Haleem “Stringz” Rasul talks about the constantly evolving form of street dancing in Detroit—from the jit to b-boy swag.
This fall at the Shanghai Biennale, the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit will curate the Detroit Pavilion. The pavilion will feature live performances by dancer Haleem “Stringz” Rasul and the Hinterlands, an experimental theater company. Two members of the Hinterlands, Richard Newman and Liza Bielby, recently sat down with Stringz to learn more about “jit,” a style of dance specific to Detroit that he will be performing in China.
Richard Newman So Haleem, tell me what is jit?
Haleem Rasul Well, “jit” is a very popular dance style from Detroit that has roots in the ’70s from a group called the Jitterbugs. The dance progressed over the years adding other elements like tap and various contemporary styles. It is a heavily footwork-oriented dance . . . a combination of a bunch of different kind of dances, actually. Yeah—so that’s the jit. The Jitterbugs were the pioneering group. The dance form today is usually done to a more techno-electro sound—very up-tempo dance. You can do it to any tempo, to any music, but it’s known to be done to techno music.
RN Once techno happened in Detroit, did the dance change or adapt?
HR Yeah, there were a couple different turning points in the evolution of the dance. In the ’70s, the Jitterbugs was dancing, doing the dance-form, to funk, more of a George Clinton-type of sound. And then, as it got into the ’80s, it changed; for some reason in Detroit dance was always faster tempo, and we gravitated to footwork. So, I would say that music definitely played an important role as far as how the dance changed over the years, the subtle changes or the additions.
RN Would you call yourself a Jitter?
HR Yes, I would call myself a Jitter.
Liza Bielby of The Hinterlands Would other people call you a Jitter?
HR Yeah, definitely.
LB Have you ever had a situation where someone looked at what you were doing and said, “That’s not jit enough”? Could you use it as an adjective? Or would you only say that something “is jit”?
HR That’s another huge thing, back in the day, like in the ’70s, early ’80s, the “jit” term was used for a lot of different dance styles. It was almost like if you was popping at that time, you was doing the jitter, or if you was doing any type of dance—that word just kind of stuck.
LB Do you mean that jit described all dance in Detroit, or if you were doing this kind of stuff in Detroit, it was jit?
HR No, people in Detroit called this (demonstrates) jit (and this is just what I heard from interviewing OGs, when I ask about how things were at that time.) Nowadays, jit is set firm to what it is. It’s associated with footwork-type dance. I did jit. (sighs) It’s kind of complicated because I am a b-boy, known to be a b-boy first, and if you look at how I evolved as a dancer, like being in the scene and making significant accomplishments in dance, people will see me as a b-boy first, but really, I was jitting in middle school—everybody used to jit. But the thing about it is, I wouldn’t consider myself a jitter until later on when I got with an OG and he actually broke the dance down to me. Later, he was in my crew and represented hardcore Detroit. That’s when I really considered myself a jitter. But there’s a lot of people here that can jit good, but don’t know the names of the moves—don’t know the history of it like that. So it’s really interesting in conversation.
RN It’s almost like there’s a process—I wonder if this process happens with every dance when it doesn’t start off as a specific form—where it starts off as something else, it starts off as just movement and then it becomes a form.
RN Do you know anything about how that happened or specifically with jit or even with breakdance? How moves got codified to become specific moves?
HR Hmmm. (laughter) That’s a deep question. I’m trying to think on it and make it as understandable as possible. Wow, I mean, I would say with my experience, just as a b-boy and in b-boy culture, we all know biting, or taking someone else’s move, is the worst thing you can do. We all seen how, like, how . . .
RN Like somebody was the first person to spin on their head.
HR Exactly! It’s just the nature of the beast, the way things evolve. It might be somebody’s signature move and you can’t touch it until after a certain amount of time passes. Eventually, it just gets filtered to the scene.
LB Because everybody’s seen that person do it?
HR You know what I think it is? It’s a love-hate thing. Because I know I created certain moves and it’s got lost in the shuffle and nobody knows. It’s inevitable for that to happen because you have the people that come behind you and is not as educated to know where moves came from and why you shouldn’t touch this or whatever. And it’s almost like for them, they’ll take what they see and keep progressing with it. Which is good, but you don’t bite. You can use something and make it your own, if you’re going to take something. You have to change something about it. When I got back into jit that was something that I was dealing with coming from this breaking point of view into a dance style that seemed like it was so structured. So I learned as much as I could, first.
