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J-29: The Fifth Annual National Pre-Choreographed Dance Competition in Chicago

The Bottom Lounge hosts our favorite slapdash dance-off.

Photograph: Zachary Whittenburg
SILVER OR GOLD? Katie Williams deliberates.

On January 2, 2010, the J-2 Pre-Choreographed Dance Competition descended upon a sprawling live-work co-op near Fullerton Avenue and Pulaski Road called the Locked Out Collective, presided over by a husky, rowdy emcee, PBR tallboy in hand, wearing overalls, no shirt and a top hat. Competing routines ranged from an acrobatic trio in Newsies -esque outfits to a drunken interpretive-dance solo. These entries alternated with themed open dance-floor audience competitions in which attendees who brought skills like the night’s best splits and most creative take on the robot won ancillary trophies. Oh, and those trophies? Glue-gunned assemblages of toys and housewares gilded with spray paint.

J-29: The Fifth Annual National Pre-Choreographed Dance Competition in Chicago happens Saturday 29 at the Bottom Lounge. Over coffee at Letizia’s Natural Bakery at the edge of Wicker Park, Katie Williams, 27, in a silver lamé jacket chosen specifically for this interview, related its genesis.

Last year’s competition was one of the strangest, most fun dance events I’ve ever been to. I was surprised to hear it went back to 2006. What’s the story?
So a friend of mine, Mikey, who used to live in Chicago and was in the National Guard, was in town about five years ago. He’s one of the Runges [brothers Michael, Brian and David Runge, the Newsies-dressed acrobats mentioned above]. We were just talking shit at a friend’s house about Who’s the best dancer? We danced all the time back then, we were regulars at Danny’s [Tavern’s] soul night, or we would just hang out at someone’s place and dance. We decided to pick the coldest day of the year and have a competition.

Where was it held?
The first year, it was supposed to be in the house where we talked all that shit, which is a pretty big apartment in Logan Square, but [the people who lived there] ended up having a show and couldn’t host it, whatever, and so it almost didn’t happen from the beginning. My friend Erin was like, “Whatever, it’s gotta happen, the Runges are in town, we’ll just do it in my kitchen,” which was very small. If it hadn’t worked out that first year, it probably never would’ve happened again, but because it felt so, like, halfway, we were like, “We have to do this again.”

How many people fit in a kitchen?
It was small, pretty much just the competitors and four judges. There were three pairs, one single act and then the three Runges.

Who won that first year?
The Runges, hands down. They had costumes, had spent a lot of time on their routine. The rest of us just didn’t really bring it at all. I, like, had the flu, I mean, that’s no excuse. But the Runges were really good. Growing up, they would spend an afternoon learning a Jackson Five routine, just watch it over and over and get all the moves down. The whole thing started as a challenge to them, a group of us girls, saying, “We can take you Runges!”

And you decided then that you would do this every year?
We were big on calling it “the first annual,” although it was kind of a joke. The second year, too, it was at my house, which is a large space. I host events and stuff. The first few people who arrived, who I didn’t know, walked in and had bags for costumes and were like, “Where’s the dressing room?” [Laughs]

How did they find out about it?
I was working with [actor-dancer] Jessica Hudson, and we just thought it was funny to tell people, “Well, we host this national competition every year, you should put a team together and compete.” We really talked it up, and got people to believe it was an actual thing. It also worked out because I had friends who had just moved to Milwaukee and was able to say, “We’ll have teams from Milwaukee, teams from Indiana, teams from Ohio…it’s really, like, a national thing.” [Laughs]

Were the audience competitions a part of J-X from the very beginning?
That started the second year, too, with dance skills. It was High-kick, which the winner did like a backflip into a high kick; the Moonwalk—oh my God, this one girl’s moonwalk was so amazing, people were like pulling their hair out and screaming—and the Worm. Oh, and partnered lifts. Sort of to say, Yeah, you’re good in this team stuff but how are your actual skills? [Laughs] And we left that all open [to audience members], because I know that when I watch people dance, it just makes me want to get up and dance. And there’s always a dance party at the end, once everybody’s all excited to dance. Everybody goes crazy.

And then there was another, and then last year’s.
Yeah, and [with] those I wasn’t involved as much because I had left Chicago. David Krofta pretty much put the whole thing together two years ago, it was in a friend’s small apartment again, and another time when we knew everybody.

So you could still visit for the actual event.
And compete, yeah. I was living in Madison. So not that far away. I’m from the suburbs. I went to high school in Mundelein.

Who makes the trophies?
I make them now. I maybe made them the first year, I don’t remember. Last year I didn’t make them all. The Runges brought some. I was pretty overwhelmed. The third year maybe we didn’t have any. Maybe we just gave people things from our pockets that year. Good job! You get some gum.

Do you shop for materials?
Yeah, I go to the thrift store and grab baby [dolls’] heads, candlesticks, anything gold first of all, then I go to the toy section and see what I can stick on it. There was one trophy with, like, this sad-looking animal on it, and it ended up going to this person whose routine turned out to be, like, this sad little animal dance. That’s the best, when the trophies kind of match the routines. Oh! And one of my other favorite things about this is that the judging is totally erroneous. We have volunteer judges and we give them no criteria whatsoever. They decide how they want to judge and what they want to do.

How do people find you if they want to register to compete?
There’s no registration, you just show up and write your name on a slip of paper, and it goes into a hat. Everyone gets to compete.

Are the Runges still the team to beat?
They’re always first or second place. They lost to Jessica’s team the second year.

Sounds like an upset.
Well, Jessica’s team brought it. They had a costume change in the middle. It was really good. The Runges were miffed. They took criticisms to heart and really applied them, really revamped their routine. Because people told them they would just always do the same thing. They play to win.

Is there a mission here?
I think a lot of people are really shy to dance and think they’re not good at it. When we would go out dancing, I would try to dance as goofy or, like, as badly as possible just so anybody could feel like—one day somebody said, “If Katie can dance, I can dance.” And that was perfect, that’s exactly what I want. Everybody can and should feel like they’re a good dancer.

Do you have a job besides planning a national annual dance competition?
[Laughs] Different day jobs, although I don’t have one right now. I’m helping my brother rehab a house. I like growing vegetables, I had a small farm and I had an urban garden in Madison, and this year I’m going to try to start an actual farm in the city.

And you compete yourself each year?
Yeah, I’ve competed every year. No. Last year I did an exhibition. [Laughs] There have been exhibition acts most years. One year there was this act in big furry costumes and they played brass instruments. All of a sudden, in the middle of this dance competition, like a weird performance piece. But it worked well. Because we have rules every year that always get broken. That year we had a four-person limit for teams and this guy pulled me aside and said, “I know I can’t compete, but we have a performance we want to put on.” And so I gave them an exhibition. [Laughs]

What exhibitions are lined up for this year?
My friend Iris is planning to put on an event that same night in Los Angeles, and we’re going to broadcast that on the wall. And there might be one in Providence, too. [Update: The Rhode Island event has been canceled; producer Alee Peoples will attend the Chicago competition instead.—Ed.] There’s probably going to be a dance-off between Los Angeles and Chicago at some point.

Using what, Skype?
“Via satellite,” I like to say.

Simultaneous dance-offs, coast to coast.
Hopefully it works. But hey, we’ve never had a problem with things being un-entertaining. Every year someone competes totally un-choreographed, even though it’s illegal, just shows up and dances. And there’s usually something under-choreographed, probably put together that day and never really practiced.

Get in it to win it at J-29: The Fifth Annual National Pre-Choreographed Dance Competition in Chicago at Bottom Lounge, Saturday 29.

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