Chicago’s Josiah Burt...Truer Words Have Never Been Spoken. Back
Mar 9, 2015
By Tracey Bivens
I was in a conversation with one of Chicago’s most expressive, talented and humble steppers Sunday night. Josiah Burt had me captivated with a three hour long conversation about everything under the umbrella of steppin. I’m going to step away from my normal interview format and just present his unedited views and opinions about some things he wanted to get off of his chest. Hold on to your seats people! In his FIRST steppin interview ever…I give you Josiah Burt.
Let’s Give It Up for the Playas…
People get real uptight when they find out that the Hustlers, Pimps, Playas and other underworld people created this dance. You had the street kids and you had the square kids who couldn’t come out the house as much as we did. That’s why this dance is never going to be given its true props because on a national level…people can’t believe this level of creativity came out of the streets when it comes to this dance. Nobody from the 70s can dispute what I’m about to say. I’m not a Steppin Legend but I was a pillar or a brick in the foundation of steppin. Your Legends were Ice Ray and Ice Rob…Derrick Nute who was 13 years old…Sarg, Womack, Butch, Dirk Parker, Jerry Clark, Fred Astaire (Brian), Gene and Barry and those females… Kathleen "Lady Tabu" Wiggins, Jannice Robertson, the late great Damita Collins, Gena Johnson (SpeedY), and Lynn (China Doll).
Old School Versus New Skool Origins
Old School steppin did NOT come from the Bop! New Skool steppin came from the Bop. The Bop my mom and dad did goes from side to side. The 8 count goes up and back. What WE did was different back in the 70s. We crossed one another when we danced. It wasn’t the mirror effect. It was all about the opposites. Right…left…double to the right…etc. Back then, you wanted everything to be synchronized with your dance partner. If you could follow anybody…you received major credit. In the dance…they call it …”Man on Man” which I don’t care for that term, but you would have two sets of guys going against each other. Somewhere, signals are going to given and taken by one of them. If I grabbed your wrists…I led. That was the signal. If you grabbed mine…you led. Steppin…what we did…did not come from the Bop. Sam Chatman saw what we were doing and called it steppin. Now the disconnect is because Old Schoolers didn’t want to show the New Skoolers anything that we were doing because we weren’t taught anything. Old Schoolers believed you should go through the struggle and get your dance. For example, Break dancers learned by practicing and doing…not by counting. We got up in the morning…we practiced during the day…we perfected it and then we took it to the set. It was very competitive. Who was the best on the Southside and who was the best on the Westside? We had a hat in which any couple who thought they were good would drop $100 in it. The other couple would put their money in and then it was on. In order to be great in this day, you had to excel above everybody else you were dancing with. That’s how good your skill set was determined. The hat and the money.
You’d be surprised…
People always wonder about the clothes we wore and the dance moves and where we got them from. We started skating off James Brown songs and then it transferred into the dance. Everything we heard…the drums, guitars and horns…did it for us. Our swagger came from James Cagney. However…it was the movies we were watching that had Fred Astaire, Humphrey Bogart, Gene Kelly, the Nicholas brothers and a couple of others tap dancers that gave us the moves and the attire we wore. We wore long hair, “butta” like a perm. The Fedoras, Bosselinis, The Dobs and the pinstriped suits with the double vents…that was the style for us. Later on in the 70s…the Blackploitation movies gave us another level of style from movies like The Mack, Shaft, and Dolemite …it was all by design. It’s no different from the generation that liked Scarface and The Godfather thugs in those movies.
The Old Venues
People kill me trying to make it seem like the Dungeon was open every night. It was only open on Sunday. That was another reason the “good kids” didn’t learn the dance like we had it…because they had to get up and go to school the next morning. We also hung out at the Sheba, Hummingbird, The Keymen's Club, The Markham Skating Rink and Disco (Markham, Illinois outside of Chicago) and the Beverly House. I was an underground stepper …not mainstream but I danced with all of them.
My Perspective on the Out of Towners…
Anything I say you can quote me on in this interview. Drew from Detroit…to my understanding started out as a kid ballroomer so his knowledge base was full of turns when he came on the steppin scene. He knows like a million turns. Once he learned the basic step…it catapulted him into a new level of the dance. So this style that Drew takes with him all over the country is heavy with the New Skoolers. The problem is…all the men want footwork and that has NEVER been taught around the country because if they did…all the men would be doing it. Why aren’t the men learning Old School footwork around the country? Because the people instructing it haven’t learned it. They just know things above the waist. Anything you teach with numbers is a basic. When you stop doing the basic…you become a freestyler. So I don’t take nothing from Drew…he is very smooth and talented BUT there are guys right now in Chicago who have never stepped foot on a World’s Largest stage that will burn a hole in the floor with Drew doing old school footwork. I put Drew on the same level as Tyk and Dre. All three are talented in their own right. They take what they have done with the dance and have taught it around the country but people gauge what they see them doing as the only kind of steppin there is and that’s not true.
