Black Chicago dance culture shines at Art on the Mart

Janice K. Johnson


On the evening of Thursday, June 30, dozens of young Black dancers gathered on the Chicago Riverwalk across from the Merchandise Mart. At 9 PM that night, Art on the Mart, which bills itself as the world’s largest permanent art projection, would debut two new pieces, including Billiken, an homage to the biggest Black parade in the country. As the sky grew dark enough for the videos to be projected, some of the dancers showed off their moves during a DJ set from footwork pioneer RP Boo. 

The Bud Billiken Parade travels mostly along a two-mile stretch of South King Drive, and plenty of the people who’d come to see the debut of Billiken had been in the parade themselves. As Billiken lit up the Merchandise Mart’s southern facade with a lively, impressionistic montage of dancers, the kids on the Riverwalk screamed in joy and surprise whenever they recognized someone among its larger-than-life figures. 

The directors of Billiken, Shkunna Stewart and Wills Glasspiegel, had spent six months making the eight-minute video. They sourced some footage of the Bud from their personal archives; the parade, launched in 1929 by Chicago Defender founder Robert S. Abbott, began as a way to celebrate the city’s Black children just before their annual return to school. 

Stewart and Glasspiegel also handpicked several dance crews—including the Empiire, Geek Skquad, Goon Squad, Silent Threat, Dance Force, the Jesse White Tumblers, and Bringing Out Talent—to film in front of a green screen. Brandon K. Calhoun adapted some of the footage into fuzzy animations, a style he’d previously employed for Footnotes, a 2021 Art on the Mart projection he’d produced with Glasspiegel. Footnotes and Billiken also have in common the prominent use of music: RP Boo produced an original track for the latter using recordings of the Rich Township Mighty Marching Machine.

The trailer for Billiken

Billiken builds on work that Stewart and Glasspiegel have already been doing for years. Glasspiegel is a frequent collaborator with footwork crew the Era (he mostly documents their activities and helps connect them with resources), and in 2017 he cofounded a racial-justice-focused arts nonprofit called Open the Circle. Open the Circle runs a free summer footwork camp, and in 2018 Stewart began cohosting it in her capacity as president of dance company Bringing Out Talent. 

Art on the Mart dance down
Includes a footwork dance workshop, a youth dance down, the marching band from Billiken, and projections of Billiken and Footnotes. Sun 8/21, 6-9 PM, Riverwalk: West End (near Lake Street bridge), free, all ages

Bringing Out Talent is the fourth-generation version of a group founded by Stewart’s great-grandmother Louise Hubbard. It was part of the Bud Billiken Parade too. “She used to make our uniforms,” Stewart says. “She’d have all of us in this big backyard, and we was practicing, getting ready for the big day. All the kids in the neighborhood would be so excited.”

Everyone featured in Billiken has an emotional connection to the Bud—I could feel it in every cheer of joy or shout of recognition that night on the Riverwalk. I wanted to know more about peoples’ histories with the Bud, and Glasspiegel helped put me in touch with several folks who appear in Billiken; he’s gotten to know plenty of players in the scene during his research into Chicago footwork history for his PhD in African American Studies and American Studies at Yale. For this oral history, I spoke to Glasspiegel, Stewart, RP Boo, Goon Squad leader and Era cofounder Jemal “P-Top” DeLa Cruz, Silent Threat leader LaToya Stats, and U-Phi-U founder Darnell Payne, whose group ushered a new wave of grassroots dance collectives into the Bud in the early 1980s. 

Dance company Bringing Out Talent, aka BOT, in the Bud Billiken Parade Credit: TiYer Wilcoxson

First memories of the Bud

Shkunna Stewart My mom, when she was pregnant with me, she walked in the Bud. It’s like I really never miss one—I was inside the womb going down King Drive. From the time I was one years old all the way up. I’m 46 years old now.

Darnell Payne My first parade was 1981—I was in third grade, and I marched with a barbershop that was located on 64th and Cottage Grove. It felt like Hollywood to have that many people looking at you. We were just walking down, holding up the signs and all that. Man, that was my first experience, and I was hooked.

