Thu January 2, 2014
Bringing Back Detroit's 'Jit' Dance
Originally published on Tue January 14, 2014 5:14 pm
Detroit is known for its auto industry, Motown music and now bankruptcy and vacant buildings — but a group of young dancers wants the city’s legacy also to include a street dance, known as the “Jit” (not to be confused with the swing dance called the jitterbug from the 1930s).
Three brothers started the dance in Detroit in the 1970s, they became known as the “Jitterbugs,” doing flips and kicks alongside each other in coordinated routines.
One of the brothers, Tracey McGhee, told Here & Now’s Meghna Chakrabarti that it started as a dance among “gangsters.”
“Back then we were criminals, sometimes we’d get out of the cars and start dancing, then it evolved to basement parties,” he said.
McGhee says he and his brothers eventually became so well known for their “jit” routines, that they got jobs touring with the auto shows, dancing in front of cars to help sell them.
Haleem Rasul, founder of the dance company HardCore Detroit, is making a documentary about the Jit, called “said that Kim Weston, the Motown singer, was a big part of making that happen. McGhee agrees.
“She literally saved our life because she was able to pull us off the streets, put us in the program, Festival of the Performing Arts,” McGhee said. “That’s where we had places to perform, people to perform in front of.”
- Rasul’s documentary will be released in Detroit on May 23, 2014, at the Detroit Film Theatre in the Detroit Institute of Arts Museum.
- Tracey McGhee, member of the Jitterbugs dance group in the 1970s and an inventor of the Jit.
- Haleem Rasul, founder of HardCore Detroit, producer of the upcoming documentary, “The Jitterbugs: Pioneers of the Jit.” it will be shown in the 2014 San Diego Black Film Festival this month. He tweets @hardcoredetroit.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
And now to Detroit, but this time we're not going to talk about the auto industry, bankruptcy or vacant buildings, no. We're going to talk about dance.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CHAKRABARTI: That's the sound of a crowd cheering on Detroit dancers doing what's called the jit. It started as a street dance in the '70s by three brothers who became known as the Jitterbugs. The dance style was also recently featured in an episode of "So You Think You Can Dance." They had Jit dancer Will Sysko Green on. He did an exhausting Jit routine with kicks and flips on the show.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE")
NIGEL LYTHGOE, HOST:
OK. How long can you keep that up?
WILL GREEN: I can go for a while, but that's just the piece that I had. You put on some other music, I keep going for you.
CHAKRABARTI: That episode made one group of Detroit dancers really happy. They want to tell the world there's more to their city than news of unrelenting economic despair. Haleem Stringz Rasul is one of them. He's founder of the dance group Hardcore Detroit. He's also the producer of an upcoming documentary, "The Jitterbugs: Pioneers of the Jit." It'll be shown in the 2014 San Diego Black Film Festival this month. And Haleem joins us now. Welcome to the program.
HALEEM RASUL: How you doing?
CHAKRABARTI: I'm doing great. We're also joined today by Tracy McGhee, one of the members of the group The Jitterbugs, that started this dance. Tracy, welcome to you.
TRACY MCGHEE: Pleasure meeting you.
CHAKRABARTI: For people who haven't seen the Jit before, I was just watching a bunch of videos of it and it looks amazing. So describe it to me.
RASUL: It basically consist of complex feet moves. You have some acrobatics, drops and it's usually done to up-tempo music.
MCGHEE: Yeah. And back in the day when we started, somehow it's turned into like a solo performance for one person to perform. But when we started, we all did it together in a routine, and that's where it got its real power from.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Well, Tracy, tell me more about that. I mean, what was going on in Detroit in the '70s that gave rise to the jit? Or even before that.
MCGHEE: I really couldn't explain that to you. Maybe it had something to do with - believe it or not, something with the gang culture, because back then we were criminals. So sometimes we get out of the cars and start dancing. And then it evolved to basement parties and stuff like that. I really can't explain how it caught fire in Detroit.
CHAKRABARTI: Your group's name is The Jitterbugs. Does it have anything to do with that old dance, the jitterbug?
MCGHEE: No, nothing at all.
CHAKRABARTI: Oh, OK.
MCGHEE: We were sitting on the church stairs and an old guy seen us and said, you young jitterbugs. You young jitterbugs. And we started laughing. What a coincidence, we were trying to find a name for the group, and we chose that name.
MCGHEE: It's true story.
RASUL: It's kind of funny because specific to Detroit, the word, the term jitterbugs meant, like, to be like a hoodlum or a like thug, gangster. So the name stuck with them.
MCGHEE: Yes, it did.
CHAKRABARTI: You know, I've been reading about the Jit and just trying to figure out a couple things. One is, according to some stories here in the press, it seems like that the Jit went underground for a while. Is that true or was it sort of all - has it stayed part of the fabric of Detroit?
MCGHEE: It's definitely underground. It has been underground since its existence. It's never really got the popularity that the other dances have: break dancers, pop locking and all of that. But if you come in the city and ask anybody about the Jit, they will tell you, oh, yeah, I know how to do it. I remember the guys back in the day, etc., etc., etc. It's still alive after 30 years. It's unbelievable.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, that's one thing that I'm wondering about, is why is it that those other styles that you just mentioned - popping and locking and breakdancing - kind of became national or even global dances, and that hasn't yet happened to the Jit?
RASUL: I can answer that question.
MCGHEE: Go ahead.
