She sat at a bench in the park, reading a book about samurai. Her lips were crimsoned to perfection, her hair in perfect Andrews Sister style in prep for swing dancing a few hours later.
But when the hip-hop pumps, the banker’s on the floor. She flips, she turns, she toprocks and down. She 6-steps and Indian steps and freezes, flares, swipes.
This is Miss Sweetfeet, B-Girl of Chicago.
The 35-year-old breakdancer loves jazz, funk, soul, the rockabilly she spends some nights vibing to and the boleros her father used to play her when she was growing up.
And of course, hip-hop, soft spot always for the jazzy old-school.
“When you hear music, it’s like I want to move. It moves you,” she said, wrapped in a dark coat as autumn leaves tumbled around her. “Growing up in the ‘90s, hip-hop was just a new thing and coming in from all different places. It was a thirst.”
Goofy of Zion
The suburban community of Zion, Ill., was formed in 1896 as a “Christian utopia” for a sect created by a Scottish faith healer named John Alexander Dowie. Small and conservative, it didn’t even allow alcohol until 2004.
It wasn’t the best fit for the little low-rider girl nicknamed Goofy who wanted to house dance at high school parties and Chicago clubs.
“Being rebellious, I would sneak away and come down here. One of my cousins was dating a bouncer, so we would go into the clubs, dance,” she said, bursting out in laughter at the under-21 memories. “I wouldn’t drink. I just wanted to go and I wanted to dance and I wanted to house. I craved it.”
Moving to Chicago 15 years ago, she connected with B-Boy Kid Jungle over MySpace. She soon started hanging out with him and his dance crew at the time, Phase Two.
The future Miss Sweetfeet started asking her new friends to teach her some moves.
“It was kind of hard to get someone to take you serious when you’re asking them like (adopting a slight valley girl voice), ‘Hey, you know, will you teach me how to break?’”
Her friends would show her a basic move or two to quiet her — an Indian step or a 6-step — but she wanted more.
A friend was teaching an after-school program at a community center in Pilsen. There, Miss Sweetfeet found a class on breakdancing from a B-Boy named Stitches.
“From there, when I showed everyone — like my friends that didn’t want to teach me — ‘Look what I learned!’ And they’re like (gasp), like all amazed,” she said. “Slowly they started taking me in and showing me things, investing time into me. And then once I got into a comfortable place, I started teaching other females.”
She took over a Kuumba Lynx class Kid Jungle had been teaching, making an effort to invite in women and girls who wanted to learn to break. All ages, races and regions. One woman drives in from suburban Schaumburg for the class.
“It’s kind of hard for a female because there’s not that many people that will be willing to teach,” Miss Sweetfeet said. “Usually, girls they want to learn for the wrong reasons, like ‘Oh, I have a boyfriend that does it,’ or ‘Oh, guys will want to talk to me if I do it.’”
Teaching someone to breakdance is a time-intensive, demanding investment. Dilettantes of either gender are, if not discouraged, then not actively sought as students.
Also, women drop out more, Miss Sweetfeet said. Sometimes it’s for family reasons, like pregnancy or parenting. Sometimes they just move on to something new.
At 35, Miss Sweetfeet has become something of an elder stateswoman.
“I think the girls that come in now, they’ve seen the older women,” she said, listing off a few names like Lady Champ, bgirl pilot and Bgirl Sindee. “They’ve seen some of us older women out there still breaking, still dancing, doing things. And I think that inspires them.
“I know a few girls that have come up to me and said, ‘I’ve seen you dance and after I seen you dance, I’m like, whoa a girl.’ And then they’ll tell me that I inspired them to start too. That meant so much to me. Like whoa, bananas.”
Chicago’s a powerhead city. That means the local scene veers toward power moves — windmills, head spins, flares, 90s — moves as frenetic and frightening as the names imply.
“Basically anything where you’re whipping your body to a fast motion. That’s a good description,” Miss Sweetfeet said, laughing before turning to a pleasantly self-mocking tone. “Anything where you’re basically throwing your body on the floor at a fast pace.”
Despite Chicago’s powerhead rep, Sweetfeet is more proud of her toprock, more into style and footwork than to big power moves.
She’s also more of a cipher head, preferring the collaborative back-and-forth of a cipher to a competitive breakdance battle.
“I kind of like that feeling more because it’s more like a camaraderie. You’re with a group of friends and you’re vibing out to music. It’s not high pressure. You’re just kind of having fun — you go in, I go in, we’re going back and forth — it’s just having a good time.”
It had gotten darker in the park where Miss Sweetfeet read about samurai. A bit colder too. Squirrels chased each other by, making that odd chirpy barky sound a lot of people don’t think squirrels make, but they totally do, man.
Miss Sweetfeet has arthritis in her feet, making it hard to walk some days. She has asthma, too.
But if she can breakdance when she some days can’t walk, she figures she can do anything. She took up running to increase her stamina for dance. Now she wants to run a marathon, asthma and arthritis be damned.
“Just breaking and overcoming little things that you put your mind to, I have taken that with me into my regular daily life,” she said.
When Miss Sweetfeet started breaking, she plunged full into classic hip-hop style. Adidas jumpsuit. Fat laces.
“I still rock my fat laces,” she clarifies, laughing. “I’m not in the same place. I’m growing up, I’m older. I’m a woman. So I slowly began to incorporate my own personal style into that style.”
Now, her style is a fusion of hip-hop, rockabilly and just plain her. She wears dresses now.
But she wears them with shorts underneath so she can get going when the music starts.
“It doesn’t matter what I’m wearing. It doesn’t matter if I’m a female. If I hear music and I’m moved, I’m moving.”