Growing up in Chicago, whether you live on the South Side, West Side or on the South East Side—the Bud Biliken Parade is a traditional reminder that the new school year is just around the corner. It is the largest and oldest African African-American parade and second largest to the Macy’s Christmas Day parade in New York. Based on a fictional character of Bud Biliken, it was created in1923 by Chicago Defender newspaper founder, Robert S. Abbott as a way to bring unity and pride to Black community as well as showcasing young talent. The Chicago Defender’s founder, Robert S. Abbott, created the fictional character of Bud Biliken in 1923 to showcase young talent and bring unity and pride to the black community. Since its first parade August 11, 1929, the Bud Biliken has changed its original route along Michigan Avenue and 31st Street to Washington Park – years later meeting now at Oakwood Boulevard and Cottage Grove Avenue turning onto King Drive and wrapping up at Washington Park.
One of the main attractions of the parade is the many dance groups that grace the four-hour long celebration. The beautiful, festive costumes in many colors, designs and shapes modeled by young three-year-old children ranging from age 3 to young adults is are the pride of the Black community. It is the dance troops that set the tone of energy throughout the caravan of floats, luxury vehicles and community organizations. Over the years, the Bud
Biliken Parade has become the ‘to-be-seen’ event of the summer, attracting celebrities, public officials, corporate sponsors, media personalities and pageant hosts vying for the opportunity for some face time with the African-American community. With over 1.5 million impressions through television, visitors and social media coverage—dance groups work hard for the shine.
Chicago holds a special place in the art of dance, often creating many unique street steps that have moved beyond its backyard.
Although, dancing is a way of expression —it can also be a way out and away of from trouble for many young people. Before there was Hip-Hop or House music, young dance troops formed emerged from small groups representing their schools or neighborhoods. Taking on the earlier sounds of ragtime to boogie woogie, many dancing in the grand ballrooms to the smaller show lounges to swing Jazz from favorites such as Duke Ellington and, Nat King Cole. As the music changed shapes and forms, so did the dance steps– creating grassroots trends from the nucleus of inner city Black youth.
Today, dance crews are no longer just troops—they are structured organizations. Some incorporated;, others are 5013c companies non-profit organizations, while many focus primarily on the big day of Bud Biliken where expectations are high. Not your contemporary companies of ballet or modern dance, the groups that participate every year in the parade create their own street choreography and compete throughout the year to stay relevant.
Latisha Waters, President of The Empire Group/3D, has been dancing in the Bud Biliken parade for the past 15 years. The oldest of 17 siblings, her mother would pay for ballet lessons until she was old enough to get a broader range of programs at the Chicago Park District. The culture of street dancing has grown from becoming just a hobby to a mission for her.
“I started the dance organization in 2000 and we’ve grown each year taking on more members. Currently, we have a summer camp where we run everything from my local church,” Waters said. “For many kids, this is second family for them and for others—their only family. Our mission is to save our youth through dance.”
The underground dance world in Chicago is centered around a ‘word-of-mouth’ referral where either you’re brought in by a relative, close friend or a classmate. Predominately, in the African American communities being a member of one of the more familiar groups from Final Phaze, House-O-Matics, Geek Squad, Silent Threat to Bring- ing Out Talent (B.O.T.), is a badge of honor among their peers.
Colonel Eugene Scott, Executive Director of the Chicago Defender Charities has been an instrumental part of the parade having worked with the organization since 1992. This year, has significant meaning because this will be his last Bud Biliken as its fearless leader. He has worked with many of the dance teams since he took over almost 25 years ago. “The parade is a significant part of the year. Many people think that the teams just show up for the parade but they’re working all year-around, presenting sustainable programs for our youth. They are being trained,” Scott said. “It’s a very important activity that keeps our young people out of trouble. You can’t be out there at the dance practice and be in trouble.”
For the Bud Biliken parade, the competition is broken down in three categories—drill, dance and majorette units. Teams travel from around Illinois as well as outside the state to compete from the undefeated South Shore Drill Team, King College Prep High School Band to the Dancing Dolls of Jackson, Mississippi. Each team is judged by a diverse panel that is selected by the parade organizers that include community leaders, Chicago Park District programmers, Dance and music instructors. When asked if it was important to have a panel of judges with a solid background in these categories, Colonel Scott said, “It’s about how do you present yourself to the community? What does the community think about you? You don’t have to be a dance expert. What is the decorum, discipline and presentation of the unit? You don’t have to be a dancer to judge that?”
Shkunna Stewart is a fourth generation President of B.O.T. (Bringing Out Talent) Dance group. “My great-grandmother, she had a team first then my grandmother took over—it was passed on to by my mother and then I took over so it was my mother’s team.” Stewart has been over managing the group for eight years working with dancers as young as seven years to 28 -years old. Each age group has a distinct category where they compete against other dance groups at both home and away competitions. In May, B.O.T. traveled to Philadelphia for the ‘Rep Your State’ National Dance competition, giving members a chance to experience a new environment outside of Chicago.
“I treat them like they’re my own children. All of the parents are really familiar with me and most of the kids come back every year,” Stewart said. “I also have some students going off to college, which makes me feel good.”
Every summer the race is on to raise funds for many groups competing in the parade. By the end of June, scores of kids are seen locking down their corners off of the Dan Ryan expressway from 47th to 95th Street with buckets in hand alerting motorists that it is that time again. Each group are is legitimate as they wear a colored t-shirt to distinguish them from their competitors. Not to be mistaken from the bucket boys or the pan-handlers, which give the kids some wiggle room to hit up prospects. It’s a code that is traditional as well as respected in the community.
As the biggest showdown comes close for the groups, it draws other dance organizations from all over the country making it the ultimate ‘parades of parades’ for drill teams, dancers and high school marching bands.
Unlike, other dance competitions, in past years, the parade organizers announce the winners months later in November. But, there will be a radical shift since technology is a major stakeholder in immediate impressions. Timing is everything. The parade has come under criticism for being too delayed in their releasing the winning results. This year, the public will be able to vote for their favorite team during the ABC-7 television broadcast by going to the Bud Biliken Parade Facebook page. By doing this, results will come in by the end of the day and Colonel is hoping to announce the winning teams by the following week after the parade ends.
The months leading up to the Bud Biliken parade is a huge community investment from sponsors, small businesses, churches, school and park districts, parents and the hard work of young participants. Many, who choose dance as a viable career to excel in choreography, a creative director to someday having their own dance company or community program has been impacted by the Bud Biliken parade.
Latisha Waters is looking forward to the parade despite the multiple hats she wears maintaining chapters in both Chicago and at Northern DeKalb University. “Every year, our goal was is to win the dance competition at the Bud Biliken but now our number one mission is to ‘save our youth’. Some of our former dancers are now instructors—one just finished an episode of “Empire” and the film “Chi Raq”, another member was Missy Elliott’s choreographer and one is a part-time faculty staffer at Columbia College,” said Waters.
For the thousands of spectators that will line up along Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive the second Saturday in August to see the beautiful costumes, marching bands and twirling skirts—this is not just a show for viewer ratings and hyped up social media likes. The dancers are our window into the eyes of many of our Black youth who take pride in something they love so much. What a wonderful feeling, huh?