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Detroit Jit film and dance comes to Capital Park, reviving a homegrown culture

The McGhee brothers COURTESY IMAGE

The McGhee brothers COURTESY IMAGE

By Steve Furay
Special to the Michigan Citizen

Detroit Jit is an urban dance style developed on the rough streets of the Motor City by a few ambitious and talented young men in the 70s. Now jit is in the spotlight again thanks to a new documentary video, “The Jitterbugs: Pioneers of the Jit,” directed by Haleem “Stringz” Rasul Ar-Rasheed of the hip hop dance group Hardcore Detroit.

On Aug. 8 at 8 p.m. in Capitol Park, the film will be screened for the public along with a special interactive dance performance from Hardcore Detroit, displaying the unique movement style born in Motown, but has traveled throughout the world since.

“The Jitterbugs: Pioneers of the Jit” focuses on the rise of the dance group called The Jitterbugs during their days as performers in Detroit. The Jitterbugs quickly gained the attention of the entertainment industry with their quick footwork, expressive arm movements and breathtaking athleticism.

“Every time I see (The Jitterbugs) dance live, it just gives me chills,” said Rasul at the film’s May premier at the Detroit Film Theater inside the Detroit Institute of Arts. “They still got it. This is the real deal; I appreciate you guys. I know it’s been a long journey, we’re here. We made it.”

When The Jitterbugs, featuring brothers Johnnie, James, and Tracy McGhee, were starting out, they were determined to make it out of the poverty of Detroit and ascend the peak of the entertainment world. That dream would come crashing down because of their own personal struggles. The brothers’ legacy languished in obscurity until the story was revealed to director Haleem Rasul, who immediately set out to document their story with the help of many in Detroit’s music and dance scene.

“For me, it’s about the city. For me, it’s about the people. For me, it’s about the love,” said Sundiata O.M. Mausi, a long-time Detroit music producer and industry professional who helped The Jitterbugs launch their dance career. “(‘Stringz’) came to me seven years ago and said ‘Sundiata, they’re robbing us of our culture — just like so many other things people are just ripping apart from the city. They’re just taking, taking, taking.’ And I am with this new giving, giving, giving.”

Though the Jit dance style never was lost in Detroit — it continued to be performed by younger generations in dance clubs and parties throughout the city over the years — it is a style that has only been taught through oral tradition and experience, never popularized to the point of acceptance in any academic dance classes.

Kim Weston, who gained fame in the 1960s as a Motown Records singer, was one of the first to give The Jitterbugs their opportunity to perform on stage. Believing in their talent, she was unaware many of the street dance performers of the day were also caught up in the dangerous life of criminal gangs rampant throughout the city.

“All I can say is, to be God be the glory,” said Weston at the premier. “That’s what I told them … when I found out I had the Errol Flynns, the BKs, and they just told me the Young Boys Incorporated invest. I didn’t know what I was doing, so I know God gets the glory.”

Today, Rasul continues the tradition of the Jit, having himself mastered the style, introducing it to young audiences throughout the city, and even as far away as China where he has participated as a guest dance instructor. Through film and dance performance, he is helping assure the place of Jit within the long legacy of African American dance, and the importance of Detroit as a root of Black culture through styles of dance like the Jit.

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