It doesn’t really look anything like a typical dance club. For starters, the lights are on, blazing. They serve zero, zip, when it comes to beverages. And it only happens on Sunday nights.
But Battle Groundz, on 87th just east of Stony Island in Chatham, isn’t a very typical place. This is where a good bunch of Chicago’s hardcore footwoorkers -- from the South Side, the West Side, the suburbs, even a few stragglers from the North Side -- come to practice, compete, and hang out.
“I think of footworking as hyper tap dancing,” explains Maurice Fulson, 31, who started Battle Groundz two years ago in the empty front room of an insurance office, in a space donated by a sympathetic friend. Since he first opened, the floor tiles have been nearly worn through from all the sliding, jumping, skimming, popping, tapping and slamming involved.
“There are different types of spins, combos and crossovers,” says Fulson, a father of five who makes a full-time living from coaching and teaching footworking. He still performs with Final Phase, one of the performing crews he helped create.
“It’s all about the feet, everything’s done with the feet,” he says.
And sure enough, on any given Sunday, young men – there are young women, but they’re few – gather in circles and lines here to impress each other with their moves. The feet are loco – twisting, turning, kicking, and the upper body comes in mostly for equilibrium and design.
And though Fulson may describe it as close to tap dancing, the social culture seems to resemble break dancing more: crews and competition, taunting, plenty of stylized aggression and physicality, and a system of honor and prestige. Face offs and battles take place anywhere: in clubs like Battle Groundz but also in people’s homes and basements, on the streets, in abandoned buildings, in highly regulated staged performances, in theaters and schools.
“What I like about is the creativity,” says Aaron Ag Neal, 25, one of the founders of Terra Squad, one of Chicago’s premier crews. “But I’m a competitive person, so I like the aggression too, the passion it takes to do it. I want to be dominant, I want to be the best.”
The competition is crew on crew or any number of crew members against the same number from another crew, resulting in some fierce one-on-one and two-on-two battles. It’s a total in-your-face experience, with dancers frequently crossing the space in the middle or across lines to push off opposing crew members, mocking and making faces, gestures and generally affecting defiant and daring poses. Winners are determined by the crowd’s reactions.
And though it gets pretty intense sometimes, what really seems to piss off footwookers is when someone enters the circle early, interrupting another’s routine. The craft is held in the highest regard here; interruption of the creative flow is a mortal sin. Yelling and pushing will no doubt ensue until the offender folds back and lets the injured party recover, continue, and maybe even stretch his routine out a bit.
These, says Fulson, are the progeny of Ed Brown and Maurice Arnold, the Chicago South Siders usually given credit for developing footworking back in the late 80s.
“Ed was doing it in his basement, you know,” says Fulson, “and then they started doing it in Jackson Park. People saw it and understood it, and that’s how it started.”
The idea, for Fulson, was to create a place to keep kids off the streets, give them a place to safely express themselves. Drinking and smoking are banned (though some goes on outside, on 87th Street), the $5 cover is a mere formality.
“They’re all sweet kids here,” Fulson says of his crowds. And they are, in fact, exceedingly polite, friendly and warm. They know each other and hug on sight, greet each other with chest bumps and quick hand grips. They range in age from mid-twenties to toddlers – siblings or offspring.
"We're passing it on to a new generation too," he says.