Dance Moves From the Streets to the Classroom

Footworkin', a Chicago-born street dance that incorporates fast movements of the arms and the feet, was created 20 years ago by street gangs as a way to battle one another without using violence.

And now this unusual dance, a mixture of break dancing, African dance and tap that also incorporates facial features, has made its way from the streets to the schools.

"We said, 'How can we help our community?" said Andre Minto, a 22-year-old teacher's assistant at an inner-city school in Chicago. "And a couple of ways we thought we could do that was to be building character with youth. And we said, 'Hey, footworkin' is a great way to do that … It's telling a story with your body."


Minto said the dance has made a big impact on some of his students. For kids like Maurice Hughes, the West Side of Chicago is a tough place to grow up. Hughes' mom, Genova, is a single parent who works full-time, and she is aware of her son's struggles.

"He has an anger problem," she said. "He gets mad at me and he stomps off."

In Chicago, young black children are more likely than any other group to drop out of school, get arrested and spend time behind bars, according to the Shott Foundation for Public Education and the U.S. Department of Justice.

"You know, they really see a lot early," Minto explained. "Things that people get to see in R movies they get to see up close and personal at a young age."

Dance Motivates Struggling Student

In January, the Hughes family received devastating news. Maurice's 5-year-old brother, Trevion, was diagnosed with cancer.

According to his teacher, Jacquel Thomas, Maurice, a fifth- grader at Catalyst Charter School, was deeply affected by this news.

"He's gone through a lot," said Thomas. "He has seen his brother go through a lot. Maurice is so smart. … He's such a joy when he is at his best, and I want him there all the time."

But he's not always at his best, especially in the classroom, said Thomas.

"Outbursts, throwing books across the classroom, yelling at his classmates, yelling at his teachers," Thomas said.

But hope has come for Maurice and the other kids at Catalyst in an unlikely form -- dance.

Minto had been footworkin' in clubs for years and came up with the idea of a footworkin' team at Catalyst to tackle discipline and motivate students.

"I just really want these kids to have a better opportunity," Minto said. "Really work toward building up their future."

Emotional Dance, Strict Rules

Minto recruited one of the city's best dancers, Chris Thomas, also known as "Mad Dog."

"I thought I was real cool, until I saw people like Chris," admits Minto.

"The discipline you learn through footwork can carry you through the rest of your life," said Thomas.

Maurice has become the team's star performer. "He is a master," said Thomas, "'cause he uses emotions."

The program actually has a lot of rules. Students must maintain a C average and show good classroom behavior. If students are consistently confronted with disciplinary issues, they get suspended from the team.

Dancing for Respect

Critical to this dance form is respect. "No name callin', no touching, no pushing, no face gestures," said Thomas.

The dance involves a lot of freestyle movement, but some steps are also highly choreographed and take dedication and practice to master. The group has been faithfully practicing three times a week for four months, along with endless hours of practice at home, in preparation for the team's first big performance.

"Nightline" was there to witness the performance. Maurice, who was chosen for a solo dance, said he felt "nervous a little, excited, good and great. It makes me happy."

He is not the only one. His mother is smiling too. "Mr. Minto and Mr. Thomas is his role model, and they are there to help him whenever he is angry," she said. "He's been very happy doing this footworkin' thing."

One Final Battle

Maurice and the team did great, but after his debut performance, he bumped into some trouble. He got suspended from the team for pushing another boy and tipping over a desk.

"I use footworkin' as the motivator for him," said Thomas. "If you can't get your behavior in order, then you won't footwork again. You won't practice, you won't be on the team."

Maurice's behavior improved in just one week, and he was allowed back into practice. But he must clear one final hurdle before he can join the team again. "When they come back, there is a ritual," said Minto. "You have to battle everybody at one time."

Maurice believes the point of the battle is to show what he's been missing during his suspension. "So someone might do a supercool move, and I might be like, 'how'd you do that?' and they'll be like, 'that's what you've been missing out.'"

Before the battle, Maurice can barely contain his excitement. Being on the team means everything to him. It is not just how to move your feet. It is about how to grow up.