Dr. ShaDawn "Boobie" Battle (left) will create “Place, Space, and Werkz," a three-phase project as the National Public Housing Museum's fifth Instigator as Artist. Credit: Courtesy of ShaDawn Battle and Kameron Davis

CHICAGO — ShaDawn “Boobie” Battle first witnessed the cascading movements of Chicago Footwork in the ’90s at the Rink Fitness Factory on 87th Street. 

Battle was in grammar school at now-closed St. Dorothy’s Catholic School, 7740 S. Eberhart Ave., at the time. Her parents had just started letting her go to the Chatham skating center. 

Battle was “mesmerized and transfixed” when she saw how the dancers were “summoned by the music,” she said. Back then, Chicago Juke and Late-Ghetto House were the go-to genres played to hype the dancers, Battle said. The sped-up beats we know today came later. 

“Footwork had its own identity,” Battle said. “If you wanted to be in those performances and be the wow factor at the end, then you had to excel as a footworker.”

Several years and a doctorate later, Battle is spotlighting the transformative nature of the Chicago Footwork community as the National Public Housing Museum’s fifth Artist as Instigator.

The residency program merges art and advocacy to shape public policy and foster equity. Battle, an artist, activist and assistant professor at Xavier University, was selected from 86 applicants. 

Battle will host a free virtual public conference discussing her work 6-7:30 p.m. Monday. You can register for the event here

A still from “Footwork Saved My Life: The Evolution of Chicago Footwork,” a five-part docuseries by Dr. ShaDawn Battle. Credit: Courtesy of ShaDawn Battle and Kameron Davis

Battle will use the year-long residency at the museum to create Place, Space, and Werkz, a three-phase project involving educational workshops, site visits, archival records from the museum and creative expression to examine the Chicago Footwork dance community as it relates to social inequities and oppressive systems. 

The project will culminate in a showcase of 15 young people using a combination of footwork and spoken word poetry to illustrate the narratives they’ve unfolded, Battle said. 

Battle will receive a $10,000 honorarium and a $10,000 project budget to create Place, Space, and Werkz. She’ll begin the project in early 2024, she said.

The National Public Housing Museum received a $1 million grant from the Mellon Foundation earlier this year to fund the Artist as Instigator program, said Tiff Beatty, associate director at the museum. The funding will also go toward one of the historical apartment exhibitions at the museum.

The city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events City Arts Grant and Illinois Arts Council Agency also support the residency. 

“We are a history museum and, also, in many ways, an art museum,” Beatty said. “One of those things that connects us to history and the art being made today is our participation and inclusion in an international network of sites of conscience. As a site of conscience, we believe in the power of place and memory, and we also believe that the only way to solve issues today is to look back in history and ask ourselves what we have not yet learned.

“Art is great at that work, and the Artists as Instigator residency in particular takes that approach.”

A still from “Footwork Saved My Life: The Evolution of Chicago Footwork.” Credit: Courtesy of ShaDawn Battle and Kameron Davis

Place, Space, and Werkz is a continuation of Battle’s work to connect Chicago Footwork to the history of public housing, creative expression born out of disparities and the injustices plaguing Black and Brown communities, she said. 

Battle is directing and producing the five-part docuseries “Footwork Saved My Life: The Evolution of Chicago Footwork,” which analyzes the dance from its origin in 1985 on the West Side to now. She collected nearly 200 interviews for the series. 

“The reason I was drawn to the National Public Housing Museum and this residency is because it fosters an opportunity for me to continue this collaborative work,” Battle said. “I want my work to always be tethered to the material realities of culture and the city I come from.” 

YouTube video

‘I Never Lost Sight Of Chicago Footwork’

Growing up in Chatham, Battle spent “every waking day” of her life at Nat King Cole Park, she said. Every weekend, she’d go down to The Rink on 87th Street. 

Battle had grown up attending Catholic school and coming home to a block with manicured lawns, but that didn’t stop her from noting the way Chatham changed “when you crossed over at 79th Street,” she said. Gang culture still infiltrated her school. 

But at The Rink, the harm and the pain faded away, Battle said. 

“One of the things I quickly learned was that Chicago Footwork had this potential to neutralize gang ties,” Battle said. “It’s hard for Black youth in Chicago to transcend that culture, but Chicago Footwork was an important catalyst for keeping a lot of youth on the right path.”

Battle spent her summers preparing for and performing as a dancer at the Bud Billiken Parade, she said. She danced under the August sun on smoldering concrete with groups like K59, Final Phaze and CMD Dance Crew. 

“Chicago dance group styles in the ‘90s were hip-hop styles that were hyperlocalized,” Battle said. “You did some other dances, like the Hammer, but most were focused and endemic to Chicago’s dance style.”

By Battle’s sophomore year of college at Central State University, her mother told her it was time to dance her last parade and start searching for a summer job, she said. 

It would take 10 years before Battle found her way back to dance while she concentrated on a burgeoning career in academia, but “I never lost sight of Chicago Footwork,” she said.

A still from “Footwork Saved My Life: The Evolution of Chicago Footwork,” a five-part docuseries by Dr. ShaDawn Battle. Credit: Courtesy of ShaDawn Battle and Kameron Davis

The ‘Language of Resistance’

Place, Space, and Werkz is part of Battle’s effort to connect Chicago Footwork with her social justice work.

The speedy dance “is a language of the body and a vernacular language of resistance,” Battle said.

A still from “Footwork Saved My Life: The Evolution of Chicago Footwork,” a five-part docuseries by Dr. ShaDawn Battle. Credit: Courtesy of ShaDawn Battle and Kameron Davis

Battle will select 15 young people from Chicago’s Footwork culture to participate in Place, Space, and Werkz. They’ll participate in workshops discussing racist constructs like land sale contracts, explored in former Artist as Instigator Tonika Johnson’s Inequity For Sale project

They’ll go to spaces like the Altgeld Gardens public housing project, built inside a “toxic doughnut” of pollution, and create art to express how it feels to exist in those spaces. 

They’ll end the project with a Chicago Footwork performance in front of neighbors and, hopefully, policymakers who will view their art and feel inspired to incite change, Battle said. 

“This three-phase project will use Chicago Footwork to investigate Chicago’s history with inequitable housing policies and how we need to continue to think more critically about the dispossession and the violation of place and space,” Battle said.

“Footwork becomes the medium through which we can have these conversations and, hopefully, the outcome is transformative.” 

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Atavia Reed is a reporter for Block Club Chicago, covering the Englewood, Auburn Gresham and Chatham neighborhoods. Twitter @ataviawrotethis