Watching Jamal “Litebulb” Oliver perform is like witnessing someone defy gravity. At 26, Oliver is a star in footwork, the breakneck dance born on the city’s South and West Sides. His mesmerizing ability to twist and turn at superspeed has helped propel the street style from Chicago’s house scene to Pitchfork Music Festival and Spin magazine. This week, Oliver debuts In the Wurkz, a piece created using funds from a $15,000 grant from the prestigious Chicago Dancemakers Forum.
Growing up, Oliver began dancing as a diversion from life in his South Side neighborhood of Chatham. “I felt like footworking was always an escape,” he says. “I was the dude practicing in different corners of my house.”
If the living room is where Oliver learned to dance, South Side footwork joints, like the legendary Battlegroundz in Calumet Heights, are where he learned to compete. Most weekends, Oliver and his friends would face off against rival dance crews, and they quickly earned a reputation as champs.
Eventually the group—then known as Terra Squad—starting touring. They appeared in music videos and even the 2014 Al Pacino film Manglehorn. But after a couple years on the road, they burned out and decided to disband. That didn’t last long long: Less than a year later they reformed as the Era. “We put our all into it,” says Oliver. “There was no alternative.”
The group’s perseverence touched Dancemakers’ executive director Ginger Farley: “I remember watching a documentary, and a member said if it weren’t for footworking, he’d be dead or in prison. I was really moved by their individual stories.”
Oliver hopes his story will spur a new generation of footworkers. “Do you know how many kids in Chicago dance?” he says. “I’m trying to show them how to create a business out of something they already love to do.”
Go:In the Wurkz premieres August 27 at Hamilton Park, 513 W. 72nd Street. Free. chicagodancemakers.org