Stepping It Up

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

 Stepping Up

Stepping It Up


Awesome footwork takes a revitalized African-American tradition into realm of art By NatashaDerrick - nderrick@thestate.com

 

Shawty Lo’s “Dey Know” crackles through the speakers as the circle of people outside South Carolina State University’s Student Center widens.

Members of Alpha Phi Alpha, a fraternity on the Orangeburg campus, bounce in choreographed steps to the Southern hip-hop anthem.

Then the girls from Delta Sigma Theta sorority, their thumbs and forefingers touching in a “triangle,” part the crowd.

Yung Joc’s “It’s Going Down” and its cranky motorcycle dance are incorporated into a routine by the Alphas. The Deltas answer with their own version. One sister in the line holds a plastic cup and Styrofoam to-go box and another sucks on a lollipop while they groove.

Members of the Phi Beta Sigma fraternity enter the dancing fray, too. The movements are fluid and theatrical, as if the steppers are trying to convey a feeling, an emotion.

On this sunny spring afternoon, more than 100 students hang out at the Alpha-hosted “meltdown,” a block party featuring hard-hitting beats and fancy, well-timed steps.

Stepping, a form of rhythmic dance that draws on hip-hop, African and Caribbean movements, has enjoyed a recent boon of mainstream popularity.

The wave began building in the late 1980s with Spike Lee’s film “School Daze.” It grew in the 1990s when the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity performed for President Clinton’s inauguration and steppers were featured in the opening pageant for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Hollywood stepped up big time with 2007’s “Stomp the Yard,” which took in more than $60 million at the box office. This year’s “How She Move” also featured steppers.

Born in the sheltered environs of the African-American Greek system, stepping evolved over the hundred years since Alpha Phi Alpha, the first African-American fraternity, was formed at Cornell University in 1906.

“One root of stepping is the marching on line when the pledge groups would try to show their unity by dressing alike and moving across campus singing and chanting,” said Elizabeth Fine, professor of interdisciplinary studies and communication at Virginia Tech and author of the book “Soulstepping.” “They would sometimes stop and perform movements, and I believe over the years it just grew into stepping.”

The stomping, shouting and sometimes acrobatic elements of “stepping” propelled the art form from the courtyards of universities to high schools, middle schools, churches and eventually mainstream media. At its heart, stepping is a folk instrument waiting for any group of people to pick it up and lay down their own beats.

THE BROTHERHOOD

The brothers of Omega Psi Phi, one of the “divine nine” African-American fraternities and sororities that make up the National Pan-Hellenic Council, don’t step — they “hop.”

“Traditionally ‘hopping’ has a lot of energy,” said James Jackson, 22, hop master for the Omegas at S.C. State. “Every organization has its own unique steps. We like high knees, a low back, high kicks and our swim back-arm moves.”

Nearly all the Greeks participate in step shows like the one during S.C. State’s homecoming week in the fall. Their routines are structured but leave room for creativity. Props such as canes and elaborate costumes come into play, too.

The 10 brothers on the Omegas’ hop team work out their steps under Jackson’s guidance for two hours at least once a week. They choreograph their own steps to whatever song they like at the time.

“It’s a sense of pride within every organization,” said Omega chapter president and hop team member Adam Brown of Allendale. The groups compete to be the best team on campus. Skills, wow-factor and a good dose of bravado go a long way in impressing the judges and the crowd.

The routines often include a segment of precision military-like stepping in which the brothers and sisters will use call and response to brag about their organizations and interact with the crowd. The second half usually lasts about the length of one song — anything that’s hot on the hip-hop charts — and is more free and showy in its choreography.

All the pledges must learn the traditional steps, even if they are too rhythmically-challenged to make the hop team. Bragging rights as the best steppers on campus and a loud declaration of group affiliation are the main functions of collegiate stepping, but the art soon expanded beyond college gates.

ON THE LINE

Seventeen-year-old Larry Hunter stood alone in front of his fellow step team members. He lifted his left leg with swift precision and slammed his heavy-soled boot on the pavement. The force of the sound reverberated off the brick walls surrounding the Lower Richland High School courtyard.

As the “showman,” he introduced the next step, and when he was finished the Diamond Dawgs jolted into motion, using their hands, chests and legs as percussion instruments. Beads of sweat trickled down as the cardio kicked into high drive.

“Who’s that knocking at the door?” they barked in unison during one step. “It’s the Diamond Dawgs knocking so bring it on down.”

They raised their hands on either side of their heads, pinkie and pointer finger extended like hornet antennae — an homage to the school’s mascot.

Coach Jamie Brunson, school counselor and S.C. State Omega Psi Phi alumnus, drilled the teens endlessly.

“Since I’m a big fellow it takes a lot of energy,” Hunter said. “The yelling takes energy. We have to be precise — on point.”

“(Stepping) is like a brotherhood,” first-year member Michael Blount, 17, said. “We help each other out. It’s a good thing to do to keep my grades up and keep me out of trouble.”

The Diamond Dawgs compete in regional step competitions nearly every weekend during the spring. So far this year they’ve won nine first-place titles, a second place and a third place in step competitions.

“I want them to be able to communicate,” Brunson said. “We want to build leadership qualities as well.”

Brunson, who was on the Omega hop team at S.C. State, has taught the men’s step team at Lower Richland for seven years, sharing his love of stepping and creating a structured environment for his students.

Stepping also opens the door for many students to think of college in a new way.

“It has pushed them to say ‘OK, I’m going to school now,’” said Brunson, who has had many of his students go on to pledge college fraternities.

Even if they do not “go Greek” in college, he’s given them a strong sense of responsibility and teamwork.

“You try to help out every single person on the team,” said Cecil Dove, 21, an Lower Richland graduate who still helps coach the team. “We’ll do shows at churches, too. We try to help the community.”

MAKING CONNECTIONS

As stepping continued to expand its reach, many researchers and performers looked back and drew comparisons with far-away cultures and traditions of the past.

Brian Williams, founder of the professional stepping company Step Afrika! and a Howard University Alpha Phi Alpha alumnus, discovered a connection between the stepping he did in college and the gumboot dance he witnessed while traveling in South Africa in the early 1990s. Gumboot dancing was created by South African mine workers as a way to relax and escape oppressive working conditions.

“I was struck by the similarities,” Williams said. “Step Afrika! came about as an effort to link stepping to this particular dance style and hopefully bridge barriers between communities.”

Formed in 1994, Washington, D.C.-based Step Afrika! takes an annual 50-city tour visiting colleges and universities across the country with its cross-cultural mesh of African-American stepping and traditional African dance.

No direct link has been established yet between the two traditions, but the similar styles are enough to make people curious.

“There are certainly indirect links,” Fine said. “A lot of the stylistic features that you see in stepping are hallmarks of dance in western Africa and central Africa. For example, percussive footwork and polyphonic rhythms — the hands are beating one rhythm while the feet are doing another.”

Even though it is a uniquely African-American tradition, the influence of stepping establishes it as art.

“Stepping is a dance form,” Williams said. “More importantly it’s a folkloric tradition created and practiced by people, everyday people. You learn it by being involved in the community. No matter who is stepping, those dances are created by people with a larger purpose of bringing people together, and those are very valid art forms.”

Staff writer Otis Taylor also contributed. Reach Derrick at (803) 771-8640.
Source: The State Newspaper