [Eric] Martin, he made the 'Erk n Jerk' track, and then I made the dance to that track," he says. "I think that's what set it off, as far as the game of footworking." Brown's move is a sort of rapid seesawing series of straight-legged sideways kicks, alternating right and left legs, with the other leg bent underneath so that the dancer rocks busily back and forth.

The Erk n Jerk became one of footwork's foundational moves, alongside others such as the Shake n Bake, Dribbling, Mike n Ikes, and Ghost. Dancers used these steps to develop their own styles as footwork spread. One important vector was neighborhood dance groups, many of whom showed off their newest routines at the annual Bud Billiken Parade—the largest African-­American parade in the country, launched by the Chicago Defender in 1929.

One popular group that served as an early-­90s incubator for footwork was House-o-­Matics, founded by Englewood resident Ronnie Sloan in 1985. About when Brown developed the Erk n Jerk, a dancer named Kavain Space joined House-o-Matics—but because he also made music, Sloan encouraged him to focus on one or the other. Space picked music, making tracks as RP Boo that were custom-­made for the footworkers he knew. His late-90s cut "Baby Come On," with a vocal sample played in a stuttering loop and a drum pattern that keeps shifting one of its main accents from an upbeat to a more straightforward backbeat, demonstrates some of the features of the template he laid down for future footwork producers—its competing, overlapping rhythms let dancers pick and choose which one to follow as they improvise their moves.

P-Top, Chief Manny, Litebulb, and Steelo demonstrate footwork moves. As Litebulb explains: “P-Top looks like a set breakdown into a Ghost. Manny’s is a high Ghost into a low Ghost that lands in a knee drop. Mine is more of a new movement combination, and Steelo’s looks like a crossover skate combination.” - WILLS GLASSPIEGEL AND THE ERA
  • Wills Glasspiegel and the Era
  • P-Top, Chief Manny, Litebulb, and Steelo demonstrate footwork moves. As Litebulb explains: “P-Top looks like a set breakdown into a Ghost. Manny’s is a high Ghost into a low Ghost that lands in a knee drop. Mine is more of a new movement combination, and Steelo’s looks like a crossover skate combination.”

The symbiotic connection between footwork music and footwork dancing helped the culture flourish during the 2000s. Many of the best producers and DJs also danced, and they not only continued making tracks for dancers but also made direct reference to specific moves, performers, and battle cliques. "That was the DJ's job in some respects—to memorialize and pay tribute," Glasspiegel says.

According to Glasspiegel, one of the genre's quintessential tracks is "Ghost" by DJ Rashad, who danced in House-o-Matics as a teenager and cofounded one of the first footwork battle cliques, Wolf Pac. It combines whooshing, melodic bass, a hiccupping sample of Rashad saying "ghost," and the magical fusion of sweetness and grime that characterized footwork's sound during its international breakthrough six or seven years ago—the track was first released on 2011's Just a Taste Vol. One, which dropped just as Rashad and Spinn began to ramp up their overseas touring. Glasspiegel discussed "Ghost" in a 2014 Pitchfork feature on footwork, pointing out an important feature of the song: "Rashad recognizes four crucial Chicago dancers: 'Poo, AG, Q, Litebulb,' he repeats."

Litebulb had been footworking for roughly six years when Just a Taste Vol. One dropped. He'd learned about the dance as a kid by watching people footwork in the neighborhood, including a local group called Below Zero. "I just never could do it till I got in high school," he says. He was a percussionist in the band at Tilden High in Canaryville, where he also played on the basketball team and danced in a school group called Total Impact, aka TIP. He joined TIP in 2005 and began to immerse himself in footwork, dancing at talent shows and making up his own moves by studying online videos: "I just hopped on YouTube and started watching people that I thought was good," he says. "I just started taking they shit, as anybody would starting off, and doing it my own way."

Some other members of TIP were involved in an off-campus dance group called Alpha & Omega, which Litebulb had joined in 2004. Two years later he joined another group called 3rd Dimension, whose leader knew the members of Terra Squad, one of Chicago's best battle cliques. "Terra Squad came to the practice one day, and I battled the two heads," Litebulb says. The two Terra Squad members were AG (one of the footworkers Rashad shouts out on "Ghost") and TY, who invited the teenager to try out for their group. As Litebulb puts it, "The rest was history."