RP Boo My first official Bud Billiken Parade—it was 1991. A group that I was in called Mega Moves, the president was like, “We’re gonna enter into the Bud Billiken Parade.” We had a shopping cart with a little portable radio in it and a speaker up under it, so we were able to walk down—everything worked out. That was the time where I first seen House-O-Matics.

LaToya Stats My first ever Bud experience was with my brother [Verndell Smith II]; he was the founder of Ultimate Threat dance organization, and he’d been doing the Bud Billiken Parade since he was about 13. This particular year he was performing with another team, and their float didn’t work. I had to come help drive, and that was the first time I had ever been to a Bud Billiken Parade. I was just amazed, and I’ve been going ever since.

P-Top My first Bud Billiken Parade was in 2006, I believe. I was walking with my sister and her dance group—and I believe it was raining that day. I think Full Effect, Total Domination, and Infamous Bang did the Bud together.

Wills Glasspiegel It was about 2014; I was a photographer in the world of Chicago footwork, and I ended up working with DJ Earl, who was a DJ on the float for Empiire, which is one of the groups featured in Billiken. But I’d heard about the Bud earlier just from researching the history of Chicago footwork and house music in the city.

Darnell Payne To be surrounded by so much African American energy, and Black people dancing, and music and culture: I was hooked. Every year—from ’81 till now—I’m at every Bud Billiken Parade.

Bud Billiken Parade
Sat 8/13, 10 AM-4 PM, step-off at King Dr. and Oakwood, route runs down King and into Washington Park via Ellsworth, free, all ages

LaToya Stats The proudness and camaraderie of the Black community coming together for the kids to put on such an amazing event where they got to see people who looked just like them, outside, performing—it was just amazing.

P-Top It opened my eyes up. I used to think there wasn’t nothing bigger than a dance down, but when I first went to the Bud, it is, because you see more than one group marching down King Drive. It’s a long walk, but it’s worth it. It’s showcasing they moves and choreography for the world to see.

Growing with the Bud

Darnell Payne My dance group, U-Phi-U—one of the founding dance groups in the city—we did the parade from ’85 to 2015. We’re a direct product of the breakdancing era. I was one of the premier dancers in a breakdance crew called ChiTown Rockers—they were one of the big groups from here. Music began to change, with the house-music movement happening. My brother was a security guard at a place called the Muzic Box. I was very young, but I looked older—I had a mustache at, like, 11 or 12—so one day, I went down to the club with my brother. The party started, and I was kind of stuck there, ’cause he couldn’t take me back home. I got used to a whole ’nother level of music: jackin’. 

From there we organized. It was six of us, and we started doing talent shows all over the city. It seemed like every talent show we went to, we would run into five or six other kids, like, “Hey, how can I join in with you all?” We swelled—our numbers went over 100. Every year, for the Bud Billiken Parade, we’d dance with—the minimum was 100.

Shkunna Stewart Bringing Out Talent was formed off of my mom’s group, which is SSF: Silver Star Fires. I changed the name, changed the style a little bit, changed the swag. I’ve actually been running BOT for 13 years straight on my own.

LaToya Stats Silent Threat actually started off as a vision in my brother’s mind. He was 18 at the time, and told me he wanted to pursue opening up his own dance studio. I was like, “You’re too young—you can’t do that right now.” 

He actually started with about three people in an apartment, practicing. He grew from doing it in an apartment, to a church, to a day care. After years of hard work, he actually opened up his own studio on 75th and Eberhart. We’ve had over 5,000 kids come to our program over the years, and we just continue trying to grow and continue that legacy going.

Darnell Payne Every year I aspired to make things bigger, to make things better, to make it over-the-top but do it with excellence. We always marched in straight lines—military formed lines—even with 100 kids. Nobody out of spot. We used to go to the Dan Ryan Woods and practice all these military cadences and moves. We wanted our shoulders to be broad, we wanted our backs to be straight, we wanted to look so clean to represent our culture in the best way that we could.

Shkunna Stewart I wanted to step it up a little bit. My mom, she was not really into custom-made uniforms and stuff like that. And I said, “Man, they look really cool—I wanna look like that!” So I took it and worked on it.

