Chicago Footwork: Dance Enhances Music Enhances Dance

I’m more of a Linus when I dance. Self-conscious, introspective, eyes closed and probably pointed at the ground, what have you. Yet my awkward movements have not yet deterred me from seeking great dance music. Whether I may just put it on during a bike ride or while writing, I know I’m listening to a great track when I can imagine great movement. Whereas my definition of Great Dance Music may have been D’n’B and Jungle a few years ago, my tastes have gradually moved over to the small but vigorous world of Footwork, a type of music and dance filled with primordial experimentalism, semantic satiations, and a plain fun-to-watch dance technique behind (or more physically in front of) it all.

GIF of Stepz the Incredible

GIF of Stepz the Incredible

Brief Notes on the Music of Footwork

Hazel Sheffield made a brief description of footwork in 2010:

The trend, known as footwork, refers to a style of music and dance that’s been gathering pace in Chicago since the late 90s. The music stems from juke, a speedy but strict evolution of Chicago’s four-on-the-floor ghetto house style. Footwork, though, is more experimental than juke. The chief difference is in its warped basslines, which buzz beneath frenetic synth toms and rapid-fire vocal samples. It sounds dark and messy, like the brooding urban soundtrack of Burial reimagined for a city with faster, meaner streets.

To expand off of the excerpt, the basslines are the real muscle of Footwork’s identity and provides much of the genre’s experimental sounds. There is no way to “traditionally” dance to Footwork, as it shares similar beat signatures as D’n’B, a chaotic BEA-BEA BEAT or variations that feel like a miracle that it actually fits into a 2/4 time signature (check out Feelin (feat. Spinn & Taso) by DJ Rashad), and a blistering 155-170 BPM (how does one easily dance to Boylan’s High Lite??) (and I’m still very much a casual in both the science of Footwork or music in general, take these measurements with a grain of salt).

And the rapid-fire vocals, one of the coolest idiosyncrasies of Footwork that has psychological implications of beating a phrase or two in your head so much that you might hallucinate God’s commandments in tracks like “Wear Her Pussy Out” (DJ Rashad & DJ Earl). There is a strongly loving disregard for the human language in Footwork, where crass phrases are somehow elevated by bass and tom into emotional revelations. I’m flying with the smallest utterances and the funniest phrases (He Ain’t Bout It by DJ Nate sounds like “email shit” after the thousandth repetition).

It’s funny that the above article mentions Burial, who was my Trojan Horse for getting into dance music in the oddest way possible. I enjoyed a description by the artist himself, that Burial sought to capture the feeling of that 4 am exit from the nightclub: the music is still thumping inside but you’re tired and cold and are prepared to walk by a dozen of dirty alleyways and through the desolate industrial landscape of your city. I don’t find Footwork to embody that Sisyphian depressing/happiness dichotomy, but there is a transcendental energy to it that a more traditional house “four-on-the-floor” track can’t and will never find.

One more recommendation: All I Do is (Smoke Trees) by DJ Manny.

Planet Mu (from Mu-Zik) is the premiere album to check out Footwork.

Planet Mu (from Mu-Zik) is the premiere label to check out Footwork.

Brief Notes on the Dance of Footwork

RP Boo stated in an interview with NPR that most footwork producers start on their paths with dancing. As we might have read (and heard) from the music, I can’t imagine trying to solve the chicken and the egg problem of footwork. How did anyone concoct a dance that could work with this music? How did anyone produce the tracks to fit the dance?

Here’s a little homework I want to assign when recommending these videos:

When watching this Walacam video, check out the attire and the general DIY-nature of the video. These are skilled amateurs. Passionate amateurs. Even fighting through times when the music would just stop on them and potentially throw off their movements. But they succeed regardless. Amateurs nonetheless. Notice that preparation requires circling around the group — this also establishes ground control in case someone else tries jumping in there accidentally. Now I would say that lateral movements during dancing tend to occur with lack of technical skills, that their momentums are controlling where they move.

Five years later, Walacam has become a production: the lighting dramatic, the steadicam, even an actual digital video camera. “Da Warzone” has become a banner on the wall. The attire is tighter, more in line with the tighter movements. Technical skill is still about mid-level but highly improved from the participants in the first video. Is this how much the Footwork dance scene has grown over the years? I am excited to see where Walacam and co. are in five years time.

Like a shot of pure enjoyment in the arm, check out this more select group (King Detro, Apple, and Mikey seem to be Wala regulars), mostly for Stepz the Incredible, who is able to coordinate arms and legs in geometric and greatly satisfying ways. The leg and foot movements are unfathomable from a spectator’s standpoint; this is why I am more enthralled by this type of dancing than others, no matter how difficult styles like ballet or classical really are. The body is moving in fantastical contortions, an otherworldy escapism in the body’s accomplishments.

Finally, I want to reiterate how the music of the Footwork scene feels hugely conducive to physical movement: even lying in bed reading, my brain is compelled to picture images of dance and vaguely silhouetted significations of activity.Only piano concertos can so beautifully cover outdoor physical acts like biking or running. But then I can watch these videos of the dance and my imaginations are realized. Unless I put the huge amount of time into it, I could never act as otherworldly as Apple, King Detro, or Stepz. They are arbiters of Footwork’s artistry, a music and dance so intertwined that they almost feel completely naked without the other.


Some links to check out for more info on the artists (sonic and physical)

Video: How To Do Chicago Footwork (names of certain moves)


NPR on RP Boo and Footwork

Vice Documentary on Chicago Footwork

Some screenshots I got that I liked:

GIF Meechie.gif

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