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The first step show I attended was the 1994 National Championship. It was my first Howard University homecoming, and my friends and I paid a hefty sum to attend. We stood in a line that wrapped around the D.C. Armory not for a sporting event or a concert by some big act, but for a performance of our peers—the best fraternity and sorority step teams from around the country.
Few of my fellow freshmen had seen such a show before, either, but we were all well-versed in the ways of the fraternities and sororities on our campus. We ran down the stereotypes as we waited: “The women of Alpha Kappa Alpha are prissy, the men of Omega Psi Phi aren’t called the ‘Q dogs’ for nothing,” and so on, until we had characterized each of the groups that constitute the “Divine Nine” black Greek-letter societies.
Pledging was out of the question—aside from the fact that the Greeks on campus were known to wear strange costumes, participate in humiliating rituals, and shout at each other in strange, coded phrases, we saw them as divisive. Their organizations were relics from an era of paper-bag tests and other class and bloodline distinctions better left in the past.
But inside, as we watched the frats and sorors stomp, kick, chant, rhyme, joke, and sing in formation, we found ourselves jumping out of our seats to cheer them on and, in the process, setting aside many of our preconceived notions about them, if only for the length of the show.
Scholar Elizabeth Fine, who says she once held similar prejudices about fraternities and sororities, finds more than artistic value in collegiate steppers’ performances. To her, they are a “ritual of group identity” for organizations that “have worked on both local and national levels for social changes that have benefited not just African Americans but all Americans.” Her Soulstepping: African American Step Shows—a comprehensive look at the tradition that explores its history, socio-cultural relevance, and ever-broadening scope—involves a fair amount of this sort of rhetoric. But on the whole, it’s a well-rounded and lively look at a subculture that, she says, has received “little formal study” and is virtually unknown in many circles.
Fine’s own first step-show experience was in 1983, when one of her African-American students at Virginia Tech invited her to one. She describes what she saw as “a complex performance involving synchronized percussive movement, singing, speaking, chanting, and drama,” in which students expressed “love for their Greek-letter societies.” Intrigued, Fine began to study the art of stepping, penning her first academic essay on the topic in 1991 and producing Soulstepping earlier this year.
The book’s first chapter, a trip back to the beginnings of step, is the most readable and entertaining portion, mostly derived from archived Howard University sources. Fine concedes that similar histories could be compiled at other institutions; the first black fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, was founded at Cornell in 1906. But it was at Howard, which received federal funding and was therefore “[f]ree from the control of church boards and white philanthropy,” and other African-American colleges where black Greek-letter societies flourished.
Fine finds the earliest written reference to a fraternity’s engaging in “what might be stepping” in 1925, the second year of Howard’s Hilltop newspaper, in an article titled “Hell-Week.” “Marching on-line,” the campus parade that pledges endure to this day, appeared in the ’20s and ’30s. Public skits and on-line formations evolved in the ’40s and ’50s, and circular formations and indoor shows designed to attract new members developed in the ’60s and ’70s. Until that era, step shows were referred to as “demonstrations,” but a shifting political climate called for new terminology to avoid confusion.
The ’80s marked the beginning of stepping as it is known today—the elaborate costumes, popular music, and showy moves—and Fine includes plenty of pictures of Greeks dressed in athletic or Afrocentric attire posing, jumping, squatting, and stomping their feet to convey key elements of the form. The three distinct categories of step routines, which had become easily recognizable by this decade, are described as “retrospects (celebrating a society’s history and favorite steps); saluting (imitating other performances in a positive way); and cracking (making fun of another group).”
Cracking, in which Greeks subtly or blatantly rip on other organizations’ step moves, personalities, or signature colors, continues what Fine describes as the “strong African American tradition of verbal dueling.” It brings the most varied and enthusiastic responses at step shows, and it similarly enlivens Fine’s book—she devotes many pages to both its practice and criticisms of it. One passage recounts a 1983 performance in which members of Virginia Tech’s Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity cracked on the men of Phi Beta Sigma, deliberately performing a weak step and suggesting that it was a trademark of Sigma, and then switching to a harder style:
Stepmaster, interrupting verse:
Hold on, stop, stop.
Brother: What’s wrong, man?
Stepmaster: Cats, if we’re gonna
do this step,
we can’t look like a bunch of
If you’re gonna do this step,
you have to put you heart in
it, like this….
The chants and steps don’t read as well as they play out on stage or in a campus center—they couldn’t possibly—but Fine’s video stills and explanations of movement convey the action as well as can be expected.
Fine does not shy away from the raunchier elements of stepping; she dissects, and ascribes merit to, even the most raucous sexual chants, although the qualities she praises are more esoteric than erotic. In words such as the following from “Clutch Me, Baby,” another Alpha Phi Alpha chant, she finds that the risqué rap uses “expressive traditions to build and display individual and group identity”:
Clutch me baby,
Marcus is my name,
sex is my fame,
’cause when my luck is right,
I do it every night,
’cause it’s a smooth roman
that always hits your pocket….
If her take on this rhyme is a little on the dry side, it’s got nothing on Chapters 3 and 4, in which Fine discusses step’s African roots and its newest participants—church groups, high-schoolers, and Greek-letter organizations of different ethnicities. Though the subject of the former chapter is interesting, music and dance in the black diaspora have been written about ad nauseam, and the latter, which explores ways in which other groups use variations on traditional black-Greek step, lacks the historical perspective and drama of the first few chapters.
Any discussion of stepping quickly devolves into a dialogue about the relevance and appropriateness of the organizations that perform it. Having extolled the virtues of early Greek-letter societies as agents of social change, Fine subsequently outlines the key arguments of the two schools of thought on modern black fraternities and sororities—which argue, respectively, that Greeks promote “movement away from social uplift” and foster “social commitment.” She quotes varied opinions, from the likes of E. Franklin Frazier, Martin Kilson, and even Spike Lee (in School Daze), on the black bourgeoisie and the role of Greek life in upholding it.
Fine also notes that many within the organizations believe that stepping has come to overshadow the rest of black Greek life and become too much of a “business”—bringing in revenue and increasing visibility, but also commodifying the organizations’ cultural heritage. She argues that step’s popularity has, in some instances, led to the art’s becoming “cheapened”—watered down in order to be more palatable for heterogeneous audiences.
If stepping is on its way to becoming, as Fine suggests, “a mass-mediated popular art form,” it is not yet as widely known and appreciated as it might be. Soulstepping, for all its sociological reflection and occasional scholastic drone, also serves as a fair introduction to the art for a more general readership. Fine’s vivid characterization and outsider’s ardor might even help the uninitiated overcome their reservations and get out to a show—where they can see the real thing for themselves. CP