Steppin into the Shadows with Chicago’s Ken Hilliard Back
Oct 19, 2015
By Tracey Bivens
“Steppin is part of me but it’s not all of me. Whoever loves that life where steppin is everything and you constantly trying to work your way to the imaginary top …it’s going to be a big fall when you land.” ~Ken Hilliard
They say it’s the quiet ones that you have to watch out for. In real life and apparently on the steppin floor. Chicago’s Ken Hilliard has been around the steppin scene since 1998 but not like you would think. He may be a household name in the Chicago steppin community because he dared venture into the world of the World’s Largest Steppin Contests but when you talk about underrated and overlooked…he’s your guy. Please look at the video snippet of him and his partner very carefully. You can’t help but scratch your head and ask yourself, “Have I seen this guy before…he’s good.” After hunting him down for a number of weeks, I finally got in touch with Ken Hilliard. My quest to find him was partly because he keeps to himself and he’s very skilled in the dance but even more so…when he came to the last Detroit White Party…he was the one guy that ladies from out of town said made them want to dance with him again and again.
There are going to be some very interesting reveals in this interview that I don’t think even a lot of Chicagoans are aware of. I won’t spoil it too much but I will say that Ken Hilliard and basketball help him communicate, he had a torch handed to him by one of the best in the dance and he’s providing a legacy that will extend the test of time.
Tracey: (Me shaking my head from side to side) It was really hard trying to find you sir. It’s like if you don’t come to the sets…you are not going to be found. (Laughing) When did you first fall in love with steppin?
Ken: (Laughing) I fell in love with steppin in 1998. Malik Swan introduced me to the dance by taking me around to a couple of sets and I was like, “Wow! I gotta learn this dance!” I went to class with LC Henderson who is a very good foundational instructor. I gotta give him credit for that. I visited Dre’s class who taught me how to be softer with my hands when it comes to leading a lady and how it’s supposed to feel. I was used to gripping basketballs. (Laughing) Dre was trying to get me to portray being sexy for the ladies because that’s most of the experience of the dance for these ladies. The ladies don’t care how many combinations you can do…they care about the experience. I think I can officially say that I was Tyk Myn’s protégé’ for real. He used to come all the way to my house and taught me a lot of the technical parts of steppin long before he started traveling with the steppers that taught around the country. I had his undivided attention and he made sure that I didn’t look like him…that I looked like myself when I danced. He used to say, “That’s what separates a good stepper from a great stepper. That technique and doing your OWN dance.” I believe that wholeheartedly. If your fundamentals are correct…you’ll be a better lead and you’ll have a better dance. A woman’s facial expression will always let you know if she is having a good dance with you. If she looks off to the side…bored…and uninspired…you got some work to do. Tony Dow taught me to always dance and not out dance her and to always be in tune with her and not embarrass her. There are a lot of guys out here who “think” they are on top when they are really on the bottom.
Tracey: That’s pretty interesting that Tyk Myn shared his craft with you like that before he went out and started teaching years later. I can count on one hand how many people can communicate this dance very well on an instructional level and through their dance. Oftentimes you’ll see a good stepper and that stepper starts trying to teach and they can’t communicate with the students because…well…the student complain.
Ken: Communication is key in all aspects of life. I played all city and all state basketball for years in Chicago and when I went to Texas Southern A&M. As a ball player you have to communicate with your eyes, your hands, sometimes your mouth while you’re playing…that is if you are going to be good. Steppin is the same way. If you can’t communicate this dance to someone else and have them develop their own style then that would show you probably shouldn’t be teaching. There are women and men that want their students to look exactly like them. Why you want your students to look like you? When they first saw the dance I’m sure they (the instructor) weren’t drawn to the dance because everyone looked alike like they were doing a line dance. One of my proudest teaching moments came when I helped our white boy Stefan, who lives here in Chicago, start doing footwork, trio and walkin from me. Dre caught him in the beginning but I was always wanting to share the dance by opening up a door that I thought might not be open for that stepper. Stefan later went on to beat me in a contest. (Laughing)
Tracey: How did you avoid the “I lost the contest now I hate everybody” pitfalls?
Ken: My personality was never jealous, aggressive or harmful because the guys and ladies I hung out with…we would all wind up competing against each other. It was fun for us. These people now…they get in the contests and fall out with Pete, the judges, each other, the lady at the bar making the drinks, the security guard…it’s crazy.
Tracey: (Laughing) Yeah…the contests are bad but the organizations can even be just as problematic.