Joining Terra Squad in 2006 brought Litebulb deeper into footwork. "That's when I met Spinn, Rashad, everybody else like that—I was making a name for myself, and I was learning from AG and people like him who was actually in the direct lineage from Spinn and the Wolf Pac," Litebulb says. "We was directly tied to the people who started footworking, who created all the moves, who created battle cliques and all that shit. I didn't realize I was in that world until later on." In February 2008 Litebulb made it to the final round of King of the Circle, an important footwork battle. Today he says he wasn't that good back then, but his name began to spread.

The following year, new arrivals on the Terra Squad roster included three more future cofounders of the Era: Chief Manny, Steelo, and Dempsey. (Of the five current members, only P-Top didn't pass through Terra Squad.) The trio became friends in 2005 and '06, during their freshman year at Bowen High School. Manny had started dabbling in magic in middle school after watching David Blaine ("I was like, 'Damn, let me try some of this magic—let me try to get these reactions' "), and he bonded with the other two in an art class. Steelo had done a drawing of Goofy that impressed Manny. "He was just like, 'Damn, this shit raw,' " Steelo says. "That was one of the first times me and Manny ever really talked."

Manny and Dempsey soon joined the school dance team, Untouchables. Manny's friends call him "the Plug" due to his many social connections, and his older sister led the team. Dempsey had learned about footworking from his godsister and an older cousin before he turned ten. "I wanted a little attention in high school, so I was like 'OK, I wanna dance,' " he says. "It's how people [will] know my name in high school."

Steelo remembers that an older cousin had tried to get him into footwork when he was seven or eight. "He's trying to teach me footworking, like, 'Where your Ghost at?,' " he says. "Every time he see me at a family function or whatever, he like, 'Where your Ghost at? Where your Ghost at?' " That early encouragement didn't work, but when Steelo saw Dempsey and Manny test their developing footwork skills by battling in the halls at school, something finally clicked for him.

After a brief move to Indiana in 2007, in '08 Steelo joined Dempsey in the footwork battle clique BTS, aka Breakthrough Squad. Manny had been in a couple groups outside school (including 3rd Dimension, where he met Litebulb), but he didn't join a battle clique till he became part of Terra Squad in January 2009. He'd gone to try out because his friend City was already a member and he knew they were one of the best. "OK, if I don't get with Terra Squad," Manny remembers thinking, "I'm not getting with another group."

“The Era’s flexed wrists echo a variation of the Ghost as deployed by the late DJ Rashad when he danced,” says the crew’s historian, Wills Glasspiegel. From left to right: Steelo, Chief Manny, Dempsey, P-Top, and Litebulb at 49th Street Beach. - WILLS GLASSPIEGEL
  • Wills Glasspiegel
  • “The Era’s flexed wrists echo a variation of the Ghost as deployed by the late DJ Rashad when he danced,” says the crew’s historian, Wills Glasspiegel. From left to right: Steelo, Chief Manny, Dempsey, P-Top, and Litebulb at 49th Street Beach.

Several years earlier, City had cofounded a battle clique called Goon Squad, which P-Top joined in late 2006. Previously he'd dedicated much of his time to football. "Maybe it was because it was a contact sport—it released my anger," P-Top says. "But it helped me escape, and it had unity at the same time." He first dipped his toes into footworking at age 15, during his freshman year at Senn High School in Edgewater. His younger brother, Malcolm, was already a member of Goon Squad, and his sisters were in a group that competed at big community shows called dance downs. The footworkers in any given group would come out last to perform by themselves, and they got P-Top's attention. "They were soloing, going crazy for the crowd—the crowd is going nuts," he says. "I was like, 'Damn, that shit's kind of cool. I like that!' "

P-Top's first son was born when he was 17, and he quit football so he could work after school. He stuck with footwork, though, even while he picked up any gig that could pay him. Since turning 16, P-Top has worked for all sorts of bosses—After School Matters, KFC, Boys & Girls Club, Sam's Club, Chicago Public Schools, a private security company—but he stayed in Goon Squad. "It was something that I was so excited about—like I was a kid in a cartoon factory or something. I was so excited to watch everything," he says. "It made me feel good."

