House Dance is a style of dance that originated in the late 70’s and early 80’s from underground clubs in Chicago and New York. The style was influenced by several types of movement, including Tap, African dance, Latin dance, and martial arts. House Dance is about freedom, improvisation, and feeling the music.

History of House Music

There are a few different interpretations of how House music and dance started. It’s important to keep in mind that “dance history” is essentially a collection of people’s life stories. These aren’t our experiences, and we are not married to any one narrative; these are the ones that were shared with us.

The first House record came from Jessie Saunders in 1984 titled “On & On”, co-written by Vince Lawrence. Similar sounds existed elsewhere before, but intentional branding of it, like “THIS is House music” with a DJ as the artist/producer, first happened in the Chicago community. I’m sure there are many other stories of “firsts” that have yet to be as widely circulated.

– Cody “Coflo” Ferreira

In the late 70’s, the underground heads were starting to get tired of the formulaic cheesiness of Disco music. Two DJs from New York City, Larry Levan and Frankie Knuckles, started to mix Disco with other musical elements – like breaks, afro beats and electronic music.

Shortly after, they started selling their music in record shops in New York. The owner of a big club in Chicago called “The Warehouse” found this new music and started playing it there.

Other Origins of House Music

I’ve also heard that around the time The Warehouse was more mainstream, record shops got really popular. Record diggers came in asking for the type of music played at The Warehouse, so owners of record shops would categorize those songs in a “House” section to market them.

Another story puts Leonard “Remix” Rroy, a DJ from Chicago, as having “accidentally” invented the terminology for House: During the Warehouse period, Chicago was also a hotbed for juice bars (places without alcohol that people went to to dance), as well as communal parties hosted at local high schools.

Leonard scored a gig DJing for a juice bar, playing his mixes for the partiers. The owner asked him, “What do you call this music?” and he thought, “Well, I’m making this stuff in my mom’s basement, so I’m gonna call it House.” They started advertising the venue, writing “We play House music here” on billboards and posters.

– Coflo

House music came from community parties, not just at clubs. Larry Levan was playing at The Garage in New York when he got an offer to play at Chicago’s clubs. He said no, but referred Frankie Knuckles. They had no name for it, which gave them more freedom to experiment with the sounds.

They just made and played the music and didn’t think it was a big deal – until other DJs were claiming they invented it. It’s hard to label something after it’s been commercialized by other people…

– Louis “Loose” Key

It’s difficult to assign exactly how the music or the term “House” was invented. But the common thread is that this social, party culture, especially at The Warehouse, paved the way for House music to become its own genre.

People quickly fell in love with this new music they heard at The Warehouse. Like, really in love. Going dancing at the club went from activity to obsession; they based their whole lives around going to the clubs. It was a powerful experience for people.

– Jojo Diggs

House Dance Clubs

Why was (and is) this connection so powerful? It may help to understand that House Dance was (as were other street dance styles) wasn’t just born from both celebration of the music, but also as an escape from some sort of struggle.

People went to the club looking for more than a party. They wanted an emotional and physical release.

The gospel-y vibes, strong bass beats, and hypnotizing lyrics of House music set the perfect atmosphere for this. Soon, the underground clubs of Chicago and New York became the place of freedom and expression.

There were stages to House’s evolution. The first was very grassroots, when avid club goers would dance to funk, soul, disco, rock, boogaloo music, “Black Music,” or “Soul Music.”

You had the people who just went, then you had the people who called themselves “dancers.” They didn’t have circles or platforms, or even the room to dance in a big expressive way.

Later, in the 80’s and 90’s, the dancers created a shift in attention to themselves by forming cyphers. It went from individuals dancing wherever they could, to a person dancing and a group noticing, appreciating what that dancer was doing, in a new communal way.

– Coflo

Check Your Body At The Door

Check Your Body At The Door is a documentary about the underground House Dance scene in NYC. This quote paints the perfect picture of what it was like to be one of these dancers:

“Check your body at the door” means you take your attitude, your baggage, all of that, you check it at the door, and then you go into the club, and you’re a totally different person. You enjoy aggravation free, stress free, life problem free. A club head is someone who literally lives for the club, who makes time religiously to throw down and dance. I am a Club Head.

– Archie Burnett, Check Your Body At The Door

The dancers were not following any rules or practicing steps that someone else taught them. They, themselves, gave birth to a dance style that was just as free and cathartic as the music made them feel. House Dance was not based on counts and structure, but on passion, desperation for the movement, connection to the music.

Come as you are. Dance as you. Feel as you are. There’s no rules.

– Barbara Tucker, Check Your Body At The Door

House Dance Influences

And since doors were open to dancers of all styles – House Dance became influenced by several different types of movement.

Everything from the footwork and torso movements of African dance, the grace of Tap and Jazz, a sense of acrobatics from Capoeira, to steps from Latin dance and the athleticism of martial arts– all were ingredients that stewed into House Dance.

Those styles, plus a dash of spontaneity, creativity, and of course – love for the music, created what we consider House dance today.

You don’t have to be black, white, gay, or straight. We have one common thing – and that’s the music.

– Underground Network’s promoter, Don Welsh, Check Your Body At The Door

 

Codification of House Dance Moves

3 generations later, in the early 2000’s, House Dance moves went on to be codified in New York. Brian Green, Mop Top, Elite Force, and other House Dancers and organizations such as Dance Fusion and World Soul were critical in creating this “syllabus” for House Dance moves.