Ken: Growing up in Chicago, it’s a hard town. I look at me losing contests like I need to work on some things. I’m one of those people that like performing but not necessarily winning all the time. It’s cool to win but it’s just as cool when people say you inspired them when they saw you dance or that you were robbed and you know they really mean it! (Laughing) As far as the joining the social club thing…I would always get in classes and win and then people would always ask me to join their clubs. Being in the dance like that…it’s hard on your lifestyle you’re your relationships will suffer. It can also be damaging to your home life. No dance is worth losing everything. You have to have balance.
Tracey: How does your family help you put things into perspective?
Ken: I speak from firsthand experience. Me and my wife broke up for a short time when I fell in love with this dance. Going out one day a week turned into going out three nights a week then five. Chicago always has something going on for the steppers. You know that. But…if your mate really loves you and you set a balance…you both can work it out. You have to ask yourself, “Do I need to be the steppin king or do I need a family that loves me?” A family is who you are. If you don’t have a family, you don’t have a foundation. You have to have somewhere to land. I think that’s why I’m still in the same spot for the last 12 years. That’s why all of the controversy that follows steppin let’s me brush it off my shoulders.
Tracey: Who gives you your biggest support in this dance?
Ken: My friends and myself. (Laughing) I’m a strong headed person who is stable. I know who I am and I know my limits. I try to balance family, friends, church, career and I don’t put too much emphasis on just one thing. One thing doesn’t weigh much more than the other…with the exception of my family. I do love to step but I don’t love “steppin”. I go home to my house. I don’t go home to steppin. When you have something good there can also be a whole lot of bad. It’s so much jealous…he say, she say…that you don’t want to go crazy with it. You have to keep it in perspective. It’s not everything. I have to have God…family…career and love.
Tracey: What’s been the biggest tragedy in steppin?
Ken: When Pete Frazier started allowing a lot of rules to change the dance. When Dre started throwing confetti and doing routines…it took away the key elements of the art to me. It went from steppin…the art form…to steppin…the Salsa…steppin… the Ballroom. It’s not Chicago steppin anymore. People started watching salsa videos and then 20 year olds started going up against 50 year olds when it didn’t used to be like that. I think that the heart of steppin has stopped beating. Contestants are doing splits when you used to couldn’t. People are trying to get an edge by any means necessary. You got people dragging across the floor, picking people up throwing them 10 feet up in the air…it’s too many contestants. It used to be that 20 couples would try out but only 10 would get in. You would have to do your best. Now people coming out in jeans and penny loafers and they are automatically entered.
Tracey: So of course here comes the ultimate question. I know you said you like the performing part of it but why do you think people keep getting in the contests year after year? It seems like the only time the contests are legitimate is when the people that complain the most when.
Ken: I have been the best “Ken” I could be on stage. Knowing that I could be entertaining and that I was a really good teacher is good enough for me. Maybe other people need that validation from other people when they compete.
Tracey: What makes you a good teacher?
Ken: Technique. Fundamentals. Being able to emphasize whatever it is that you really want to get across. It’s easy to be creative if you have the basics down. I’ll tell you that you not gonna look like me when I do my footwork. It’s not a pattern or routine. When you see me today and then later…you will see a different me. Things evolve in life and so does this dance. If I hear a song…I dance one way…put on a different song…I dance another way. My students don’t look the same. If you a smooth guy…I'ma show you a smooth style. If you’re not mobile, I can show you how to move without being mobile. I looked different in 2005 than I do in 2015.
Tracey: You are a great stepper, your dress well… any advice for the younger guys on the set?
Ken: I told Tyk Myn when he started that the girls were gonna be after him. You have to have discipline. The women can be costly to your life and your career. I didn’t want kids all over the place. All that is discipline. It’s being irresponsible to yourself and the kids that you’re not taking care of. You have to keep that hat on. Running around town and having the most girlfriends is not important. What’s important is knowing who you are and respecting yourself. You gonna be broke and messed up.
Tracey: Have you ever wanted to stop dancing?
Ken: An alpha male has a certain confidence and ego and I have self-esteem. If I didn’t have that self-esteem, maybe that would make me want to quit. My self-esteem makes me feel superb or supreme so when they hit me with that negativity…it deflects off of me. That’s what an alpha male feels. He feels strong and confident. It’s hard to knock him off his square. The point guard is the toughest guy on basketball team. He’s the small guy and they go after him. Whatever they try…it’s not going to work. I still got real estate, my job, my family….
Ken: I was talking to a guy that said I needed to get on Facebook. I been out there for years. I’ve played in front of 20,000 people before on a basketball court. If you are going to rise…you will rise. It’s not important for me to be that guy that’s out there. I say, “No…it's not. We all are stars but we shine differently. I don’t need all of that to make me feel like a star.”