It’s Friday afternoon on Union Square, NYC. There’s a guy in a gold crown holding a crappy handmade sign inked with the legend ‘Butt Man’. He makes half-hearted attempts to engage with the tourists and with the school kids zigzagging around with their backpacks but it’s no use. Something much more interesting is happening on the concrete flat that divides the street from the tree-dappled heart of the park: two dozen dancers have magnetically appeared, drawn by the power of a new Kid The Wiz joint barking out of some speakers and the impromptu Litefeet cypher that’s popping off.
Litefeet is a dance that was born in Harlem and the Bronx in the mid 2000s and is part of a family tree that includes the real Harlem Shake, the Chicken Noodle Soup and popping. Over the last few years it has been adopted and adapted city-wide, and there are Litefeet outposts in Conneticut, Virginia and Florida. It’s spread internationally, to London and to Tokyo where the XYZ Boys run battles and shows under the slightly mangled tagline: ‘Since 2010, Litefeet 4 ever!!’
I’ve come down because of a conversation I had at the screening of rare hip hop documentaries at the Sunshine Cinema. One of the films was Dian Martel’s awesome ‘Wreckin’ Shop Live From Brooklyn’, which shone a light on hip hop and house dancers including MOPTOP and Misfits, whose freestyle moves added extra swagger and verve to ’90s hip hop. Where’s that swagger and verve now, I asked panel member and MOPTOP founder Buddha Stretch. “Litefeet,” he said, suggesting I might find dancers riding the D train, or perhaps on Union Square after school. The former sounded a little unlikely– this Londoner reckons MTA subway experiences come to you, not the other way round – so I headed up to Union Square mid-afternoon on a sunny May Friday.
And there they were, hanging out on the southerly edge. The first five dancers I randomly collar all turn out to be YouTube fairly-famous. There’s Boy Aero, 18, from Brooklyn, Sha Smoove, 19, from Far Rockaway, Queens, 17 year old Lady Slic, 18 year old Sonic from The Bronx, and 19 year old WAFFLE crew founder Goofy (it stands for We Are Family For Life Entertainment). They all have water-tight rep online, particularly the latter, who also appears in mini doc ’Getting Lite Under New York City’ and who just performed the original Harlem Shake at MoMa. “There might only be five or six crews,” says Goofy, “but there are hundreds of dancers. And there’s a lot of history behind us.”
Naturally, there’s bespoke music. Ruling producer Kid The Wiz makes ultra-raw tracks designed to provide sonic architecture for litefeet moves. Tracks like ‘Dark Gospel’ share a drilled down tuffness with grime or ghetto house whilst ‘Beverages Are Needed’ speaks to the comic side of Lite. “We have our own producers,” says Sha Smoove. “Adele, she got ‘Set Fire To The Rain’. We got our own version. We got Kid the Wiz, Tykestar, Krypto. We working with geniuses in the making.”
They dance, one by one, with the incrementally-growing circle providing vibes. There’s buffered popping and locking, balletic toe sweeps, contortion and cartoonish facial expressions. Dancer tip-tap their bodies, they slide and lunge forwards, dropping 1930s jazz moves and even tiny slivers of what looks like strobe-staggered vogueing. It’s a unique, beguiling combination of athleticism, physical comedy and serious groove.
“Lite feet is hip hop dance,” says Sonic. “It is hip hop.”
Litefeet dancers have a mean line in hat and shoe tricks, where outer apparel becomes part of the show. Dancers slide a sneaker down their chest like it’s on string, or catch a baseball cap on a perfectly-posed elbow, tricks honed as part of dancers’ sideline busking on the subway (there are thousands of clips online). “We’re getting more recognition,” says Goofy. “A lot of people are taking notice. Us being on the trains, it gets the whole city to know us.”
It’s a proper self-sufficient culture of dancers, producers and DJs, teams like WAFFLE, Brotherhood, 2Real Boyz and Teams Rocket and Demon, as well as YouTube entrepreneurs and community leaders who have created a vibrant and evolving world around impossibly wavy moves. And as ever, the dancers lead the way for new musical hybrids: like house, disco and jazz before it, this is music rooted in a rich conversation between feet and ears, dance floor and DJ booth, dancer and producer.
Back in Union Square, there’s an old dude watching as the dancers fall away and the circle reshapes into groups of teens just hanging out. I ask him what he thought of their skills. “Got to keep the wheels on the wagon,” he says gnomically, and walks off.
This post appeared originally on the RBMA site as part of their New York stories series.