P-Top's love of footwork led him all over the city, both to watch footworkers whose reputations had reached him and to compete on his own—he went to Chatham (venturing into Battlegrounds), to the Hundreds, and to the south suburbs. "It gave me a different picture and a different outlook on things with footworking," he says. "Like, 'Damn, look at this style! Look at that style compared to my style.' " P-Top also started to feel like he had rivals on the scene—specifically Litebulb and Terra Squad.

Once Manny and Steelo made the Terra Squad team in early 2009, they were eager to work—Manny remembers pulling Litebulb aside to ask for his help. "I'm like, 'Hey, show me something—you're one of the top people out here right now. Really show me a move right now,' " he says. "I think that mind-set of really wanting to learn from people who came before you is what helped me and what helped develop my style and craft."

Dempsey didn't come aboard with them—he was still loyal to BTS, where he'd met his girlfriend Dana—but he was impressed by how quickly Steelo and Manny were growing. "I was like, 'Man, I think I should've joined the group,' 'cause I see how much better they was getting in weeks," he says. All three graduated high school in 2009, and that summer Dempsey danced during the Bud Billiken Parade, where he caught the eye of Terra Squad. Within weeks he'd received his own invitation to join.

Litebulb remembers clicking with Manny, Steelo, and Dempsey as soon as they joined. "When they came around, they was my age," he says. "It was like an automatic connection." Litebulb had other friends his age in Terra Squad, including Jeremiah Sterling, who shared his enthusiasm for taking footwork beyond battles and into more formal performances. "He was like, 'We gonna be in Camaros off of footworkin'," Litebulb says. Sterling moved away in late 2009 to live with an older brother in Denver, and when he came back to spend the summer of 2010 here, he was shot in a West Pullman alley a block from his mother's house. He died July 15 at age 16.

In the early 2010s, tensions began to fester between Terra Squad's younger members (including the four future Era cofounders) and its more senior dancers. Litebulb left the group in 2011, about the same time he started touring Europe with Spinn and Rashad. Manny, Dempsey, and Steelo stayed in Terra Squad, but in late summer 2011 they launched a new group with Litebulb. "We decided to still be with the battle clique but break off into this performance group called Nu Era," Manny says. "Our goal was to perform throughout the city—I guess have a stage show or whatever."

Nu Era fizzled out after about a year, but Manny, Dempsey, Steelo, and Litebulb didn't give up on their dream of a performance group—and fortunately for them, they got to know Glasspiegel right around that time. He'd become entrenched in the local footwork community in 2009, working for NPR as a freelance journalist and radio producer. He spent most of his time with DJ Rashad, DJ Spinn, DJ Earl, Traxman, and the rest of the Teklife crew (then known as GhettoTeknitianz), who introduced him to the dancers.

Glasspiegel remembers hearing DJ Spinn talking to Litebulb after DJ Rashad's performance at the 2013 Pitchfork Music Festival, encouraging him to start a dance collective as a foil to Teklife. "When Spinn tapped Litebulb as somebody who could pioneer the dance movement to go forward, I said, 'What can I do to help?' " he says.

Glasspiegel even brought P-Top into this nascent group, albeit inadvertently: a movie-­producer friend asked him to find a couple of dancers to appear in a film called Manglehorn, a 2014 release that stars Al Pacino as a woebegone locksmith, and he picked Litebulb and P-Top. At first P-Top didn't believe Glasspiegel's Facebook message was real, but he took the gig—despite his old rivalry with Litebulb. "That used to be my arch enemy," he says.

When P-Top and Litebulb went to Texas to film their scene in 2013, they realized they had a lot in common. "We had the same vision when it came to the culture—of trying to push it beyond Battlegrounds, beyond War Zone, beyond just running into each other and battling," P-Top says. Upon their return to Chicago, Litebulb invited P-Top to a meeting with Manny, Dempsey, and Steelo, and the Era was born.

When the Era began in March 2014, several other dancers were involved, but the group soon slimmed down to the core five—along with Glasspiegel, who plays an advisory role. "If I can help talk to them about contracts, ownership, self-determination, or issues that come up when you start to form a business, I want to provide support for that," Glasspiegel says. "At the same time, they teach me so much about footwork, about what it means—it's really been an amazing relationship and friendship."

