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.