House music changed the world when it appeared 30 years ago, but the stories of its dancers were left behind. Today, dance crew The Era are reminding the world of the culture’s history
It’s been 30 years since house music reformatted popular culture forever, turning the nightclub into a site of political resistance in one of America’s most segregated cities: Chicago. And though we can trace a historical narrative through DJs, records, release dates, and flash points, the culture remains living, breathing, in motion. Not just because it’s ongoing, but because this history is written through the dancer’s body as much as it is vinyl or ferric tape. How do you begin to capture this elusive extra dimension, the one that brings the music to life, when it is, by definition, the part that’s hardest to pin down?
It’s this question that animates footwork crew The Era. Formed in 2014, its members are all aged between 25 and 27 but – like most Chicago footwork collectives – maintain close ties to their city's troupe and battle traditions through a set of formalised codes and moves passed down generation to generation. However, their goal goes beyond the battle-oriented glory of their former collectives Terra Squad and Goon Squad. Instead, Chief Manny, Litebulb, P-Top, Steelo, and Dempsey want to do something far more significant: reinsert the dancer back into the history of house. “We want our culture to be represented holistically,” explains Chief Manny, or 25-year-old Brandon Calhoun, over a Skype video call. He’s huddled around the screen alongside fellow Era affiliates Litebulb and Steelo, aka Jamal Oliver and Sterling Lofton. All three take it in turns to answer questions and pass around blunts. In a neat bit of symbolism demonstrating the continuities within Chicago’s club history, they’re sat in the studio of DJ D-Man, the pioneer of the ‘coloured tapes’, the post-Dance Mania scene that played out through vibrantly-coloured cassettes. Right now, though, it’s the future that they’re focused on. “We’re not just forefronting dance,” Chief Manny emphasises. “We’re forefronting the entire culture – the music and the dance.” Steelo nods in agreement. “People can just understand the culture and what we do overall, when we do it together.”
See, in true Chicago footwork, you can’t have one without the other. After all, it’s right there in a name that represents both the music (a polyrhythmic mutation of ghetto house that cruises at a nippy 160bpm), and the dance itself. If you’ve spent any time exploring footwork on YouTube you’ll have seen the moves – the erks and jerks, skates, ghost, running man – and the incredible agility and precision that goes into bringing them all together. Sometimes it seems that a brilliant dancer isn’t just battling his rivals in the circle, but some very fundamental laws of physics, too. What is less obvious to the spectator is the huge significance invested in the feedback loop between the scene’s dancers and producers, essentially the motor behind the music’s constant renewal and development. Litebulb pulls out one example of this creative cycle in action – of course there are countless others. “‘Ghost’ came from Rashad watching us,” he says, referring to the seminal track by the late DJ Rashad. “He even put our names in the track. ‘Poo, AG, Q, Litebulb / ghost, ghost, ghost’ – that’s an actual move we do. Half the tracks that people love so much, we were in the room helping them make those tracks.” Even so, when footwork broke out of its Chicago setting and onto the world’s dancefloors back in 2011, this message was all but lost in transit. Sure, trailblazers like the Teklife crew – with whom who The Era are closely allied – fought to direct attention onto their community (Litebulb danced alongside Rashad, Manny, and Spinn at some of their first international gigs back in 2011) but the music, always the music, came first to everyone outside of Chicago.
“We got 30 years of history that nobody ever talked about” – Litebulb, The Era
Perhaps this isn’t surprising – music has a way of transcending context. What’s more, there’s a long history of places outside of Chicago importing the city’s avant-garde African-American dance music – cities like Berlin, Belgrade, Warsaw, and Tokyo already understand the broader grammar, so the new vocabulary simply slots into place. But if the challenging polyrhythms and synthetic textures come naturally, the dance itself, with its deeply localised history, high complexity, and formal codes, remained harder to parse to outsiders. By losing that half of the story, explains journalist, documentarian, and academic Wills Glasspiegel, a key piece of the puzzle is lost. “We in the Midwest have created a lot of dance music that’s become more popular in Europe, and that’s provided opportunities for new cultures to form, for people to meet across boundaries. But, there is a disconnection.” Glasspiegel is a Chicagoan who has spent years deeply embedded within footwork culture. Right now he’s documenting The Era through photography and film. As such he has a profound understanding of how important it is to get the whole picture. “The people who originated house music on the south side, many of these people lived in ghettoised environments. You have to ask: what is the value of those dancers and their stories? How does that get scrambled or misrepresented by someone who doesn’t see and hear the music the way it's created and understood by the community here in Chicago?” When you pick up a footwork record, or go to a show, or DJ it yourself, do you know, should you know, everything it stands for? Does it matter? To The Era, it does – a hell of a lot.
