ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
In Chicago, footwork isn't just fancy, it's the name of a dance style and a genre of electronic music. Since the mid-'90s, footwork has been livening up Chicago parties and late-night public access television. And thanks in part to YouTube, the style's influence has begun to spread across the country and to Europe.
Wills Glasspiegel went to Chicago to check out the scene.
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WILLS GLASSPIEGEL: Footwork dancers can move their feet at over 300 beats per minute. That's more than five steps in a single second.
Mr. MORRIS HARPER: You just moving your body to describe a little story to the beat.
GLASSPIEGEL: That's Morris Harper, known as DJ Spinn. His tracks like this Nina Simone remix inspire footwork dancing in Chicago. Some of the moves look futuristic, like fight scenes in "The Matrix" or "Blade Runner."
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GLASSPIEGEL: But others are classic and can be traced back to disco, jazz and the jitterbug. Dancers call their steps dribbles, skates, bangs, and the ghost, which is a move where hand movements mirror foot movements as if by a thread.
The organizing principal behind footwork is the circle. Dancers circle-up, and the space between their bodies becomes a battleground for competitive dancing. When a song shifts, and especially when a new bass-line drops, a new dancer will enter the circle like a boxer enters the ring.
Unidentified Man #1: Open up the circle (Unintelligible).
GLASSPIEGEL: A club called The Underground Track Factory is a hotbed for footwork on Chicago's South Side. The club is actually an abandoned kindergarten where parties happen every Sunday.
When I arrived, the linoleum floor was packed, the bass was loud, it smelled like sweat and weed smoke. Footworkers practiced in front of mirrored walls.
AG Green has been dancing Footwork since the mid-'90s. He's what's known as Footwork CEO. He's like a sports coach for dancers in rough Chicago neighborhoods.
Mr. AG GREEN: We from West Side, projects, from real dangerous 'hoods. But I guarantee everybody in those neighborhoods respect us because we choose not to be out there gangbanging.
GLASSPIEGEL: AG manages two different groups of teenage footworkers: Terror Squad and Leaders of the New School. They compete for crowd approval and cash prizes.
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GLASSPIEGEL: Dancers at The Underground Track Factory often graduate to become DJs. This cycle, from dancing to DJing, is how footwork was born and how it grows.
I spoke with the originator of footwork, producer RP Boo, under the el tracks in downtown Chicago.
Mr. RP BOO: What I did, I actually watched the dancers, and I took what I do as a dancer and imagined myself on the floor listening to certain sounds.
GLASSPIEGEL: In the mid-'90s, Boo observed a momentum shift from paired male-female dancing to solo male competitive dancing. From that new dance, he teased out a new kind of music: footwork.
Mr. BOO: It could be something frightening, something scary, something spooky, basically anything that will put you in battle mode because that's what it is. It's a battle.
GLASSPIEGEL: So-called battletracks enhance the competitive and combative nature of dancing in Chicago.
Mr. BOO: If you've got two people on the same floor, but they're battling each other, that's what makes it stronger. That what makes my tracks get better because I feed off of them, as well as they feed from me.
GLASSPIEGEL: So as an artist, you're fueled by creativity, but you're also fueled by competition?
Mr. BOO: Yes. It's a competitive sport.
GLASSPIEGEL: Today, footworkers take their competition to new levels. Recently, they battled krunk Dancers in L.A., and with the Jit dancers in Detroit. Footwork DJs are playing Brooklyn and touring Europe.
This music and culture has gone global, but at home in Chicago, they're still moving at five steps a second.
For NPR News, this is Wills Glasspiegel.
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