Don’t Ignore the Subway Performers in New York City

You see them everyday in NYC, on the subway, at the platforms. Don't look past them, because they're the people who are shaping a new New York.

The NYC we know today has been severed from the grit and cultural authenticity of its past in favor of high-rise condominiums, “chic” coffee shops & restaurants, and other evidences of a rampant capitalist mindset enrapturing a rapidly gentrifying city. Decades ago, a communal, vibrant city culture was traded in for a modern-day clout game. In a highly sanitized city culture, it is becoming increasingly difficult to source those things in our present that tell the truth of our city.

the rules of the city bend and break on the limbs of the city’s disenfranchised population who bring their artistry to commuters on a daily basis

The heart of our city is in the dogged spirit of its inhabitants, still clinging to the genuine notion that NYC is a city of realized dreams and abundant opportunity for everyone — a fallible idea, perhaps once true, but no longer in reach. The oppressive structures that have built our nation are galvanized here, and are perhaps most evident on the other side of the turnstile, where the spectrum of lifestyles, cultures & experiences mingle together in subway cars hurtling their way through the belly of the city or in stations beneath each of the boroughs lined with myriad homeless inhabitants. Here, the rules of the city bend and break on the limbs of the city’s disenfranchised population who bring their artistry to commuters on a daily basis.


© Dion Lamar Mills/HEREYOUARE

Back in the ’90s, Mayor Rudy Giuliani issued a succession of “quality of life” programs that effectively rid the city streets and the NYCT of its gritty underbelly in favor of a more palatable aesthetic. A couple of decades later, Mayor Bill de Blasio piggybacked on his efforts toward sanitizing the city by championing a “no-tolerance” stance on panhandling, busking, and dancing in the subway system the city over. Prior to de Blasio, the standard fine for panhandling offenses was a meager $50, and police officers could be seen enjoying the acts and even giving money to the performers. How had this art form now become a crime?

When you’re black and brown, it’s not enough to just be amazing

Since then, performers have been slapped with charges of reckless endangerment, resulting in jail time and permanent criminal records, which disallow career and academic advancement. But for the dancers, the subway represents a solitary pathway out of poverty and disenfranchisement. The culture of decriminalization is a culture of inequality, most callously exacted upon our city’s POC population. With nowhere to turn for resources, people of color are forced to create opportunities for themselves at the direct opposition of the law.


© Dion Lamar Mills/HEREYOUARE

Long-time public breakdancer Gabriel “Kwikstep” Dionisio said something in a Huffington Post interview that really stuck to me: “When you’re black and brown, it’s not enough to just be amazing. Our friends who are white, they can come in and out of the culture as easily as they breathe, but for us, this is all we have. We have to be five times better than anyone else. We don’t have a choice.” This impasse begs the question: who is working to benefit the hamstrung?

They aren’t dancing for fame. They are dancing for their lives, their own families, and their chosen ones

Luckily, there are a handful of infrastructures providing resources to subway dancers, most notably, It’s Showtime NYC! (IST), a program dedicated to providing professional dance opportunities to performers as a legal alternative to dancing on the subway.

The platform has expanded to include a core ensemble of 30 self-directing, producing dancers who have commissioned work to international acclaim, as well as building a foundation for their own here in the city through live performances at Summerstage, The Civil Court of New York State, Crossing the Line Festival, Madison Square Park, The South Bronx Culture Trail, Bronx Museum of the Arts, as well as having been a part of The Met’s 2018-2019 #MetLiveArts season.


© Dion Lamar Mills/HEREYOUARE

Opportunities like those made possible by IST are difficult to come by, though, which has lead to the formation of small dance troupes who continue to make their living underground. One well-known group, WAFFLE, boasts an acronym that stands for “We Are Family For Life,” and which illuminates the genuine nature of their performance. They aren’t dancing for fame. They are dancing for their lives, their own families, and their chosen ones — which is perhaps the most “New York” aspect of all. Out of adversity, abundance is born.



While researching subway dancers and buskers across NYC for this article, I was reminded of a short poem I read this time about a year ago, written by Ross Gay & dedicated to Eric Garner. It is a dedication to the work that few people knew he did as an employee of the NYC Parks & Recreation Horticulture Department — and more so an analogy for his work which innately and literally provided oxygen to the world, making it easier for us to breathe.


A Small Needful Fact
Is that Eric Garner worked
for some time for the Parks and Rec.
Horticultural Department, which means,
perhaps, that with his very large hands,
perhaps, in all likelihood,
he put gently into the earth
some plants which, most likely,
some of them, in all likelihood,
continue to grow, continue
to do what such plants do, like house
and feed small and necessary creatures,
like being pleasant to touch and smell,
like converting sunlight
into food, like making it easier
for us to breathe.

by Ross Gay via


In much the same way as Eric provided that which he was unjustly denied, our city is filled with overlooked human beings who have little choice else than to busk in our underground subway system for their life’s sustenance. They bring us moments of reprieve. They shine light into the darkest hour of our collective conscience, allowing us to see for a moment that which makes our city unlike any other on the planet.

This article is part of a series created by Dion Lamar Mills on street culture in NYC, tune in for the next installment and follow us on Instagram and Twitter to keep updated. 

Dion Lamar Mills is an artist of color living in Brooklyn. Recent work: Patrick Church NY, Ryan McGinley, DA: Self Preservation via Christon Cherry.