RN Would you say that jit is closer to something like tap, where there are certain moves that are the foundation and then you have your own style?
HR Yeah, you can say that for basically any dance. It’s a little different, a lot of footwork variations, and what makes a person stand out is their combinations. You can take a move, but it’s the way you put your combinations together that lets a person really show themselves.
LB Which is kind of why I think jit works really well with the vaudeville aspect of The Circuit, the project we’re working on. It’s all about how you take something and make it your own. Like jokes that pass from person to person, which is all the same kind of material but it becomes—when you really let it live in your body—it becomes something different. Like, because you’re so tall and lanky, you have . . .
HR Don’t say lanky.
LB So tall. Strike lanky. Because you’re tall with long arms and legs, watching you do something is totally different than the way your shorter crew member has this funnier way of moving because he’s so little.
HR I think shorter people have it better. Especially in b-boying
LB But nobody can do a head spin like you. It may be super fast if people are short and squat, but it’s just beautiful when you do it.
HR I get that from a lot of the dancers actually. A lot of short dancers will be like, “Wow, man, your moves just look so much better because you’re so long.” But I be like, “Man, I wish I was shorter,” you know what I’m saying?
LB Because it’s such a fast dance? It must be super hard because jit is so damn fast.
HR Yeah. Jit is . . .
LB And if you have long legs, how do you . . . I don’t get it.
HR I got some good advice from people; with jit, you want to keep your moves closer together, legs closer together, especially if the tempo is fast. The form is so important to the dance and sometimes it gets so fast that you can lose your form. So that’s important. It’s an interesting balance.
RN I’m going to ask you a little about poetry—poetry and movement—because there is something really poetic about the way you do this head spin. Do you think jit has the same kind of possibility as poetry or is it a different form entirely?
HR No, I would say breaking and jitting come from the same place, kind of got the same history. They tell the same story—came from the street. What I feel when I am jitting is like the way I feel when I’m b-boying.
RN You feel the history?
HR No, just the feeling. Of course there is different ways that you can jit, just like with breaking, so that’s another thing that makes it the same: you can make it your own. I coined the name “break-jitter” cause I truly feel that having expertise in another dance form, like breaking, that had already been established, was something that could give me a little edge. There are certain things that breaking been through that jit hasn’t been through yet. I was able to kind of tell the future in a way. I knew the steps that it had to take, especially to be recognized as a legit street form, art form, and dance form.
RN Do you think jit hasn’t gotten its recognition nationally? What does it take? What would recognition be?
HR Breaking has certain things that we didn’t quite get yet. B-boy culture knows their pioneers and they raise them up. Respect. This is where this dance came from. These are the pioneers. Jit never had that. Everyone was doing it and we started to ask the question, “Where did it come from? Who are the people who created it?” and nobody knew. I knew that first we had to get that history. That’s what I’ve been doing. It is really important to be able to have a firm foundation for the dance, the roots and the story. Breaking already had their moves made up and they all came sort of at one time. Jit had its movement when breaking had its movement but our eyes were on New York and Cali. The eyes wasn’t on Detroit in any national sense. We had some eyes, which was the dance show, but that wasn’t national and by the time things came back this way, we had already been through our apex.
RN Is there a scene now? Is there a jit scene?
HR It is a scene, but we don’t have a strong enough movement to be able to make an impact. If you compare Chicago’s scene—the “juke” or Chicago footworking—right now they are at their apex. It spread like wildfire when they was doing it and they got the backing of commercial entities who really exploited it, and that’s why Chicago is looked to as the footwork capital, and really Detroit should have that name.
LB So, is that your dream for the jit?
HR Well, I mean, I’m not going to . . . Right now, much props to Chicago.
LB You don’t want to start any wars?
HR No, we already been through that, jit versus juke. We hashed it out, no fights. Everybody got together and finally accepted each other’s styles. We’ve moved on with that. Now I feel like we representing more as a Midwest region. Midwest has this unique footwork as a region and that’s how we should represent. So East Coast, you got the breaking. West Coast, you got locking and the popping. Midwest, now that’s crazy footwork. I would just say it’s not to the point where the jit is or should be side by side with Chicago footwork. But nowadays things is moving so fast, there’s so many fads and the attention span now is a lot shorter than it was, so trying to make those same strides with dance is almost impossible.
