Just like Black Chicago’s influence on local and international culture, its native dance footworking is here to stay. This weekend, footwork crew The Era will prove that with its first Youth Footwork Festival.

The three-hour event is free for all ages and will feature the range of art and cultural expression that encompasses the world of footworking. There will workshops teaching media production and fashion design, along with “footwork stations” where youth can take turns learning the artform from one another.

Door open at 5:30 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 4 at 4116 N. Hamlin Ave., an art studio in the Irving Park neighborhood. The first two hours of the event will be youth rotating freely between footwork stations and workshops. The final hour will include a team footwork battle and youth performance curated and choreographed by The Era in partnership with Open The Circle, a nonprofit focused on community organizing and racial justice through the arts.

Flyer for the Footwork Youth Festival
Flyer for the Footwork Youth Festival

Jamal “Litebulb” Oliver is co-executive director of Open The Circle and co-founder of The Era. The TRiiBE spoke with him about the festival and the importance of finding creative ways to encourage the youth.

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity).

The TRiiBE: Walk me through what the Footwork Youth Festival is?

Jamal “Litebulb” Oliver: We was fortunate enough to win a grant from Arts Work Fund earlier this year for about $25,000. And we were supposed to create a new piece for it. And we were, like, man it’s gonna take a lot to create a brand new piece, because In the Wurkz was such a large production. So it was like, You know what, let’s find a way to reinvest into the kids.

The initial grant was to create some choreography with some youth involved. We were, like, well, let’s just take ourselves out of it completely and just create an event with kids. Let’s add a battle component. And then Manny [of The Era] was, like, ‘ah, why don’t we just make it a festival, we can media and we can add fashion with Steelo [of The Era].’ I was like that could possibly work.

So I had some conversations with my team, Wills [Glasspiegel] and everybody over at Open Circle. And they became more of a presenting partner so that we could cipher the funds through them. Now it is a full fledged festival with us creating new choreography with the kids to present a piece at this event.

We had tryouts for this. It was an opportunity to pay the kids. They’re all being paid like official artists to be a part of this show. We’re just teaching them choreography and whatnot.

We found a space and started practicing with them. We found about eight kids — 90% of them are girls. Two of them are young guys. We found a way to include Manny’s media component by finding kids who are interested in media. They have been learning about media over the last two months since we started rehearsals. Pretty much recording every practice. Shooting all the different background footage and all the different interviews with each other; pieces we’ll be using in the show. We also have a group of kids who are learning fashion for Steelo and there will be a booth at the festival where kids will be printing t-shirts and talking about that experience of how they got into fashion and footwork.

Is the Footwork Youth Festival open to the public? Can other kids join?

Litebulb: Yes. The festival is completely open to the public. It’s free.

For the kids who attend the event but haven’t been working with y’all already, will they get a chance to participate in the workshops?

Litebulb: It’s for people who are part of the footwork community and friends and family. You can come and be around footwork and see what it’s like for kids to be around it and learn. Anybody can come and learn footwork from the kids here. It’s definitely open to everybody who is willing to come and learn. It’s very interactive.

A lot of us grew up around footworking; either watching or participating in the random battles that could break out anytime in the hood, at basement parties or at school. As kids, it didn’t seem like something we could make a career out of. But y’all figured that out and have been successful at showing the many opportunities footwork can bring. How important is it to teach the endless possibilities of footwork to kids?

Litebulb: For me, when I was their age, I was just battling. So to even be, like, ‘Hey, you can come and learn footwork, but you’re also being paid to perform, being paid to practice, being paid to be here all the time,’ this is gonna lead to other opportunities. There’s opportunity for you to gain some value and add it to your resume.

These kids are busy. These kids are in fifty-million dance practice. They be tagging. They’re more busy than both of us. I’m telling you. They’re doing all of those things for free for the most part. So to give them an opportunity like this, I feel like it starts the process early and  it creates a new window for kids other than pursuing sports or the typical things that we gravitate towards.

We incorporate a lot of financial literacy and we will be incorporating a lot more financial economics into footwork because these same modalities can be used in other industries that lack the resources or, when they do get resources, they don’t even know what to do with them.

Black people, and especially Black kids in the hood, always set the tone for what culture is and what culture is going to be. But then we see it get appropriated and turned into some en vogue, high fashion stuff. And then when we try to make money off of it ourselves, it’s too late.

Litebulb: It’s too late. I don’t want to say it’s happening within footwork while we was on the watch. I want to say that it is in footwork. People are doing that in footwork. I’d be lying if I said that they wasn’t doing it. But it’s the reason why you work with the kids in your community. I live in this neighborhood (Burnside) and some of these kids live around me. So for me to be able to provide opportunity for those kids, it’s gives them the opportunity so that we’re not even competing with each other for opportunities.

Most of these kids that we know, that aren’t Black, they don’t necessarily need to profit off of it or necessarily need to have this as their job. We know that disadvantaged kids need these opportunities more so than the ones who come from well-driven homes.

Malls have tightened up its restrictions on kids being able to hang in them without parents or guardians after a certain time. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot tightened up on curfews in the summer, adding more restrictions around when and where kids can be at a certain time. It feels like kids are taking so many hits in Chicago. It feels like kids are taking so many hits in Chicago right now, not to mention the violence we’re constantly being hit with. With the Footwork Youth Festival, how can we see more people breathe more life into kids and teenagers? How can your program show that our culture and our kids are not to be written off as violent?

Litebulb: A lot of these kids don’t have a lot of opportunities to do anything when you really think about it, other than dance a lot of the time. A lot of them don’t have a lot of money to do things. That kind of affects their behaviors a little bit, and how they act sometimes. They end up outside all day. They don’t have nothing to do; no after-school programs.

I feel like more opportunity and more education around financial literacy is really the key, even for adults, but mainly for the kids. They just don’t understand what to do with anything at this stage. They’re tech-saavy. But the opportunity to even use those skills are not there unless they just become social-media famous, and that’s toxic in itself when you think about it. It’s a double-edged sword. But I know that it’s rooted in opportunity.

The more opportunities you can provide children that are interactive and creative, and it draws them out of their normal comfort zones. There’s not a lot of spaces out here either to house community events and house things for kids. I feel like space and opportunity, and that sounds so simple and cliche. But space and opportunity for these kids, and guidance, we’re gonna win. It can steer these kids in a whole different way that we probably wouldn’t be ready for. A festival like this is providing just that.

What do you hope everybody gets out of the Footwork Youth Festival?

Litebulb: I hope they get a sense of what footwork is and how anybody can be a part of it. You don’t have to be the top footworker or the best at anything to come and enjoy this culture and be a part of it. You don’t have to know how to dance. You don’t have to know how to make music. But you can still come and enjoy the music and watch. This is a very welcoming culture. This culture was meant to be a part of other cultures. Footwork has always been in the same breath as hip hop, jazz, whatever. You can switch from a jazz song right to a footwork song, from a rap song right to a footwork song. They all one in together.

You ‘gon get that feel of what it used to be like to go to The Rink, but also what it’s like to be in this new world of footwork.

is the editor-in-chief of The TRiiBE and a 2023-2024 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow.