Step outside the box

Greek tradition has historic roots

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Movies such as “School Daze” and “Stomp the Yard” contained scenes of synchronized movement, chanting, singing and speaking performed by black fraternities and sororities. This performance, called “stepping,” is a movement that began in Africa.

According to Waynetta Turner, an active member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., stepping is a skill that has its roots in African dance, especially the boot dance. This originated with black southern Africans who were forced to work in gold mines in total silence. Those men had the wisdom and fortitude to develop a system of stomping or tapping as a means of communication. The code they created evolved into what became known as the gumboot dance, and that tradition — born of adversity — is embodied within the art form we know as stepping.

“I think of stepping as our means of connecting with the African homeland and paying tribute to the ancestors,” Turner said.

Nine Black International Greek letter organizations belong to a governing body called the National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC) – Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Iota Phi Theta Fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority and Zeta Phi Beta Sorority — all incorporated. These are also known as the “Divine Nine.”

Turner served as an officer and remains active with the NPHC chapter in Birmingham, Alabama.

“Stepping is an important tradition within the Divine Nine,” she said. “It also serves as demonstration of unity. Each of the Divine Nine organizations has contributed to the art of stepping with trademark choreography and chants that many look forward to witnessing during step shows throughout the nation. The homecoming step show is probably one of the most anticipated events on college campuses. The popularity of step shows is to me an indication of the importance of this rich tradition.”

In the beginning, the fraternities would chant and sing out in the open to celebrate their brotherhood. Later, it evolved to incorporate dancing and intricate stomping of the feet and slaps to the body. Step shows were organized, and the best steppers would gain more recruits for their organizations.

“I think of stepping as our means of connecting with the African homeland and paying tribute to the ancestors.”

The stepping tradition has transcended to popular culture and to media. Teenagers anticipate the excitement of the college experience and participate in stepping competitions while in high school. Television networks, such as BET, featured stepping during shows 106 & Park and Spring Bling. On social media, there is “Watch the Yard,” where there are posting of black fraternities and sororities on news, culture, and the Greek life.

Justin Benson, the NPHC president at the University of North Alabama, said there is a definite shift from the stepping history in Greek life to a more modern approach.

“Stepping isn’t as prominent as it used to be,” he said. “It has taken more of a back seat to ‘strolling’ or ‘hopping’ with younger Greeks. You don’t see many organizations stepping very often. As much as I enjoy strolling, I would definitely like to see the resurgence of stepping in the near future and make more of a coming back to the Greek organization.”

There have been television shows such as “Different World” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” that have had episodes on stepping. Stepping was performed in rapper Vanilla Ice in his “Ice Ice Baby” video and was performed during Alicia Keys “Teenage Love Affair” video. And, stepping and gumboot dance are listed as styles in World Hip Hop Dance Championships.

The history of stepping has deep roots and deep meanings. You may see one of the Divine Nine showcasing their skills in the form of stroll on campus at the University of North Alabama this fall. Take the time to acknowledge and to admire their movements, chanting, and singing. All of it represents centuries of historical dancing and a means of communication.

Lele McCary

From Birmingham, Alabama

Author since 2018