LB Do you think YouTube has helped or hurt the jit and these local dance forms?
HR YouTube hurt everything. We in the breaking world would say, “I was breaking before YouTube” and for you to be breaking before that time meant that you were a real b-boy because it really hit you to the point where you didn’t have no outside influences to tell you, “Oh, this is what you should be doing,” so it really struck.
Now people have a choice and they can see it and be like, “Oh, I’m going to do that.” True b-boys came before YouTube because at that time we had to make sacrifices to fly all the way to New York. I’m talking mid to late ’90s, where there were only like three events for that dance style that you could go to. On the East Coast there was Rock Steady Crew Anniversary, West Coast had B-Boy Summit, down South you had the Pro-Am. That was it. Now it’s saturated to the point where you can go anywhere and on any day there is some type of battle going on. It’s so different from that early time when a real event was three days and it encompasses panel discussions, battles, and rubbing elbows with the founders of the dance. Panel discussions would be like proper etiquette about approaching the dance. It was so real.
RN Jit is so specific and unique. Once you start to understand what it is and what the steps are, it’s like nothing else. I barely understand anything about it, but there’s just something about it that is immediately striking—the way that you put it together. Each step is a word in your dance vocabulary and you’re putting together these sentences on the fly. And you can say anything you want with it once you know the words.
LB When I saw your documentary about jit, Haleem, and I realized that everyone in the audience already knew the people in the film, it made me think of those online lists: “100 reasons you know you’re a Detroiter, # 57: You saw jit at every single talent show.” I can’t help thinking: How did this dance form come out of Detroit? Why was jit preserved and passed on? The super local cultural output is so interesting as a phenomenon. Like in China, I studied a regional form of opera that was super local and all the jokes, characters, and the kind of stories that they told reflected the people in that place. I feel like it’s the same thing in Detroit with jit.
RN There’s something compelling about a living history that is passed from person to person, dancer to dancer, and that lineage. It may be only 35 years old or so, but a lot has happened in that time . . .
LB It’s never going to be the same way twice because it lives in the body and is always changing, which is what I think is interesting about jit. As it moves through different people they all pull different things from the dance and it changes jit forever. It is so cool to be part of a legacy like that.
RN Maybe that’s part being a performer, any sort of performer, who works in a physical position or lineage: there are some things that things are passed on. We use words to teach and explain, but really you are looking at what you can see and understand, and what you take from that . . .
LB And personality. You’re working with personality. And someone’s disposition changes a dance. Or like what we do, it changes performance when you perform in something and let someone else take something, a role that you’ve created.
HR Well based on that, I mean when you look at a figure like Michael Jackson, all Michael Jackson’s moves were from the streets. He was inspired . . . he started to try to understand the move. I was looking at some of his earlier things when he was just straight up locking. You can kind of see it in Michael Jackson’s moves, the influence of urban dance styles. The moonwalk—I think everyone knows that whole story. That’s been done before, there was people popping on the streets doing glides . . . It came from the streets. I just have this firm belief that b-boys run the world. We make the world go round. It’s not just a breaker but it’s just that ground root figure with style. And it’s got so much style that people just can’t help but to take, but it rarely gets that credit. The style that [Jackson] has is like a multi-million dollar style, because a lot of things coming from the streets has made so much money and had so much impact. For instance, rap and rappers wouldn’t exist without the b-boys. It was b-boys was first doing tours, the b-boys stance, the dress, the attitude—all from the b-boy first. The MC came after, the MC’s job was basically to introduce the DJ and the b-boy and all the creativity and inspiration for other creativity and running off in that direction. And we see what happened with that . . .
RN Am I sensing some jealousy?
HR I wouldn’t say jealousy. But I feel that a lot of people don’t know the connection, and it’s unfortunate because this dance form is still around. It’s one of those dance forms I don’t think is going to go anywhere. And when you see people looking at it with their nose up, thinking it’s an old dance, it’s like if you only knew . . .
LB Where this all came from?
HR Yeah, the influence it had on their life.
LB Maybe it is that the b-boy will be the Charles Dickens for the next century—that you don’t get your credit now but someday someone will look back and realize that a big chunk of society came from you.
HR The whole swag? We invented swag, the b-boy stance. The dress! If you look back at the day, no rappers was dressed like that before b-boys.
LB Well there was no rapper, right?
HR There was no rapper. The attitude. That’s a whole other topic . . .