Chicago's Footwork Music And Dance Get A Transatlantic Lift

In small corners of the globe, dancers are putting the pedal to the floor. In L.A. there's krumping. In Detroit, jit. In the South African town of Soweto, shangaan. All these types of dancing have one thing in common: you gotta be quick — split second micro-moves can decide the fate of a performance.

Watch a video of Chicago footwork producers, DJs and dancers talking about their scene and the music they make -- and dancing.

In Chicago, a city known for its impact on modern dance music, a style called footwork is picking up steam. With two compilations of footwork tracks being released, we spoke to the people making the music, pushing the dance style forward and spreading the word about their homegrown scene.

As a dance, footwork is a blindingly fast-paced movement of the feet in which dancers string together combinations of twists and turns with seamless transitions. Like krumping or jit, footworkers use these combinations to battle each other, competing in the middle of a circle of dancers for money or street cred.

The music that footworkers dance to developed out of a similar style of dance music called juke in the mid '90s.┬áJuke music has an extremely fast tempo, around 160 beats per minute, but it features bass kicks, claps, high hats and samples in very short increments. In footwork, the beats per minute are the same, but the bass drum is used more sparingly. Also absent is┬ámuch of the percussion and vocals that clutter juke's beats, leaving behind a half tempo that allows dancers more room to express themselves. The tracks — repetitive and hypnotic — often have a grungy, lo-fi aesthetic.

Nearly every DJ we spoke to credits R.P. Boo as footwork's inventor. Boo came up in the juke scene as a dancer and producer, and says he spaced out the music's beats as he noticed dancers responding. He says that the dancing still drives the direction of the music.

"The more I see these dancers out here doin' these things, the more I feed off of them, and my music gets better," Boo says.

Like Boo, footwork producers almost always begin their careers as dancers, graduating to DJs that spin other people's records at parties, and eventually producing their own footwork tracks. The fate of these productions lies in the hands of the next batch of dancers. A track that receives a weak reaction will have a short lifespan.

"It's the dance that applies the evolutionary pressure," says Nate Boylan, a high school science teacher and producer. And where dance drives innovation in the music, competition drives innovation in dance.

"It's a competitive sport." says Boo.

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