If you’ve never heard of Baltimore club dance, it’s probably because the dance style came from one of the country’s most underrated cities. Baltimore’s infamy is, at least in part, a product of the racism and classism that accompanies any predominantly Black and/or working-class city in America. Still, when it comes to being a purveyor of culture, Baltimore punches far above its weight — and few things exemplify that as loudly as the dance that was born in its nightclubs.
Baltimore club’s dance and sonic influence is everywhere — it’s what inspired Philly club and Jersey club, the latter of which has been heavily used by Drake and spearheaded the careers of newer artists like Cookie Kawaii.
There is no one way to describe Baltimore club dance, but there are some important technical considerations. For starters, it’s fast: the dance style is built around the choppy, in-your-face rhythms of Baltimore club music, which mixes breakbeat and dance music, while hovering around 130 beats per minute. The movements themselves can incorporate different dance styles, including “Crazy Legs” and the “Park Heights Strut”, a smooth two-step movement that was born in that city more than two decades ago.
As with many cultural movements that have historically been thought of as being for and by straight men, Baltimore club dance hasn’t always been welcoming to queer folks. Which is why we should be paying attention to the fact that right now, two dancers who represent the future of the movement happen to be a queer person and a woman. They are Monae Maiden, or “Queen Stylzz,” who was named Queen of Baltimore dance in 2013, and Darryl Smith, or “Prince Darryl,” who is queer and has been dancing in the city’s clubs for more than a decade.
I met up with Queen Stylzz and Prince Darryl in Baltimore just before they competed in the Red Bull “Dance Your Style” competition, a global street dance competition in the United States, which was making its debut in their city. I talked with them about how Baltimore club dance’s growing popularity made them feel and what it’s like to be queer and and a woman in the scene.
Darryl Smith got interested in dancing after he watched Baltimore club dance videos on YouTube and decided to learn more about the energetic dance style in 2013. He was fascinated by how flexible the style could be, to the point where you could incorporate dance styles like ballet and hip-hop into the same routine, as long as you caught the beat.
He reached out to people online who were in the scene, but he said that at first, they didn’t take him seriously because he was gay.
“They said, ‘We’re not gonna teach him because we don’t know if he’s gonna come onto us,’” Smith told INTO. Confronted with casual homophobia in the scene, he decided he would have to teach himself.
As an openly queer person, being taken seriously in street dance spaces is still a struggle for Smith, but his participation in the Baltimore club dance scene brings more queer visibility to it. “When I step out onto a floor, if I’m battling someone, it’s always like, ‘Come on. He’s not ready,’” said Smith. “Everybody always gets surprised.”
When he said that, it made me realize that just showing up and being excellent is itself a radical act of queer defiance.
Smith excelled at Baltimore club dance and in 2018 he entered the “King of Baltimore” dance competition, leaving as the runner-up and crowned with the title “Prince of Baltimore.” Smith told me that as a kid, he would have never imagined that he would come to be so deeply entrenched and respected in the community.
“If I could talk to my younger self, I would just tell him to keep doing what he’s doing,” said Smith. “Now, I’m always one to take the crown from people.”
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Another icon in the Baltimore scene, Monae Maiden got into Baltimore club dance as a teenager by going to house parties and nightclubs with a fake ID.
“The parties used to be crazy, they used to be lit,” said Maiden. “We were just trying to dance…those parties made me who I am.”
She picked up her moves from observing and asking the people she met to teach her. Back then, before social media, she said you had to actually show up to the club in order to be considered a part of the culture.
In 2013, Maiden won the “Queen of Baltimore” title, which is when she knew she was onto something. But Queen Stylzz isn’t just a Baltimore club dance legend; she’s been at the forefront of reshaping the genre and giving it the credit it’s due by making sure it stayed alive after one of the scene’s largest tragedies.
That tragedy happened when DJ K-Swift, an icon in the community who was revitalizing the dance style and Baltimore culture in general, died in a pool accident in 2018 and the city’s club dance music nearly faded into obscurity. Monae said that some venues just stopped playing Baltimore club music altogether, but Monae was determined to keep the legacy of DJ K-Swift alive. Even though the genre was being played less, she still showed up at the club and danced. It was important for her to show the city that even though an icon of the community had passed, the genre lived on.
“The passing shocked the scene and the music wasn’t being played as much. Producers got stingy with it. Places got shut down,” said Monae. “We had to revamp everything and make sure people respected and understood it.”
By keeping the legacy of DJ K-Swift and Baltimore club dance alive, she helped it survive. Now, she is ready to bring it into a new era.
The beauty of Baltimore club dance lies in its flexibility and its ability to shape itself into whoever is willing to breathe life into it. It defies genre while maintaining an essence that is powerful and resilient and beautiful to watch. Its fluidity, in my opinion, makes it a fundamentally queer artform.
When I saw Baltimore club dance for the first time a few weeks ago, knowing little about it, the style reminded me of a mixture of electronic dance, hip-hop and ballroom. What stuck out to me was how fast dancers had to move their feet, as though the very ground was shifting beneath them. In many ways, it is.
At the Red Bull “Dance Your Style” competition, Queen Stylzz beat 16 other contestants from all over the country and won first place. Now, she’s set to compete in the nationals in Chicago later this year, which means she’s about to introduce Baltimore club dance to a national audience. I caught up to her in the green room right after her win and she was still sweating and beaming, with tears in her eyes.
“Baltimore is on the map now baby!” she said. “Don’t count us out! Don’t count us out.”♦
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