Stepping Up & Showing Out

Fay Mitchell

Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) began appearing at the conclusion of the Civil War. North Carolina is home to 11 active HBCUs, the most such baccalaureate degree granting institutions in the nation. They all shared the common goal of educating African Americans in a segregated South, and providing community and opportunity not available otherwise. Those goals remain today. Among the unique practices to evolve at HBCUs is the now widely popular “stepping,” a form of percussive dance practiced by black sororities and fraternities.

Shaw University, founded in 1865, is considered the oldest HBCU in the South. North Carolina Central University, founded in 1910, is the state’s most recent. The practice of stepping is even more recent than that. Research by Dr. Crystal A. deGregory, at Fisk University, finds that stepping may not have appeared until after the 1950s. Today’s step shows can be a challenge and a throw down!

The complex performance of stepping involves folk traditions and popular culture with synchronized percussive movement, singing, speaking, chanting and drama.

While there is no direct line of origin for stepping, it may draw from elements of African or Caribbean dance, such as the Welly “gumboot” dance, practiced by miners in South Africa. It also includes elements of call and response traditions from Africa. It may reference military close order and exhibition drill, and today may include elements of gymnastics, break dance or steps from R&B groups such as the Temptations or Four Tops.

The Black Greek Letter Organizations (BGLOs), dubbed the “Divine Nine” often have their signature moves or calls, but work for common goals through the National Pan-Hellenic Council. Step shows are commonly performed when probates, the new pledges, “cross over” and become full members. During step performances those signature calls or moves may be on display, along with references such as 20 pearls, Alpha Kappa Alpha; deltas, Delta Sigma Theta; sphinx, Alpha Phi Alpha; or Q dogs, Omega Psi Phi.

The BLGOs often present step shows or competitions around homecomings or athletic tournaments. The Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) basketball tournament, February 27 through March 3 in Charlotte, includes eight North Carolina schools in the 12 member conference. The March 2 “Step Show Throw Down: Greeks vs Greeks,” may be a more prized ticket and as hotly contested as any of the basketball games.

Stepping really came into the national consciousness with the 1988 release of the Spike Lee movie “School Daze.” A performance in the opening pageant of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta catapulted stepping into global prominence. Other movies to feature stepping include “Drumline,” and “Stomp the Yard.” During the 2010 Sprite Step Off in Atlanta, the all-white Zeta Tau Alpha step team from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville caused a stir by winning the competition. It was later changed to a first-place tie with Indiana University’s Alpha Kappa Sorority.

Stepping has been emulated by Latino fraternities and sororities in recent decades. In 1979, Lambda Sigma Upsilon fraternity was noted as the first Latino Greek organization to embrace the tradition of stepping.

Photo credit: Omega Psi Phi fraternity members at West Virginia State University homecoming step show in October 2010. Photograph by Tyler Evert.