Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
A new short film paints a humanizing portrait of four young “showtime” performers.
“Showtime” dancing is a hallmark of the New York City transit scene. Hoping for donations, crews of young black and Latino men perform exuberant choreographies for subway passengers, twisting and leaping from pole to pole with artful “lite-feet” dancing in between—and never before shouting, “It’s showtime!”
Who are these dancers scraping by on their earnings? A new, short cinéma vérité documentary, We Live This, shines a light on the world of one crew, whose four young members perform on the J train. They are talented, hardworking, committed, and full of dreams, the film shows. But for some, the obstacles are high, and the alternatives slim.
“I’m very determined to get famous, or at least make a little bit of money,” says TyTy, a dancer with wings on his shoes and backpack, in the film. He continues, “If I give up, then what? Back to the streets, back to being a certified hustler? I can’t do that.”
Another dancer, Forty, is homeless. “As I’m dancing on the train, I’m thinking about where am I sleeping at night,” he says. “Who should I call? Who is going to pick up? What if they don’t answer?” Showtime is the best way he he knows to a better life, a way into a community, he says: “This is what’s going to take me farther than underground. Farther than a dollar and a half.”
Of course, the subway is no simple launchpad to success. While some passengers love the dancing, many others avoid eye contact, and some even yell at crews to switch cars. Showtime can sometimes turn violent, as the film shows. MTA police are also increasingly arresting and charging showtime dancers as part of a recent crackdown guided by New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton’s “broken windows” policing strategy.
A lot is riding on these performances for some of New York City’s subway dancers. “I hope people will watch this and look at these young men as human beings,” the film’s director, James Burns, tells CityLab. “And see the last vestiges of a culture that may be dying out.”