November 10, 2013 at 1:00 am

Dancers add Jit to Detroit's cultural legacy

Detroit does the Jit
Detroit does the Jit: The Jit is Detroit's urban dance that grew up around the time break dancing was developing on the east coast, but its intricate footwork is pure Detroit.

He dips, he dives, his arms create sinuous figure eights. His feet are something else altogether.

They hop, they spin, they mash like they’re crushing cigarette butts. They push up on the tips of their kicks like a ballet dancer on pointe. Make that on speed. The footwork can be dizzying.

This is the Jit, the dance Detroit almost forgot.

Originated by a trio of brothers and adopted by Detroit’s street gangs in the ’70s, the Jit became popular at house parties. It inspired intense competition between the east and west sides for almost two decades. But as the ’90s drew to a close, the Jit went underground, kept alive in the clubs by male exotic dancers.

Now, two Detroit dancers have taken up the Jit torch and independently set out to revive the dance. Each has made a film showcasing the dance form. Both men want to add the Jit to Detroit’s cultural legacy, right up there with the automobile industry, the Motown sound and the birth of techno music.

Haleem “Stringz” Rasul and Brandon “Jitting Jesus” Hobbs are today’s evangelists of Jit. Add in the dance troupe LeJit that works out of Corktown’s Ponyride creative incubator, and Detroit’s got a growing dance movement.

A culture develops

About the time breaking was developing on the East Coast, the West Coast went for its own dance style known as popping and locking.

“But for some reason, Detroit gravitated to this (Jit) footwork,” Rasul says.

“When hip-hop culture began in New York, the Jit culture began in Detroit,” Hobbs says. Although to the novice, jitting may look similar to breaking,the dance of hip hop, its practitioners insist on its unique identity. Hobbs calls it a “fancy footwork-motivated dance.”

The original jitters of the ’70sdanced to funk, the musical style of George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic. Now jitters dance to techno, but Willie “Sonic” Hull of LeJit Dance Company says it can be danced to any music, including rock ‘n’ roll.

“You name it, Jitting can be done to it,” he says. “That’s what makes it so unique.”

Born on the streets

Rasul, 35, discovered the Jit in junior high and fell so in love with it that he’s traveled the world giving Jitting workshops. He was inspired to track down the dance’s originators, the three McGee brothers who started dancing on the streets of Detroit back in the ’70s and wound up on the auto show circuit and local TV. The brothers are the focus of Rasul’s film “The Jitterbugs: Pioneers of the Jit.”

It’s easy to confuse the Jit with the 1930s swing dance the Jitterbug because it seems the McGhee brothers —James, Johnnie and Tracy — named it after themselves. But, Rasul says, there’s no relation. “In the ’70s, in Detroit, the word ‘jitterbug’ meant ‘hoodlum’ or ‘thug,’ he says. “And that’s what they were, so the name really fit.”

“People would see them and go ‘those cats be jittin’,” he says. The dance became known as the Jit.

The McGhees were poor and not above stealing the cool clothes they danced in. “We were criminals,” says one of the McGhee brothers in Rasul’s film. That had to change when Motown singer Kim Weston took an interest in mentoring and promoting them. Weston pulled them off the streets and pushed them onto the stage.

Detroiters liked what they saw and started emulating the brothers’ unique dance steps until the Jit belonged to the city as much as to the McGhees. Street gangs took up the dance, adding moves of their own.

“Some people say the Jit was the original ‘gangster boogie,’” Rasul says.

“The Errol Flynns were a well-known gang in Detroit, but they had a dance that they did and you will see parts of that in jitting today,” Hobbs says. “Most of the stuff you see with our arms is the Errol Flynn.”

The Jit remained popular through the ’90s, danced at house and block parties.

Hobbs pointed out there’s an east-side and a west-side style of Jitting, and dancers representing the two territories staged fierce dance battles that sometimes turned violent. He feels the competition “suffocated the life out of the dance.”

But as the century turned, the Jit was left behind, kept alive by male exotic dancers in Detroit’s strip clubs, Rasul says. In fact, Hobbs worked as an exotic dancer for a time and his troupe-mate Gabrielle Ellison, 22, currently dances in a club.

There are nonprofessional dancers who still cherish the Jit. “There’s a whole lot of closet jitters out there,” says Wendy Townsend, booking agent for LeJit.

“At the end of the day, me and Haleem are Detroit jitters,” he says. “We jit for the entire Detroit, the entire Michigan. We don’t see sides. We keep each other focused on the goal at hand and that’s the bigger picture, which is raising the awareness of this culture.

“We still have a competitive edge. But it’s a camaraderie, man, because we feel we’re all carriers of the light when it comes to jittin.’”

Two jittin' crusaders

Hobbs, 29, admits to his nickname a little sheepishly. “It’s not ‘I’m Jitting Jesus.’” he says, emphasizing the “I’m.” He looks up, raises his hands toward the heavens and smiles, “It’s ‘I’m Jittin,’ Jesus,” like someone who addresses God regularly, adding, “my Father in heaven knows I’m doing what He blessed me to do.”

This modesty notwithstanding, his film, “Jittin’ Has Risen,” produced by Detroit-based Mula Films, outlines his history with the Jit and features his own dancing. Though the film is viewable in segments on YouTube, Hobbs isn’t sure how to distribute it beyond selling copies of the DVD through his email account

His dance company Run Jit has two other members, Ellison and Marshall “Jigga” Darey. Hobbs says the name Run Jit is an “acronym for Reaching Universal Notoriety Just in Time.”

As a professional dancer, he’s appeared on MTV’s “Made,” on BET’s “The Deal” and on Paula Abdul’s talent competition show “Live to Dance” on CBS. He’s done backup dancing and has opened for acts like Usher and Boyz II Men.

Today he gives one-on-one Jit lessons. His studio is often the park where he works out and practices, just a block from his northwest Detroit home.

Rasul, a Midtown Detroit resident, has been collaborating with the Hinterlands Ensemble, a nontraditional theater company. Last year they included him in their performances in Beijing. He also performs alone and manages a crew of B-boy dancers under his company name Hardcore Detroit.

Rasul, who was a Kresge Arts Fellow in 2010, recently won a Knight Arts Challenge grant to bring his film to the public with a live show featuring Detroit’s professional Jit dancers. The tricky thing about the Knight grant is it requires the artist to raise matching funds. In Rasul’s case, that’s $12,000 and he’s looking for sponsors.

“There are people here that think this dance is washed up, that it’s old,” Rasul says. “...They don’t know there’s a whole world that don’t know anything about it — and wants to know more. “ This dance I feel could go pound for pound against any other dance form. And I want Detroit to be recognized for that.

“This dance is THE STUFF!”

Gabrielle Ellison, 22, and Brandon 'Jitting Jesus' Hobbs, 29, of Run Jit dance the Jit at Milan Playfield in northwest Detroit. Hobbs works out here every day and even teaches some students at the park, which is a block from his home. / Donna Terek / The Detroit News
Haleem Rasul, 35, of Detroit, dances the Jit at Ride It Sculpture Skate ... (Donna Terek)