Chicago may be known as the home of deep-dish pizza, the blues, and modern architecture.
But an international dance capital? It turns out a lot of famous dances were created in the city’s clubs and on its streets. The hops, skips, twists and turns took form in just about every corner of the city.
We started digging into this part of Chicago’s cultural history after we received a question from a couple of teenagers who stopped by a Curious City outreach event at the Dunning branch of the Chicago Public Library. They didn’t give their names, but they did give us a lot to think about when they asked: What dances were invented in Chicago?
Our reporting found dozens of moves that were born in the Chicago area, from a slowed-down, Chicago-style polka to a wedding reception favorite, the “Cha-Cha Slide.”
To tell their stories, Curious City tracked down several creators and pioneers of these Chicago-area dances — many of whom were still alive and grooving. They include band members, musicians, and dancers who helped create or popularize five dances we focused on: Polka Hop, Steppin’, el Pasito Duranguense (the little step from Durango), the “Cha-Cha Slide,” and Footwork.
When and where it was invented: In the 1950s along “Polish Broadway,” or West Division Street.
Style: A slowed-down, bouncier version of the Eastern-style polka.
Origin: Chicago’s Polka Hop (some call it the polka bounce) emerged after World War II in the polka bars along Division Street, known, at the time, as “Polish Broadway.”
The dance is often associated with Chicago polka star “Li’l Wally” Jagiello, who developed a Chicago sound in the 1950s that was noticeably slower than the speedy dominant Eastern-Style of the time.
Legend has it that Jagiello slowed down his music as a way to keep patrons in polka taverns drinking and dancing longer. The slower music also allowed couples extra time between beats to throw in a little hop, which would become known as Chicago’s polka hop. Today, couples dance the polka hop from coast to coast. In Chicago, it’s often played and danced at banquet halls in the city’s southwest suburbs.
When and where it was invented: In the late ’60s to early ’70s on Chicago’s South Side.
Style: A jazzy twist on ballroom dancing named for the way couples appear to be walking, or “steppin’,” across the dance floor.
Origin: DJ Sam Chatman says Steppin’ evolved from a different Chicago dance style called “the Bop” that was popular in the ’50s and early ’60s. The Bop was a couples dance in which dancers slid and glided across the dance floor, ballroom style.
Steppin’ is an outgrowth of “the Bop” but with extra twists and turns. Chatman says accompanying music for the dance can range from R&B to country, but it needs to have a romantic theme. Steppin’ is now danced around the country at parties known as “steppers sets.” In Chicago, dancers come out for steppers sets each week at clubs like The 50 Yard Line in the South Side’s Chatham neighborhood.
When and where it was invented: In the late ’80s on the South and West sides of Chicago.
Style: A competitive dance style that features lightning-fast kicks, steps, twists and turns, often performed as part of a Footwork “battle.”
Origin: On the South Side in the 1980s, house-music dance crews, like House-O-Matic, were inspired by innovative solo dance moves coming out of the West Side, especially one called the “Holy Ghost.” The “Holy Ghost” featured jerky body movements reminiscent of worshippers who are filled with the Holy Spirit in church.
House-O-Matic created their own version of the dance by adding side-to-side movements. In the 1990s, RP Boo developed music that accompanies Footwork battles. The dance style became popular outside of Chicago after it was featured in Dude ’n Nem’s 2007 music video for “Watch My Feet.”
El Pasito Duranguense (“the little step from Durango”)
When and where it was invented: In the late ’90s in west suburban Aurora.
Style: A faster version of a bouncy, polka-like Norteño couples dance with added hip and stomping movements.
Origin: El Pasito Duranguense, which means “the little step from Durango,” became popular in the 90’s, as a new style of music called Duranguense was also developing in the Chicago area. Duranguense style music blends accordion-based Northern Mexican sounds with military band horns and synthesizers.
The music is called Duranguense because most of its original Chicago-area creators hailed from the Northern Mexican state of Durango — including the guys in its founding band, Grupo Montez de Durango. Montez leader Jose Luis Terrazas says the dance evolved out of the hip-grinding merengue moves his Caribbean fans added to polka-like Norteño steps. Fans would do the new dance during concerts and eventually, it stuck. In the early 2000s, the music and dance became a sensation in Mexico, Central and South America, creating a fanbase of millions.
When and where it was invented: In the late ’90s in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood.
Style: A line dance in which dancers follow directions in the song, also called “The Cha-Cha Slide,” which instructs them to step, slide, stomp, cross their legs, and do a little cha cha.
Origin: DJ Casper (aka Willie Perry Jr.) says he originally wrote “The Cha-Cha Slide” as a step aerobics routine for his nephew, who worked as a personal trainer at Bally’s Total Fitness. He said he quickly received requests to perform the song at local parties and dance clubs.
In 2000, the track was picked up by Chicago’s WGCI-FM radio station and eventually Universal Records. It has become an international sensation that fills dance floors at celebrations — from bar mitzvahs to weddings — across the world.
Monica Eng is a WBEZ reporter. Write to her at email@example.com
Katherine Nagasawa is the multimedia producer for Curious City. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org