To understand any freestyle culture simply ask the questions, “Who, what, when, where, why?”

When people dance, and they bring their ancestry, they bring their emotional revolutions.

We have to understand that much later certain movements were given labels, but it all starts with people being people.

– Jojo Diggs

Culture of House Dance – “House Is A Feeling”

What does this mean to people?

Most of the people who created House Dance came from rhythm-based backgrounds, cultures that played a lot of drums. That rhythm, that beat – they were born into it.

You can learn the footsteps; you cannot learn the feeling.

– Loose

House is some freedom dancing, that’s what it really is, because you go inside and feel the music, and the movements just come out.

– Ejoe Wilson, Check Your Body At The Door

House is a feeling. You can learn foundation, and you should understand where it comes from, but at the end of the day, you learn that foundation to understand how to express how the music makes you feel.

– Jojo Diggs

The feeling of House Dance lives in the Jack, which is the signature groove of the style.

A few base moves of House Dance

  • Jack In The Box
  • The Swivel
  • Farmer
  • Shuffle Step
  • Heel-Toe
  • Stomp
  • PBR
  • Box
  • Train
  • Skate
  • Loose Leg

Jojo Diggs

Jojo is a dancer, in love with House and many other styles. She’s an international instructor and choreographer, Mop Top member, and founder and CEO of Diggs Deeper.

Always a fan of Hip Hop and gangster rap in her younger years but growing up in a conservative environment, Jojo never quite felt free to indulge in the music and dance she was interested in.

I felt embarrassed about how much I liked it.

But she started ballroom dancing in her early 20’s, and later discovered the underground dance scene of cyphers and clubs. When she went to her first House club called Red, introduced to her by Chaz “Asiatic” Cabonce, she instantly fell in love.

House music and dance just made sense to me in a really, really deep place. I wish I had found it earlier in my life.

She learned to freestyle in the club, with other club goers. They would not teach her moves, only encouraged her to be herself and move however the music moved her.

Learn House Dance With Jojo Diggs

After 5 years of dancing in the club, it seemed strange to Jojo to later learn that there were House classes that people taught at dance studios. She’d learned House Dance in such an organic, spiritual experience at the club; a House class to steps and counts was an idea hard to fathom.

I felt like there was no way to teach what we did.

But after taking a class, she was blown away with how much of what she was learning were the foundation of things she had been doing with her body, there was a whole world of House she hadn’t known about.

My foundation will always be something that happened from the music.

She has since then become one of the most sought and respected House Dance instructors in the world, training students and educating them on its history.

Jojo has been dancing and teaching for 17 years now, and has no plans on stopping.

Her Beginner House Program on STEEZY Studio takes you through all the foundational House Dance steps, drills, and even freestyle exercises.

 

Just SOME Notable House Dancers

Brahms Bravo La Fortune

Caleaf Sellers

Ejoe Wilson

Marjory Smarth

Shannon “Which Way” Mabra

Shannon Selby

Tony McGregor

Voodoo Ray

Tony “Sekou” Williams

Brooklyn Terry Wright

Kim D Holmes

Ronald Ricochet Thomas

William “Quick” Reynolds

Basil Thomas (Brutha Basil)
Oscar Baeza
Patrick Wilson
Archie Burnett
Conrad SP Rochester
Omar Kashim Henry
Asia Moon
Adrian Alicea
Carlos Sanchez
Willy Pinedo
Barbara Tucker
Iriena Herrera
“Peace” Moore
Pebbles Zimmerman
Ruth Monroe
Louis “Loose” Kee

Additional House Dance Resources

You can purchase the DVD, or on Amazon Video.

Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor, by Tim Lawrence

About the dancers

The school of thought for dance I was trained under was that your movement is what the you make of it. Dance style represents the time and place and a person. I dance the way I do because of the teachers I had, where I came from, and who I danced with.

Coflo Cody Ferreira

grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he met Strutters and house dancers (“Rebels”) at all-ages nightclubs in San Jose. He started to train under the mentorship of GraVidy, learning Hip Hop and House.

After graduating high school, Coflo connected with a group of House dancers who were also open to doing choreography.

He met Johnny Mendoza of Mindtricks, who taught him how to be professional about his dancing. Then, the New York influence came in – he saw a performance by Brian Footwork Green on VHS and decided to train with him. For 10 years, he went through intense, disciplined study of Brian’s technique.

It wasn’t until Coflo started playing the piano and making House music himself, that he was able to unlock a new level of understanding of House. Coflo is currently still dancing and producing music, involved in Circle of Fire, SoulShifters, and the Non-Profit organization All The Way Live. You can find his music here.

Louis Kee, AKA “Loose”

started dancing decades before House was even introduced. He started listening to funk jazz, and soul bands in the 70’s, going to community parties, AKA “Tin Can Team” activities in NYC mobile trailer parks.

Bands would play on the portable stages, sometimes hiring a DJ because it was cheaper than having a band. People started dancing to specific DJs that they liked, sometimes with their crews, battling other crew who danced for other DJs. Later, Loose started going to clubs.

That’s where all the new music was. Radios had to keep their ear to the streets, the clubs, to know what they should play.

Editor’s Note:

This piece was written to tell a part, not the whole, story of House Dance. There were many more dancers and events involved in House’s rich history, so we’re always learning more! If you’d like to contribute your stories, please email me at [email protected] The mission is to keep the conversation going – and we’re always down to listen. Thanks!

Wanna read the story of Urban Dance Choreography? Check out The Evolution Of Our Dance Community