Darnell Payne I’m basically speaking of my other family—House-O-Matics, Phase 2, and all the other teams that came up with me. We began to be the spotlight of the Bud Billiken Parade; we became the energy of the Bud Billiken Parade. 

Footage of House-O-Matics dancing in 1995

It was so many military groups, the fire department, the police department, this, that, and the other, and people just walking, waving flags. Then us coming down with massive walls of music and people dancing. You danced till you fell out. There were multiple times where my kids were taken out of the parade route and had to go to Provident Hospital when we got to 51st Street, ’cause they had danced so hard.

LaToya Stats A lot of these children and young adults, they don’t have a positive person in their life. So it starts there—making sure that I’m always a positive role model for them, and giving them the tools they need to not only be successful dancers but to be successful people in life. As far as it goes towards the Bud Billiken Parade is making sure we’re practicing, ordering uniforms, making sure that everybody looks good and we’re well represented when we come down King Drive.

Darnell Payne [The Bud] gave us a national spotlight. People were calling us to do shows—it wasn’t like, “Come to this backyard party.” We did shows at the Field Museum, we did things at the DuSable Museum—and guess what, we were getting paid! It wasn’t just, “Come and do this for free.” There were City of Chicago checks coming to our group, which helped us get equipment, speakers, and uniforms and stuff like that. It actually turned us from being a group of kids who love to do things on the corner into an incorporation and a business. 

We were known by U-Phi-U, but once we became incorporated, we became the Untouchable Unity Dance Troupe. We actually had a not-for-profit. These people helped us—they helped us be able to get into the Park District, because now we had paperwork and documentation that was behind us, that we represent well enough that we were able to now do this thing on a professional level.

Dance crew Bringing Out Talent prepare for the 2021 Bud Billiken Parade.

Shkunna Stewart During the summer, we normally have a peak; I have maybe 100 kids. But a lot of the kids that used to come, they’re older now—in college and stuff. I have, like, 55 this year.

LaToya Stats My brother was killed last year, so I took over his dance organization. Now that I am in charge of the dance studio, I’m right there, front and center, with planning and preparing for our organization to be a part of the Bud every year.

The Bud’s influence on music and dance

Darnell Payne Back then it was more of an R&B feel—it was more of a New Edition or any R&B artist that had a faster song, we would dance to that music. But then we had the pleasure of having DJ Gant-Man and DJ Puncho—they actually dance. They were footworkers with U-Phi-U. They started making our mixes, which had the house music and the footwork music that we were dancing off of. So a transition happened in the early 90s—the street DJs started recording their music on audio cassette, and we were able to play that music in the parade. And the whole game changed.

Left: Dancers from Legacy 2.0 appear in Billiken and in this collage from the film. Right: Members of footwork crew Goon Squad (top) and artist-filmmaker Wills Glasspiegel (bottom). Credit: Collage by Brandon K. Calhoun and Wills Glasspiegel; Photos by Wills Glasspiegel (top right) and Michael Magitman (bottom right)

RP Boo I don’t think I did any parades with House-O-Matics after I started producing. I started doing floats for other people—every year I was DJing for different groups. I used to come past everyone’s float that had turntables set up, and I would play my tracks for them. And they would be like, “Hey, where’d this track come from?” I would have one to three new tracks every parade day that I would make just for that day. And to see the groups being able to now finally hear this track that I’ve been producing that I made especially just for that day—it was like, “RP is up to something.” 

The dance groups that I perform for, I might make a track for them, and they wouldn’t even know that I made the track for them until the day of. If they listened to it—“We wanna run that, we wanna dance off that.” I can mix my tracks with other tracks that people produced over the years. It was like nobody could do it better than RP. No one.

Wills Glasspiegel Footwork started to sprout out on its own trail. Then you’ve got the birth of battle cliques—footwork groups that were essentially a B side of the Chicago dance industry.

MTV produced a short documentary on Chicago footwork in the early 2000s.