The feeling is mutual. "He's not no outside person," Litebulb says. "I know his daddy."

Steelo at Battlegrounds in Chatham - WILLS GLASSPIEGEL
  • Wills Glasspiegel
  • Steelo at Battlegrounds in Chatham

The Era made their first big splash during DJ Spinn's 2014 Pitchfork festival performance; when P-Top, Steelo, Dempsey, and Litebulb jumped into their coordinated routine, the crowd erupted in cheers. (Manny missed the show because he was teaching animation at a kids' summer camp in Connecticut.) The Era played a crucial role in Spinn's life-­affirming set, which was especially emotional given that he'd originally been scheduled to play alongside DJ Rashad, who'd passed away that April at age 34.

But despite the great first impression the Era made at Pitchfork (and the many other successes that have followed), footwork dancing is nowhere near as well-known as footwork music. Since the late 2000s, when several chic European labels took an interest in the genre, it's been attracting immoderate critical praise from a surprising variety of publications—including high-profile nonspecialists such as Playboy and Rolling Stone. But even as the likes of Hyperdub and Planet Mu have spread footwork music across the world, the dance that evolved alongside it has often fallen by the wayside—for one thing, it's hardly as portable as an MP3. You can't get a sense of how someone might move to a footwork track if all you have is a copy of DJ Rashad's Double Cup.

This is part of the reason Glasspiegel wants to document dancers in Chicago. "You want to show all the important parts—when something gets commodified, those parts get erased, and those are often the most important and essential parts," he says. "This music and dance was made by people who were not served—and still aren't, in many ways—by capitalism. If we're just reading them through products often created outside of Chicago, what does that do to the cultural history?"

Some footwork dancers have had success outside the city, of course—but not on the scale that the producers have. Missy Elliott featured local dance group Full Effect in her 2005 video "Lose Control," and Chicago's FootworKINGz appeared on America's Got Talent in 2009 and America's Best Dance Crew in 2011—one of their members, King Charles, also toured as a backup dancer for Madonna in 2008 and '09. The Era aren't interested in dancing on anybody else's stage, though—they want to be headliners. "The vision we trying to push here is you don't have to dance behind no other person to be respected or to get cut the same check that the singer is getting cut or the rapper is getting cut," Dempsey says. "The whole vision of us spreading the stage performance and bringing the music, it's something very new."

That "us" is a key part of the Era's philosophy. Its members try to direct attention to the collective, not to any one person; as Glasspiegel points out, DJ Rashad pursued a similar ethic with Teklife, making sure his fellow producers got their due even as people outside the scene heralded him as footwork music's biggest star. And for the Era, "us" doesn't just mean the collective but rather footworkers as a whole. In May, when the Era teamed up with Rebuild Foundation's Black Cinema House for a weekly series focused on footwork, they screened a documentary about one of the best women footworkers, Jasmine "Apps" Applewhite.

The Era debut their stage show, In the Wurkz, on Saturday, August 27. Litebulb says it's been in development for about two years—as long as the Era has existed. "On and off," Manny adds. "It's like scrapping stuff—like, 'No, we don't want to do this. Startin' over.' " Footworking is so physically demanding that even a relatively brief show (this one lasts half an hour) can't consist entirely of dancing unless a huge number of performers take shifts. To sidestep this problem, the Era have made In the Wurkz a multimedia production, incorporating not just music and dance but also documentary filmmaking and poetry. "We can't just go out there and solo for 30 minutes," Manny says. "That's not a show."

Within the past year, members of the Era have also started to work on their own music. They've recorded themselves rapping over footwork tracks, and in a snippet that Litebulb played for me, the vocals move with the same fluid rhythms as the dancers' bodies. "That's footworkin' with words," he says. "That's what we callin' it—we not trying to be no rappers."

The Era decided to do this in part because, as Manny says, so little music out there describes the life of a dancer. "As a dancer, when you wake up, you don't have nobody to say, like, 'Man, we finna go burn these niggas, we finna battle, we gotta practice now,' " he says. What it's like to be a footworker is a big part of the message of In the Wurkz. "I want people to feel what we go through," Steelo says. "We go through regular shit, and we use dance as an expression—that's what I want to show people. And footworkers, they gonna already get it, 'cause they goin' through what I go through every day."  v

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