Friday, April 18, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Jenice Armstrong | Stepping into the spotlight

I DIDN'T PLEDGE a sorority, but while at Howard University I went to my share of Greek step shows.

That's where I developed an appreciation not only for the rhythmic, drill-team-style movements that go into the stepping that black fraternities and sororities do, but also for its anthropologic roots, which can be traced to slavery and Africa. For many, it's a sacred thing.

As a result, when a publicist for the new movie "Stomp The Yard" contacted me just before Christmas, I was more than a little skeptical that a low-budget flick would do right by this little-known form of expression. The film's promotional hype didn't help. I got the impression "Stomp" was just another street- dance flick - kind of a "Boyz in the Hood" meets "Dance With Me."

"I would have had the same apprehensions," Sylvain White, the film's director, told me earlier this week. "It doesn't sound good on paper."

But having seen the film, which was No. 1 at the box office last weekend, when it opened, I can attest that despite the misleading promotion, "Stomp The Yard" is a moving portrayal of the black Greek experience that doesn't play into the usual BET- video-style sexual and racial stereotypes.

And although "Stomp" does have a predictable troubled- youth-overcoming-adversity story line, it's refreshing to see a Hollywood film featuring hip-hop stars - Ne-yo and Chris Brown are in it - centered on something other than drugs and gun violence.

Then, there's the stepping thing. Until now, that's been mostly an insider phenomena associated with black collegiate life.

"It's a novel art form for the mainstream," White said. "Stepping has been around for over 100 years, but it has been a subculture."

Stepping is a genre unto itself. Although participants move rhythmically, it's not always to music. Stepping isn't exactly dancing. But even with its military precision, you can't quite call it marching either.

"Stepping is a complex performance event which includes synchronized percussive foot movements and hand clapping," explained Elizabeth Fine, author of the first book written on the subject, "Soulstepping: African American Step Shows" (University of Illinois Press, $24.95).

The earliest written reference to stepping that she unearthed during her book research appeared in a Howard University student newspaper in 1925.

"Stepping was not a term used in the early years," said Fine, who chairs the department of interdisciplinary studies at Virginia Tech.

"I believe that stepping emerged out of marching on line. I believe it also came from other traditions that were very popular in the black community. One of those traditions is the drill team tradition. . . . They do a lot of very similar hand-clapping and foot-stomping."

Fine pointed out that when Africans were brought to the United States as slaves, they were prohibited from using drums to communicate.

"So, they would make their own rhythm with their feet and their hands," she explained. "And they would do these dances in a counterclockwise circle, and they would have call and response, which we see in stepping today."

Another influence can be traced to South African gum-boot dancers. Since apartheid-era diamond mine workers were forbidden to speak, they communicated by stomping their rubber boots and slapping their hands against them.

"You have these remnants that remain with people," said Tamara Brown, an editor of "African American Fraternities and Sororities: the Legacy and the Vision" (University Press of Kentucky, $39.95). "It has just continued to evolve over the generations but there are these elements that represent African culture that have not been obliterated."

Although not all members are required to step, the tradition has become intrinsic to black Greek life. When Delta Sigma Theta sorority held its national convention in Philadelphia last summer, members participated in a step show, a practice that was frowned upon in the past. Leaders had worried that it would detract from the group's service-oriented mission, according to Vicki Rivers, first vice president of the Delta's Philadelphia Alumnae chapter.

Meanwhile, churches and neighborhood clubs have organized their own step teams. In Philadelphia, seventh- and eighth-graders at the Young Scholars Charter School, 1415 N. Broad St., meet after school weekly to step. Aided by mentors from Temple University, the students are preparing for their first competition this spring.

And since the early 1990s, some Latino, Asian and white fraternities and sororities have competed in big-league step shows.

In her paper, "White Boys Can't Step? Challenges of Multicultural Stepping," Fine noted how racially diverse stepping is getting. One example she cites took place at Philadelphia's Greek Picnic in 1999, when two white alums of Phi Beta Sigma, a traditionally black fraternity, wowed the audience with their footwork.

The mainstreaming of stepping has led to grumbling by purists who want to keep it a black thing. That's not likely to happen - especially if "Stomp" has another big weekend. *

Have you peeped a hot trend that hasn't been reported? E-mail heyjen@phillynews.com and let me know what you know.

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