Whether it’s through their recent London workshop, high profile festival performances, and even gallery exhibitions, The Era are making sure it matters to you, too. For the last few months they've been working out of a practice space in the Mana Contemporary building in Chicago, a respected fine arts gallery laid on by arts organisation High Concept Labs. It’s here that they’ve been refining their most ambitious act yet – a fully-realised footwork stage show called In The Wurkz. It will see The Era using their bodies to communicate a set of stories and perspectives which have rarely been heard before. Stories and perspectives from them as dancers, as people of colour, as Chicagoans from the south or west side, as footworkers.
“We got 30 years of history that nobody ever talked about,” declares Litebulb when asked about the show. “We’re going to talk about in an authentic way, using our own music, talking about our own culture, and just being ourselves.” They’ve even diversified into writing their own words and music, breaking the decades-long convention, cemented with ghetto house, of using economical, vocal samples. “If you think about footworking from its earliest stages to now, it’s never been nothing about nobody’s life. We figured out how to conceptualise footwork music relating to (our) history. Like, we got 9-to-5s, we was footworking after we got off work, what about that story? Or the story about how we had to catch the bus home because we had 50 dudes chasing us after this party that we left, ‘cos we were killing everybody."
Some may see this kind of formal performance – and the gallery co-sign – as an exciting shift that legitimises footwork, a style dismissed as ‘vernacular’ by the traditional dance world. But such an appraisal sits uneasily with the crew. “This divide between formal dance and street dance, that’s something that’s never really worked for us,” clarifies Glasspiegel. “There’s such a high level of formal practice that goes into footwork, so many years of defining a form and a grammar and an accepted context and traditions, it’s such a deeply formal language, and that’s what we’re into, we’re not into watering it down.” Indeed, they would rather interrogate these very divisions that kept them out for so long – something they did recently, at a fundraiser at The Arts Club of Chicago, an elite arts club in the city.
It started with a grant from the Chicago Dancemakers Forum. They booked The Era to perform to an audience of arts club members, a largely white, rich and, on this evening, very glamorously dressed demographic. Some time before The Era were set to perform, they began to circulate, dressed in hoodies and trainers, holding brooms and sweeping around the feet of the guests. This, explains Glasspiegel, who filmed it all, was a stark response to the regularity that The Era get mistaken for service personnel within spaces like the Arts Club of Chicago. “Even on the afternoon of the performance they were mistaken for volunteers and asked to help move a few boxes around,” he tells me. Of course, once a Kelela remix was booted up on the soundsystem they segued effortlessly into their routine, brooms and all, leaving the audience squirming into their champagne. “It became this very charged moment, where a lot was in the air. A lot of difference was being recognised,” recalls Glasspiegel.
“When you’re working with somebody outside the culture, you make sure you know it’s understood what it really is to be a black person representing your own culture” – Chief Manny, The Era
But for all the ground that The Era are breaking, this isn’t solely about getting past the white cultural gatekeepers. Nor is it just about educating people outside the subculture. For The Era, this is about their community. Which is why In The Wurks is a free show at the turn-of-the-century auditorium Hamilton Park on Chicago’s south side, slap bang amid the the matrix of alleys, recs, and basketball courts that nurtured this form across the last thirty years. “It all makes sense, we feel like we’re going to be able to give a voice to all the people in our city who love footworking,” says Litebulb. What’s more, they hope that through shows like In The Wurks, a new generation will discover footwork and see its potential as a viable escape hatch from the darker, tougher realities that living on the south side brings. The way Litebulb couches this last point almost suggests a kind of duty. “We grew up battling with footworking, getting girls from footworking. Now we’re travelling footworking. Now we got a job footworking, trying to pay our bills footworking, trying to stay out of trouble footworking, avoiding getting killed with footworking. Finally we can talk about it – we’re the ones who actually got the culture passed down to us.”
After the Chicago show, they hope to take the show on the road – footwork evangelists set on repping their scene and ensuring everyone knows the full story, even as they set about writing the next chapter. In the words of Chief Manny, “When you’re working with somebody outside the culture, you make sure you know it’s understood what it really is, or how it is, to be a black dancer or a black person representing your own culture.” It’s a belief echoed by Glasspiegel. “Nothing can replace these guys telling their own stories on tracks made by people that they've grown up with. It’s the most direct line into understanding what people just saw as a blur.” Glasspiegel is talking about the dance, but he could just as easily mean the entire culture. “It’s not a blur if you just learn how to see it.”
The Era’s In The Wurkz stage performance takes place on August 27th at Chicago’s Hamilton Park