It didn’t take long for Eli and Antonio to count up their earnings: Each of the subway dancers took home about $11 for two hours of work on a recent Friday on the F Train, from 34th Street to Seventh Avenue in Brooklyn and back, or as they call it, an “up-and-down.”
In that time they were approached by a plainclothes police officer who told them “not while I’m on the train,” a man who wanted to hire them to choreograph and dance in his music videos, and a kind, older woman who gave them a fresh-pressed $2 bill, among others. Most people treated them warmly, many ignored them, some gave them money, and others looked at them with scorn — a sentiment this trio blamed on other groups of less considerate dancers: “The ‘lite-footers’ ruin it for everyone,” they said. “They kick people while dancing, they hit people who don’t give them money, they don’t apologize when they mess up.”
Lite-feet dancing, say Eli and Antonio, relies on cheap pole and hat tricks, while Eli and Antonio, whose dance names are SB and Action Lite, respectively, consider themselves hip-hop dancers, incorporating many styles into their performances. Recently, the MTA has begun to crack down on showtime dancing, along with other impolite things like “man-spreading,” via signs placed in subway cars.
This duo say they prioritize passenger safety while dancing, and it seemed evident from watching them on this night: They were more subdued in crowded trains and more experimental in empty ones.
As far as the recent scrutiny placed on showtime dancing, they chalk it up partly to the damage of the lite-footers, but also to a perceived ignorance: “I don’t see the guys with guitars, the singers, the drummers, getting arrested, but they come after us for our art,” Antonio said.
The dancers aim for $50 a day in tips, and can make as much as $70, but consider trying to make more both greedy and risky.
Below are photos from the up-and-down that night:
Antonio is 26 and lives in a house in Bed-Stuy with four other subway dancers. He’s been subway dancing for six years and started dancing when he was four. He has a seven-year-old son he is trying to support. His current girlfriend, Sonia, rides with him as much as she can.
Eli, Antonio, and Sonia usually start routes at 34th Street on the F train. They wait in a corner near the newsstand for each member to show up.
Eli, Antonio, and Sonia, Antonio’s girlfriend, usually start routes at 34th Street on the F train. They decide which trains to dance on based on how long it is between stops. And they decide which car to dance on based on the audience: “If we see a lot of people on their phones, distracted, we’ll go onto a different car.”
When they first board the train, they announce a spiel familiar to anyone who rides the subway: “Ladies and gentlemen, it’s showtime. Before we start our show, we want you to know that safety is our number one priority.” They take deep pride in never having kicked anyone. They say that the careless, aggressive “lite-foot” dancers will kick people while dancing, assault people who don’t pay them, and generally disregard the well-being of the other passengers — which poisons the well: “That messes it up for everyone.”
The dancers start out their routine with a choreographed jog-in-place style move, before Eli begins his solo routine, followed by Antonio’s. The first thing they tell riders, after “It’s showtime,” is “safety is our number one priority.”
Eli considers himself a hip-hop dancer, incorporating breakdance, or “B-boy” elements, as well as pole tricks and finger-tutting.
Antonio handstands against a pole. He uses raw athleticism for much of his routine, including standing backflips that drew audible gasps from otherwise disengaged riders. “Some people do computers, that’s a job. I dance. I wish someone said to just ‘go here and dance and we’ll pay you.’ But for me, it’s either this or the shelter.”
The ideal reaction. “It’s all about the people’s eyes,” Eli says. “That’s why I do it. Recognition counts most — a smile, a clap, a question about the music. It’s not really about the money for me.”
Antonio says he’s been trying to recruit female dancers for years. “They’re usually either too scared or embarrassed,” he says. Neither Eli nor Antonio has ever seen a female showtime dancer. Antonio has tried to get Sonia, his girlfriend, to dance with them. “She’s got the moves,” he says, as she rolls her eyes and shakes her head.
Antonio breakdances in front of Sonia, with pink hair, and other onlookers. They say they are most likely to encounter police on the Q train, and most likely to encounter lite-footers on the L. They encountered one plainclothes police officer on our ride, who told them not to dance while he was on the train with them. In Eli’s time dancing, he says it was one of the only times he’s run into the police. Antonio has run into them more frequently.
The end of the line, the Seventh Avenue stop in Brooklyn. Eli and Antonio try to coordinate parts of their wardrobe for dances, shown here with the floral patterns and black hats.
They are members of a roughly ten-man dancing team called the Soul Wut Crew, who separate into smaller groups, like Eli and Antonio, because dancing solo is uncommon and not lucrative.
The dancers say that they get most of their practice on empty or scarcely populated cars, and that they never really practiced subway dancing until they started doing it. Both Eli and Antonio started dancing at an early age to artists like Michael Jackson, Ginuwine, and Usher.
Antonio crab-walks through the F train.
Eli twirls on the pole. They use pole tricks more sparingly, and are mindful of their surroundings, altering routines based on how many riders are nearby.
Eli is 24 and lives in Brooklyn. He’s been dancing since he was a small child, but only started showtime dancing last summer. “When I first started I was very shy, but I knew I could fall back on my moves. Dancing is what I love to do. My main fear was hitting someone. But I haven’t hit anyone, and the rest of my team hasn’t hit anyone.”
Antonio shows off finger-tutting, which involves intricate finger dances.
At the end of the night, they each take home a little more than $11.
The dancers count their money at the end of the “up-and-down.” They took home a little more than $11 each, including a dollar given to them by a passerby while they counted the money.
The crew at 34th, right before heading home for the night. Weekends are busiest, when they start in the morning and dance into the night.