RASUL: I believe, for me personally, I broke out and made contribution in the B-Boying arena. Some people know it as breakdancing. So when I ventured outside of Detroit, I was able to see, you know, they know their history completely. You know, they know the founders of the dance. So when I came back to Detroit and I started asking certain questions, I wouldn't get, like, you know, a definitive answer. I kept hearing the name Jitterbugs from, like, a lot of the OG's. But when somebody say these guys, they will flip, they will constantly win competitions, then that really was like, OK, I got to find these guys.
MCGHEE: And he did.
CHAKRABARTI: Is that what sort of gave you the drive to make this film and to really sort of put the Jit back on center stage?
MCGHEE: Well, I would say - when were dancing, we went to a bunch of levels of dance. Then eventually we started getting on a mic and rap and try to keep up with everything that was going on. And it kind of took us away from the dance circle. We really literally pulled ourself away from the dance ground, the underground world. So maybe that's why the lack of the Jit started, you know, not evolving like pop lock and all the other dances.
RASUL: I want to add to that. The lights and cameras was on the coast during this time.
MCGHEE: That's true.
RASUL: We didn't have, you know, the exposure.
CHAKRABARTI: But is that why you...
MCGHEE: As a matter of fact, excuse me for saying, and being so rude and abrupt, but we created the dance strictly for the thugs. We created it for the masculinity side of the street. And the amazing part about it is that it evolved to a point where girls, to this day right now, girl - excuse me for sounding like that (unintelligible). But they are actually doing our dance and they're doing it well, and it's really amazing. It's like a miracle. This thing will not die.
CHAKRABARTI: Why is this dance important for Detroit?
RASUL: Because I feel that it is a way to take another step back, you know what I'm saying, and look at Detroit in other ways. It is not a one-dimensional city, you know? Other things has came out of the city. You know what I'm saying? Automotive industry, Motown. So I believe, you know, it seemed like people turned their back to Detroit and - or looked down at Detroit. But it's so many things here. You know what I'm saying? With the energy and the people.
MCGHEE: Let me say also that the phenomenal part about it is that we were just having fun - we were just in the street, in the nighttime, up on the streetlights, having fun.
CHAKRABARTI: Tracey, do you still do the Jit?
MCGHEE: Oh, yeah. Want to get down with me?
MCGHEE: Come on. Let's go.
RASUL: Yeah. These guys, man. The youngest one right now is over 50. So, you know, Tray(ph) is the middle, and James is older, but they can still get down, you know? Actually, we're getting prepared. We're getting prepared for the release.
MCGHEE: That's right. That's right.
RASUL: The official event.
MCGHEE: That's right.
RASUL: And these guys is going to - they're going to perform.
MCGHEE: We're going to cut the rug, as they say.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, I'm going to leave it to you guys, the experts, because it would just be a travesty if I even tried.
MCGHEE: No. You can do it. You can do it.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, it's been so great talking to you both. Tracey McGhee, one of the members of the Jitterbugs, the group that founded the dance the Jit. It's been so great to talk to you, Tracey. Thank you so much.
MCGHEE: No. Thank you. It's been a privilege and my pleasure. Again, I couldn't even believe I'm sitting here in front of a mic talking about something we used to do just for fun. It's amazing. Truly, thank you.
RASUL: And not just for fun. There's things that, you know, of course, Kim Weston, the Motown singer, was a huge reason why these guys got to the level of where they...
MCGHEE: As a matter of fact - excuse me for cutting you off - she actually literally saved our life because she was able to pull us off the street, put us in the program, Festival of the Performing Arts. That's why we had places to perform, people to perform in front of, and started learning the sides of the business that we never knew existed.
RASUL: And then, through that, they were able to start touring with the auto shows. They used to perform five or six to eight times a day, every day. You know what I'm saying?
MCGHEE: Yeah, every day, on the hour, every hour, we performed at the auto shows. And we had to tone our act down a little bit. And again, it was just amazing. I never figured myself being in that type of position either - flying half-way across the United States and stuff like that. Again, just so awe...
RASUL: So this is why this story is important.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, Haleem Stringz Rasul, founder of the dance group HardCore Detroit and also the producer behind the documentary "The Jitterbugs: Pioneers of the Jit." Haleem, it's been great to talk to you too. Thank you so much.
RASUL: I thought we was going to do whole another take, man. I was just getting warmed up.
MCGHEE: I was just getting warm. I've got a whole bunch of stories just came back to my head.
RASUL: Yeah, man. I knew it was going to happen.
CHAKRABARTI: Sorry. We only got one shot at it.
RASUL: Yeah. When we make it down to Beantown, we come to see you, all right?
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Definitely. It'd be great.
CHAKRABARTI: All right. Take good care.
RASUL: All right. Thank you.
MCGHEE: Thank you.
CHAKRABARTI: Robin, great bunch of guys.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
Yeah. Just delightful.
CHAKRABARTI: Would you like to try the dance?
YOUNG: I've been doing it the entire time.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, many jitters, as they're called, they love to dance to techno music, something Detroit is also known for. This song is "No UFOs" by the Detroit producer Juan Atkins, who goes by the name Model 500. And you've really got to see the dance to fully appreciate it. We've got videos at hereandnow.org.
YOUNG: It's great.
CHAKRABARTI: From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Meghna Chakrabarti.
YOUNG: I'm Robin Young. It's HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.