P-Top Towards the end of the Bud, everybody gets to that point by the tennis courts, a lot of footworkers—even some dancers—will battle at the tennis courts just to make a name for yourself, or just to say you was there. It was needed. It was an initiation type of thing. It’s almost going to another footworking event, but outside, during the Bud. It’s big. Getting involved with the Bud—it’s, how shall I say it, it’s almost joining the football team. You get on there, you get to showcase what you do, earn respect.

RP Boo One day, I say, “Hey, I’ve been going down King Drive for so long, let me make a King Drive track.” So actually, “Bang’n on King Dr.” is the third edition, because I made two King Drive tracks for the parade years prior. And those who was there at the parade got to hear them, and so when I did “Bang’n on King Dr.,” it was the same as the first two.

Wills Glasspiegel and RP Boo collaborated on this short film celebrating the Bud Billiken Parade.

Wills Glasspiegel We made a short film or music video called “Bang’n on King Drive.” That was really my first major project that took place at the Bud Billiken Parade. That is one of my proudest works.

The Billiken projection

Shkunna Stewart Last year, I saw Footnotes—that was the first film. That one was awesome. We wanted to take that and make it better.

Wills Glasspiegel Merchandise Mart is so public and site specific. It’s not a blank slate; there’s a lot of texture. I thrive with an improvisational relationship to the surface of the building and that space at the confluence of the river and the Riverwalk. Footnotes was a big success. I thought, “How can I do more?”

WTTW produced a segment on Footnotes when it premiered at Art on the Mart in 2021.

Shkunna Stewart I’m just one of the partners of OTC, and we’ve been strategizing about doing this film on Art on the Mart, and it finally came true.

Wills Glasspiegel In some ways it goes back to hearing RP Boo tell me about the parade. He told me a story about how he used to walk the parade route in the early morning before the actual parade. That’s a spark for me, in terms of what ended up becoming Billiken.

Shkunna Stewart Me and Wills decided [on which teams to include] as one. You have a lot of teams that just have well-known names. Also we wanted to bring out a few of the teams who don’t have a well-known name to try to give them a well-known name.

LaToya Stats I saw it last year when they featured the footworkers on there. I said to myself, “Ooh, we want to do that.” When we received the call, it was so exciting.

P-Top Working with kids, I had to get another generation under Goon Squad. Doing so many things with them, teaching them, and getting them opportunities to dance and do certain things is major, because we didn’t have that growing up.

Shkunna Stewart It was so much going on that day—the opening. It was just cameras everywhere; we had friends and family everywhere. It was exciting just to see everyone come on down there and see it. I’m still stoked.

LaToya Stats It’s really an amazing experience to have an African American child from the inner city of Chicago drive downtown and see yourself on a big building. 

P-Top When Goon Squad was on the projection, it was a milestone for me. Goon Squad’s name—our name—is getting out there. Goon Squad’s name, in battling, it’s been out there. But what these kids are doing—and with us pushing them and giving them the drive and ambition and the tools to utilize in this dance culture—it just shows they’re putting the work in. They’re dedicated, and they’re inspiring other people to want to dance, but also to make a change when it comes to doing something together. It’s very big and needed for the city. 

LaToya Stats There’s a picture of my kids on Wills’s page where they’re actually looking at themselves, and they were amazed about seeing themselves up there.

Wills Glasspiegel When those kids saw themselves on the building, and they screamed and felt like they were larger-than-life—and they are larger-than-life—that’s the point.

Darnell Payne To come from a kid who organized dance groups in broken glass in vacant lots, where nobody wanted us, where we couldn’t be seen on TV, where it was too controversial—because they wanted to label us, at one point, as gangs—and to go and be in downtown Chicago, at the Merchandise Mart, with our images being broadcasted that large in the downtown area, it was overwhelming for me. I almost broke into tears. I sat there and I thought about all the times that we just wanted to be included in the conversation. We just wanted to sit at the table. And now it’s our table.

LaToya Stats It’s all bittersweet. These are things I know for a fact my brother wanted to accomplish. People can drive by and see Silent Threat on a downtown building; it lets me know that all of his hard work, and the sweat and the tears, and all of the energy that he put in his organization is worth it. It makes me feel good that I am able to continue to do those things for him as well as the kids.



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