Chicago Footwork: Subversive Movement and the Right to the City

In an interview for Red Bull Music Academy in 2011, DJ Rashad, one of the most prominent music producers in the South Side of Chicago’s footwork scene, responded to the question of where the term “footwork” came from by saying, “we don’t know…the people came up with it.” By “the people”, he means the black South Side citizens who first latched on to this experimental and remarkably fast deviation of house music that operated as a foundation for a new political subjectivity to form. Playing at anywhere between 145 to 160 beats per minute, footwork is defined by its sample-based form, usually drawing influences and clips from early techno, jazz, soul, and house music, and its pulsating rhythms created through samplers and drum machines, morphing traditional four to the floor dance music into an entirely new visceral sensation. Footwork dancing, which goes in tandem with the music itself, works to articulate this culture in the public sphere. This form, which draws from the past through the use of samples and re-articulates them with wild beats and dance moves, shows a profound appreciation for black culture as a specific “urban” experience and a strong understanding of the power that music has to influence or create a new rhythm of the city. Chicago footwork, then, works to politicize the black body through aggressive and unique music and dance, which aids in the process of claiming a “Right to the City” for a historically marginalized group in a spatially segregated urban space.

The question that is often posed in interviews for many of the original footwork producers such as aforementioned DJ Rashad, DJ Spinn, or Traxman is: which came first, the music or the dancing? Though skeptical, they claim that it was the music that drove the desire to express the body through this specific kind of dance. Because of its power to move bodies, music—particularly dance music—holds a strong productive and retrospective value. As Henri Lefebvre says, “Art brings to the realization of urban society its long meditation on life as drama and pleasure” (157). These two forces (drama and pleasure) play a key role in producing footwork music by drawing on the past to make new sounds and rhythms which can both shock and mobilize its listeners. Footwork creates an ambiguous urban space where drama is created in the rupturing of previous dance music norms and pleasure in the movements it allows.

Within the context of the urban space of Chicago, a city divided and often policed by the color of one’s skin, footwork seeks to create alternative spaces where black bodies can move freely. Michel Certeau brings to light that, “The ordinary practitioners of the city live ‘down below,’ below the thresholds at which visibility begins” (93). Visibility plays a central and complicated role in the process by which footwork establishes a presence in certain spaces. At once there is a need to be invisible from structural oppressors, such as the police, that restrict the ways people can consume and participate in music and dance. Driven to clubs and other enclosed areas throughout the South Side footworkers seek spaces where footwork becomes the only code that people live by. At the same time, however, there is a critical need to be visible, to show off the dance moves you have practiced at home, to be a member of the crew that outperforms other groups in dance competitions in order to justify one’s presence. This complex purgatory allows power structures to challenge this culture by making its existence specific to certain places. In her article on bodies in the city, Elizabeth Grosz highlights that social rules and expectations manifested in the constructed environment of the city project themselves onto bodies, “to ensure social conformity, or position social marginality at a safe or insulated and bounded distance” (250). It raises the question: how can new genres of music and movement reshape urban environments? In the popularization of this form of music and dance within the city and more recently around the world we see the potential music has to break down these boundaries, and showcase this movement to a larger audience.

With this in mind, I will now draw on Certeau’s thoughts on walking in the city to highlight the importance of dance as a productive and subversive act. In “Spatial Practices,” Certeau discusses the role that intertwining walked paths—as a collective act of the many people who move in urban space—have in giving shape to spaces and in weaving particular places together (97). Walking allows the city to gain a meaning through the enunciation of particular structures in the built environment of the city, like popular meeting places, parks, or clubs, all of which are controlled to a certain extent. When navigating a city, though, we participate in a continual experience of the physicality of the place, a force which has been created by the structures of power that were able to design and plan the space and thus can dictate where individuals are able to go. While still individual in action, walking necessitates a participation in this structure and thus it becomes the limbo between a clear starting place and ending place. But, if “to walk is to lack a place” (103), then what does it mean to dance, and specifically to dance footwork in the South Side of Chicago? Dance is defined by its extensive movement within a specific locale, and its relation between calculation and improvisation. It chooses to fix itself in a single place and inscribe it with a new meaning and rhythm. Footwork allows the individual and the collective participants to claim a place through the hyper exertion of the body to a rhythm that is defined by this subversive culture. Through footwork, dancers and music producers can walk one hundred miles on their own terms in a space where power runs through them.

This brings us to the question of how this movement works to claim the “Right to the City,” which David Harvey defines as the right to change ourselves by changing the city. In the context of a history of segregation and division within the whole of Chicago along with a distinct lack of access to the resources and opportunities presented to the neighborhoods to the north, people of color on the South Side have not been able to participate in “urban” life to the extent they should be able to. When regimes of power continually mobilize structures against them, it becomes exceedingly challenging to change the city in a productive way. The method that people can do this is through the promotion of a specifically black subculture that works against dominant forms of power that seek to silence them.  As shown previously, footwork is a spatialized deviation from common forms of dance music that are prone to appropriation, and therefore has the power to reclaim a right to the city.  But even then, in the face of such daunting opposition, footwork faces a remarkable task in defeating “dominant strategies and ideologies” (Lefebvre, 154).  What it can do though is identify the “voids between structures and subsystems,” which, “contain floating elements of the possible,” in order to question and challenge these systems (ibid., 156). In these voids, footwork can produce a subjectivity opposite of dominant cultural forms that can begin to reshape it with black movement in mind.

While this culture does offer black people of the South Side an opportunity to claim a Right to the City, it is important to note that the spaces in which it operates can be hyper masculine ones.  Most prominent footwork and juke DJs along with the crews that dance against each other tend to be men. It highlights the “phallocentrism” present in the city, which reproduces itself in city space, including alternative and subversive spaces (Grosz).  With masculinity defining what footwork is, it becomes even more challenging for non-male bodies to claim their place in this movement and their “right to the city”. In the same interview cited at the beginning of this essay, though, DJ Rashad and DJ Spinn highlight the increasing presence of women in both music production and dance citing new artists such as Nightwave. But even with the rise of a female presence here, a greater acceptance and appreciation of the nuances non-masculine people can bring to footwork is necessary to make strides towards a broader “right to the city”.

Through the development of alternative music and dance, footwork has begun a process through which black bodies in the South Side of Chicago are working to gain their “right to the city”. These new rhythms, drawing on a love of previous forms of black music and making a new entity from them, have the power to reorient the city as a whole. By embracing and inhabiting its marginality, footwork has been able to self-stylize in the face of structures that try to silence and homogenize. In this self-stylization, we experience a political act: the reclamation of an urban space, one which has represented division and racism but can now be mobilized to create new histories.



Certeau, Michel de. “Chapter VII: Walking in the City.” The Practice of Everyday Life. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California, 1984.

Grosz, Elizabeth. “Bodies-Cities,” Space, Time, and Pervasion. Feminist Review, 1996.

Harvey, David. “The Right to the City: From Capital Surplus to Accumulation by Dispossession.” Accumulation by Dispossession: Transformative Cities in the New Global Order (n.d.): 17-32. Web.

Lefebvre, Henri, Eleonore Kofman, and Elizabeth Lebas. “Right to the City.” Writings on Cities. Cambridge, Mass, USA: Blackwell, 1996. 147-59. Print.