Haleem Rasul is teaching the world to Jit

Haleem “Stringz” Rasul is a dancer, designer, and filmmaker born and raised in Detroit. The dancers in his family were on his father’s side, and Rasul was inspired by his late cousin who, he says, did some significant work with urban dance.

“He was a B-Boy, a Popper. He was on a popular dance show in Detroit and was featured on the Jerry Lewis telethon as a dancer. He was a key family member I looked up to, so at an early age I got into dance,” Rasul says. “When he passed, I stopped. Because I was so young, it was forgotten. No one wanted to speak on it.”

Yet he still found himself gravitating towards urban dance culture in Detroit. “I could see it everywhere – on the [local dance show] New Dance Show I could see it every day.” Rasul’s older brother got into the hip hop scene as an MC, and with his access to clubs he was able to get the then 17-year-old Rasul into places like St. Andrew’s where people would be breakdancing like his cousin once did. “From that moment that I saw it face-to-face, that’s when I seriously started and never stopped.”

Rasul formed Hardcore Detroit in 2001, a dance crew as well as a cultural aesthetic with its own line of apparel that includes T’s, jerseys, and denim. Hardcore Detroit has created and performed choreography for numerous major events locally and internationally.

“It started off just a small select number of guys in Detroit after years of me wanting to start my own business,” he says. “At the time I started [Hardcore Detroit] there was no one doing professional [urban dance crews]. [This] laid the groundwork for an urban dance service. That’s why a lot of people come to Detroit and say it’s a blank canvas – we’ve got the space to work and really create something.”

The Hardcore Detroit crew consists of art, music, and dance lovers worldwide. They provide urban dance to any event, from birthdays and bar mitzvahs to Pistons playoffs games and the BET Hip Hop Music Awards. The crew was named “Best Dance Company” by Real Detroit Weekly in 2010 and Rasul was selected for the Red Bull Beat Riders in 2006. The crew teaches workshops and holds weekly practices every Monday at the Cass Corridor Neighborhood Development Center from 7:30-10:00 p.m. for anyone interested and serious about dancing.

When Rasul got to a certain level years into breaking he would travel to events like the annual Rock Steady Crew (est.  1977) Anniversary in New York, where he would see the urban dance pioneers and people from all over the country representing their region’s styles, from the West Coast to Miami. “Everybody was representing and that got me reflecting, ‘What is Detroit bringing?’ I looked at the dance scene here and it got me asking those questions. Some of the styles here are specific to here, like the Jit.”

So he sought out people who could answer his questions, tracking down the pioneers and the history of the Jit.

“My first intent was to get them on camera to tell their story put it on YouTube,” he says. “But the story was so thick I knew it had to be presented a certain way.”

Rasul started getting into filmmaking by going to those anniversary events and seeing groups selling recordings of themselves teaching a dance or performing at an event. His Jit videos initially started out the same way – short videos that were a way to put the Detroit Jit out there, giving it wider exposure and showing others how to do it.

As he dug deeper into the history of the Detroit Jit, he contacted the pioneers of the dance – brothers Tracey, Johnny, and James McGhee – and began interviewing them on camera. He also interviewed Motown singer Kim Weston – who first “discovered” the brothers and put them onstage – incorporated videos the brothers had of themselves performing the Jit throughout the ’80s, and included additional instructional footage for today’s would-be Jitters to follow. This is what became the documentary film Jitterbugs: Pioneers of the Jit, a film five years in the making.

Rasul had “a little” background in film after graduating from Western Michigan University with a degree in graphic design. “I knew how much work it would take and it was kind of intimidating, but it fell into my hands and kind of grew little by little. So I’m considered a filmmaker now too; I couldn’t see that coming! I also couldn’t see winning grants [from the Knight Foundation and Kresge Foundation]; that’s a whole other ball game too.”

When it came to making Jitterbugs it was a much more involved process than the short videos he had previously made. There was storyboarding to do, intellectual property rights to acquire, and money to be raised.

Rasul was able to take the shorter Jit videos he had already made and use them in grant applications. He was selected as a Kresge Artist Fellow in Performing Arts 2010, receiving a $25,000 fellowship that was used to work on the production of Jitterbugs, followed by a $12,000 grant from the Knight Arts Challenge in 2013 that was used for a premiere event at the Detroit Film Theatre once the film was complete and ready for release. They had an at-capacity free red carpet premiere called Jit Happens! with performances by Jitters and music acts from Detroit. The DVD is available on the Detroit Jitterbugs website.

The film will also screen this Friday, March 20 at the Freep Film Festival at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, followed by a Q&A with Rasul and members of the Jitterbugs, a Jit performance showcase and a chance to learn the Jit, and a dance party to end the night. The next day Rasul and Hardcore Detroit will be at the Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts performing the Jit in the 313 to the 312 Choreography Expo.

Rasul’s work with Hardcore Detroit and the Detroit Jitterbugs has enabled him to travel across the country to compete in breaking competitions, teach in Sweden, and perform with Detroit (Hamtramck)-based theatre ensemble The Hinterlands in Shanghai. This May he is working on a sort of “Jit exchange” with one of the lead Jitters of Zimbabwe, which has its own style of Jit as well as a huge Jit festival.

“Jit is definitely recognized outside of Detroit now, but still not on a grand scale,” he says. “We still made a lot of progress. There are a lot of opportunities for it now and a lot of people are doing stuff in the city with it.”

But, he adds, “I’d really like to see our Detroit style make a bigger impact. I’m still pushing it.”