The Artistry of New York’s Litefeet Subway Dancers

59 Days in New York Subway Scene

I may be a sucker for loving this, but one of my favorite things is a good subway performance.

The love affair started when I moved to New York in February 2013. One of my first days in the city, I was having a particularly rough morning. I had pulled an all-nighter to complete my application for the graduate musical theatre writing program at Tisch, I was coming down with a nasty bug, and I was running late to my internship. But then, a small trio with two guitars, a set of maracas, and spirited voices, walked into the subway car. After a serenade of “Forget your troubles, come on get happy,” I was a few dollars poorer, but smiling.

Since that magical commute, I’ve seen some remarkable subway shows from violinists, singers, drummers, and “Show Time” dancers. In spite my love of these subway acts, however, I suppose part of me saw performing on the subway as a desperate act — something an individual might try if they had few other outlets. At least that’s how I portrayed Amy’s feeling about it: “I’ll even sing on the subway if I have to,” she tells the Roommate in Episode 7. As though performing on the subway was the lowest she could go!

For Episode 8, however, I pulled in a very talented group of dancers to perform in 59 Days in New York. Named WAFFLE (We Are Family For Life Entertainment), these guys were the authentic “Show Timers” – the kind of Litefeet dancers known for their pole flips and hip hop moves. Most of the group had performed on the subway since their early teen years, and now in their twenties, were quite the pros. They had even been featured in the New York Times! To them, subway performing was no act of desperation – it was a career and a lifestyle.

What struck me most about the group was the incredible precision and strong entertainment culture they maintained. Without official websites and an unconventional performance space to my stage-bound mindset, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But these gentlemen were savvy. They knew exactly the best hours to perform to avoid traffic for filming (between 10:00 am and noon) and where to perform (deep in Brooklyn). They also knew on which side of the car the doors would open – every.single.stop. along the Q train. For setting up camera, that information was invaluable!

59 Days in New York Deshawn
After we filmed the subway sequence, dancer Dashawn delivered a short talk on safety.

These guys had mastered the subway, we could tell. But what got me the most was one comment from dancer Dashawn. During the shoot, we had to switch trains because the Q train went above ground – a less ideal route for doing multiple takes. During a sequence, we asked Dashawn to repeatedly swing and kick from a subway pole to get the camera angle just right. About 10 takes in, Dashawn said his hands were getting sore. The poles on the F train were different enough that he had to alter his typical grip to execute the move. I was shocked that anyone could tell the difference between the New York City subway poles. But when I thought about how awkward a new piano can feel in your hands or how a different floor can affect your dancing, I started to sympathize.

WAFFLE also impressed me in our choreography discussions. When we tried to relay what general actions we had in mind for them to perform, the guys were quick to demonstrate and provide the corresponding choreographic names. In a talk about buying time while Amy stood in the foreground, the guys suggested doing a “fake out” – or a simple action that would fool the audience into thinking they weren’t any good. After the “fake out,” the dancer would follow up with an impressive move. Hearing them talk about “fake outs” reminded me of working with the world-renowned clown Chuck Sidlow. A comedic genius, he would tell me about the importance of building up the audience’s expectations with similar tactics. It occurred to me that these guys had a great grasp of how to work the audience – and considering how tough hardened New Yorkers can be, kudos to them!

Having a good audience understanding is crucial to any successful performance. But when we finally watched the guys dance, they blew us out of the water with their talent. As WAFFLE leader Andrew balanced his body out perpendicular to the subway pole, I could only think about how much upper body strength he had to cultivate to create that piece of choreography. And as the guys flipped and danced with their baseball caps, you could see the same kind of meticulous precision and dedication that go into all high-level art forms.

During the filming process, we learned that the police are now cracking down on any kind of subway performing. In working with WAFFLE, however, I wish the City would recognize the artistry that goes into this dance culture. Maybe I’m not a soured enough New Yorker yet, but as a fellow creator trying to make it here, I find the call of “Show Time” inspiring. Their commitment represents the kind of artistic dedication I would like to maintain in my own work.