Everybody wants to get into the old school footwork. You know why? After 25 years, Kathleen Wiggins, went to the Chicago’s Largest last year in 2014 and burnt every New Skool woman up on the floor. This was the first time that a lot of out of towners saw a female doing the same thing that the guys did. So this glimpse of the past has got a lot of New Skoolers excited to learn the Old School way.
That Famous “You Tube” Footage of Me…
(Laughing) I know that when Darrel Davis, Tyk, Taboo and Royce got out there on the floor at Charnice’s party back in 2010, that was the first time people saw my style of steppin on that level. To me…I was havin fun and being me. To others…it meant something else and they liked it because it wasn’t common. I had no idea people were trying to track me down because of that footage.
The Chicago’s Largest Contest in 2014…
A lot of New Skool steppers got disqualified from the contest last year because they had no business getting in it. I told them not to get in it. Nike, Tori, Feo and nem…they did not understand the Old School rules and that set them up for failure. If you don’t understand the format…you can’t come out there doing what you want to do. You have to respect the rules that came with this style of dance from the 1970s. You not gonna change it to what you want it to be.
Sherry Gordon out of Detroit and April “Cincinnati Red” Burns. Man…you can throw anything at those women and they stay with you during the whole dance. That’s following! There aren’t a lot of ladies out here that can do that because they too busy counting. Rich Jackson out of Chicago is learning the Old School and New Skool version . I’ve been showing him how to focus on just doing footwork. Now I’ma tell you…Westside Mike is not a good dancer…he’s a GREAT dancer! Having showmanship allowed him to be innovative with his dance. One time…Westside put on a pair of female high-heeled shoes and got down in those heels proving that anything can be done in heels. He is a monster when he’s feeling good and in that zone. I want Rich to be a hybrid able to mix the two. The footwork needs to be the star of the dance not the amount of spins you can give a woman.
Imagine…something pimps and hustlers created got people traveling all over this country to go to mega sets and conventions. Steppin has made people take more vacations than ever in the last 10 years that they would normally take. It’s the new craze. It’s not thuggish anymore. You can go out and be elegant in this dance format now. You get to buy clothes and go out and meet new people. You don’t have to wait until Sunday …it’s stuff going on all the time in the name of steppin.
Teaching this Dance…
If you look at the New Skool dances you will see Mambo, Rumba, Salsa, Ballrooming…a lot of other dances in it. Old School has nothing but Old School in it. But teaching has become a lucrative business for people who call themselves teachers of the dance. I’m not knocking nobody’s hustle but I hate seeing people continuing to pay money to learn how to do the basic 8 count step for an hour or two hours. I think people should learn how to be creative with the footwork and not just imitating what someone else is doing and if you are…make it your own! Now if you just dumb and want to keep giving your money to someone and you never get any better after paying $50 a pop…that’s messed up. All you did was dance with your instructor for an hour. You can do that on the dance floor and learn three times as much in one night. Back in the day…you were pushed off the dance floor if you messed up or you were booed.
I have a job outside the dance world…let me say that. But I can break down the count, I can show you how to give signals but more importantly…I can show you how to create your own footwork patterns. That’s three things. I can show you on the count, in and out of the count, and off the count. If your instructor tells you to count repeatedly...that means they want you to dance in a box. When a guy spins a woman, he or she shouldn’t have to count.
First they had a 6 count…then somebody came up with an 8 count. Then Tyk and Dre traveled a lot of places and made the counts universal. The New Skoolers created a count because it was more about money and getting it from workshops. From what I see, a lot of these guys don’t care if you learn the dance or not. I care because I have love for the dance and I want to preserve its legacy in its original form.
Tracey: I don’t think anything else needs to be said. I asked Josiah if he was coming to the Detroit White Party June 19-21 and so far…it’s a strong maybe. The first thing I want to do when I meet him is shake his hand, give him a hug and of course… get me a dance.
Josiah Burt…you say you are not a Legend but your words speak much truth and they will live forever. That to me…preserves your legacy.