Philadelphia has a rich history of producing world-class dance talent, from virtuoso tap dancers LaVaughn Robinson and the Nicholas Brothers to the contemporary house and street dancers from Rennie Harris Puremovement, the longest running street dance theater company in the world.
And, like the signature Philly sound, the city has moves with soul.
“Philly has always been a very soulful town, and the dancers here have always danced a little different, with their own flavor,” says David Austin, a pioneering dancer in Philadelphia’s 1980s house scene who was drawn to its rhythmic music and freestyle dance styles with African diasporic and Latin influences. “We’re family when we were out at these clubs,” Austin adds. “There's a connection that we share with one another that is really unique, and I think that's why the house scene is so lasting.”
More than three decades later, Austin is part of a tight-knit, intergenerational community of house dancers, DJs and event producers in Philadelphia who have worked, amidst commercialization and club closures, to keep the original underground spirit of the scene alive.
The Roots of Philly House
House culture has roots dating back to the late 1970s, when DJ Frankie Knuckles remixed funk, R&B and disco records at the Warehouse in Chicago’s South Side for largely Black and brown gay partygoers. The distinctive world of sound he spun at the late-night dance parties was so influential that the Warehouse is widely credited as the place that gave house its name.
“House—there is a message in the music about yourself, about spirituality, your relationship with people … it eliminates all that is wrong at that moment in the world, and can take us to that very special place,” says DJ Terry “Tee” Alford, who with a crew of deejay friends and producers started a Sunday night house party at the Impulse Club in North Philly in 1988. By that time, Philly’s queer clubs were already hosting all-night dance parties in speakeasys and spaces like Second Story and Catacombs. Clubs like the Impulse introduced the culture to a whole new audience.
Philadelphia house was distinct from its harder-edged Chicago, Detroit and New York counterparts. The smooth, string-laden productions of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff had set the tone for the city’s silky soul in the 1970s through their record label Philadelphia International, its house band MFSB, and the landmark hit “T.S.O.P. (The Sound of Philadelphia).” Even in other cities, early house DJs like Knuckles drew on Philly soul for their club sets, bringing Gamble & Huff’s aesthetic into house music throughout the 1980s.
By 1991, some of Philly’s best house dancers began starring on the TV show One House Street, hosted by street dancer Rennie Harris.
Harris had recently toured with the country’s first official hip-hop tour, the Fresh Festival, and when the television producers tapped him to host a dance show, he insisted on making it all house. “My whole thing was, this has to be what I'm into right now—nothing but the house underground,” says Harris, who recruited dancers in local clubs and beyond to appear on the weekly show. While the show was short-lived, it was watched widely. “We were killing Soul Train, we were killing MTV,” Harris adds.
“[House dance], the je ne sais quoi, it’s flowy, dynamic footwork patterns, the manipulation of time and space,” says Kyle “JustSole” Clark, who discovered and fell in love with the culture in the early 2000s. Today, he teaches the foundation, culture, and history of the scene as a dance educator at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and as co-founder of Just Sole! Street Dance Company. “How [the pioneers] put the steps together—not just that they do the steps—that's the inspiration I'm drawing from.”
Keeping the Culture Alive
In the decade before Clark came onto the scene, many of the original clubs in Philadelphia where house had thrived closed down. While some new clubs replaced them, many of these were lounge-style clubs, offering VIP sections and bottle service to reserved tables. Dance floors shrunk, and spaces for unapologetic self-expression and inclusivity began disappearing.
Then, DJs Lee Jones and Francisco Collazo founded the Sundae Party, one of the longest running house parties in Philadelphia. Over its 18-year history, the all-ages Sunday afternoon dance party has moved from club to club in Philadelphia and spilled into alleyways and outdoor venues, with both local and guest DJs including Rich Medina and Questlove keeping the soul of the scene.
“The number one rule of Sundae is if you're not here to dance, go home,” says Jones. “And I think one thing that the dancers pride ourselves on is that we never break the cipher. What we broke was people standing around trying to videotape. I would call people out, like, ‘Get off the floor.’”
The first time Clark rolled up at a Sundae Party, it felt like home. “Young, old, Black, white, everything in between, everybody dancing and nobody is standing on the wall—it was community, it was love,” says Clark, who was a dance major at the University of the Arts at the time. But, he says, he received his real education in dance through what remained of the club scene, the Sundae Parties, and the battle culture.
Clark, along with his partner Dinita “Queen Dinita” Clark, soon became the first “house heads” to show up and the last to leave. They learned from and traded rounds with OGs like Moncell Durden, Fabian Ballantine, Shachon Conway Kasey, and others.
“In the beginning,” Clark says, “it was a little intimidating, but they would encourage me to share myself, like, ‘Hey, sis, I see you. What is it you have to say?’”
A Bridge to the New Generation
Today, the Clarks serve as a connector to the roots of Philly house for newer generations of dancers, who they push to get out of the studio and into the streets.
“Being that bridge, we carry that with great honor and respect, because that's the way the people, our OGs, carried it—culture and community first,” says Dinita.
“When the kids come and say, ‘Yo, I didn't even know I was looking for [this],’ that's exactly how Dinita and I felt when we walked into the Philly house clubs for the first time,” says Clark. “These spaces, being the through line from the beginning of our relationship to our marriage, just shows how much of an impact house dance music and culture, here in Philly, has had on us.”
Watch members of Just Sole! and pioneers of Philadelphia’s house scene dance together at Sundae Party (the first one since the pandemic’s lockdown) at the Kensington artspace Sunflower Philly; at a cipher in front of the Rotunda; and getting down on Percy Street in South Philly. — Text by Kelly Whalen
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