How Chicago's Female Footworkers Are Navigating the Male Dominated Scene

By S. Nicole Lane

Artwork by Jenn Solo

Artwork by Jenn Solo

The music and the dance of Footwork is dizzying. The wired energy, at 160 bpm, mirrors the frenzied dance style that first appeared in the ‘80s and ‘90s in the South and West sides of Chicago. Known for their underground battles, only a few can keep up. The hypnotic steps are untraceable, masculine in presence, as their feet blur beneath them with a circle of dancers waiting their turn to hit the floor. Dancers enter and exit while keeping up to frantic up-tempo beats created by Chicago artists like RP Boo, Traxman, and producers from Teklife.

Footwork music stems from booty house in the 1990s and has catapulted across the ocean, thanks to the internet and YouTube. Japan, Poland, and the U.K all have vibrant footwork scenes, but its heart still lies, and flutters, in Chicago. Traditional house music, whose beginnings were in Chicago, moved farther to the north side to high-end clubs. Artists like DJ Deeon began creating “ghetto house” or “booty house” where they sped up tempos and sprinkled in raw vocal cuts. From booty house, artists were interested in creating music that did more than provide dance music for the club. Spastic synths, and drum machine patterns spun out in the late 90s creating the era of Footwork in the black community.  Afropop worldwide described the beats as a “pulsating noise that would make John Cage proud,” — where the dance steps would thrill a Merce Cunningham. The groundwork was built.

Erking and jerking, dribbling, 2-stepping, and a quick flurry of movement encapsulates the lighting speed of footwork. The father of Footwork, RP Boo told Pitchfork, “I took what I did as a dancer and turned it into a style of music.” Similar to styles of breakdancing, footwork battles are limited to — as you can imagine due to its namesake — the feet. This is what makes the movement so mesmerizing. Static torsos met with a burst and blur of heels, toes, and swivels manifest in this dance of speed. Dramatic and inclined, the battles are intense. The collaborative efforts of the dancers, the crowd, and the sound is electrifying.

Performed in a circle, the battles have one commonality — they are intrinsically male-dominated. Defying gravity and propelling onto the dance floor, footwork battles and music are mostly masculine and are, clearly, a boys club.

When footwork dance or music are discussed, females are rarely, if ever, mentioned. Their presence is an enigma, yet when they are present, they can’t be ignored.

Ten Toes Turbo, a Veracruz label, released the first compilation of female footwork producers — Volume 1 in 2015 and Volume 2 in 2016. However, female Chicago artists were largely absent on the release. Regardless, women are persisting and navigating the masculine scene with vigor and confidence.

Lil’ Bit ( nee’ Donnetta Jackson), 27 has been dancing since she was seven years old. First and foremost, she is a tap dancer turned Chicago footworker in 2009. She is a part of the Creation/Creation Global crew based in Chicago with chapters all over the world in LA, Japan, Arizona, and Atlanta. Her roots are based on the South-side of the city.

“I think the importance of women in the community is to show women can get down too. You have some women that are better than some guys. There's little girls looking up to us that want to do the same thing and how can they if we don’t,” says Donnetta.

Another female footworker, 24 year old Diamond Hardiman began dancing at the age of 10 and footworking at 12. She says, “I feel like people get more excited seeing a female footwork because it’s so male dominated.” She continues, “I feel the importance of women in footwork and our own space in the footwork community is very important because we bring the balance and the sassiness.”

Diamond, like Donnetta, is a part of a crew but she says, “I don’t call it a crew, I feel like it’s more of a family.”

The late DJ Rashad and DJ Manny — known as one of the best footwork dancers in the city — produced the track, “R House” from the Ghettoteknitianz EP in 2011. “This is our house,” a sample from Chuck Robert’s “My House” aggressively repeats with Anita Baker’s soft voice in the background. The track represents a testament to the legendary sound and dance style of Chicago footwork.

By conflating two homes and making it “our” house”. women are paving the path for future dancers and producers to take their jab at footwork. Donetta advises that young women, and young dancers in general, “Let the mind and body work together.” She acknowledges footwork's transcendence beyond Chicago. She says, “It’s been on television shows, music videos, movies. I can only see it going up from there.” What still is very heavily dominated by men is being celebrated by all identities overseas. Donnetta seems to see hope in being a part of a boys club, however. She tells me, “Women battle just like the guys do. One on ones and even group battles if you’re in a group. Guys show no mercy to the women especially if you’re just as good.” The legacy of music producers and all-girl dance troupes are propelling women into the forefront with a galvanized flux and flow.

On the streets, in the basement, or in the club, Footwork is alive and well.

S. Nicole Lane is a visual artist and writer based in the South Side of Chicago. Her work can be found on Playboy, HelloFlo, Rewire, SELF, and other corners of the internet, where she discusses sexual health, wellness, the LGBTQ voice, and the arts. Follow her on Twitter.