Students Stepping not just another dance
By Kris Hilgedick
Jefferson City - Rooted in African dance, "stepping" has become one of the most popular activities on the Lincoln University campus.
Those who aren't familiar with stepping are likely to describe it - incorrectly - as just another form of dancing.
Instead, stepping performers use their bodies - through stomping, slapping, clapping and voiced sounds - to make percussive, rhythmic music.
"It's very choreographed, but it's not dance," explained Veronica Lee, vice-president of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority.
Sometimes choreographers spend days figuring out what percussive motions will replicate a familiar song. "We can practice for hours to perfect the movements of a piece of music," said Lee.
Step teams can have as few as two members or as many as 13, Lee estimated.
"The bigger teams generate more sound," said Lee. "But a two-man team can outstep a 10-man team."
Stepping goes back to the earliest days of American black fraternities and was often incorporated in the private rituals of those groups. (The first black fraternity was established in 1907 by seven African-American students attending Cornell University.)
In recent decades, step shows have gone public, wowing crowds at public competitions nationwide.
Step shows draw upon an interesting mix of the old and the new.
For example, Greek step teams often incorporate movements developed decades ago.
Joseph Campbell - vice-president of the Lincoln Student Government Association and a member of Alpha Phi Alpha - said his fraternity's symbols are Egyptian. The Alphas' stepping motions mimic the flared hood of a cobra - an animal revered by the ancient Egyptians.
The stepping style of another Lincoln fraternity "features the rhythm and precision of military drills," explained Campbell.
But often those same step teams will be drawn to new dance crazes as well, incorporating movements from tap, hip-hop, disco ... whatever is fresh and new.
"One of our signature moves (are) gymnastic flips," said Campbell. "We come out really intense ... like an explosion."
He added: "At the end of it, we're still sticking to our roots, but at the same time, you've got to stay current with the culture."
Often a team of steppers will choose a theme tying together their look, sound and movements. (Last year, Lee's step team donned baseball caps to create a sporty, hip-hop theme.)
Campbell said stepping is constantly evolving.
He said the typical step performance has three parts: The introduction, often a dance routine; the step performance; and the closing.
"The concern is, the introductions are taking over," Campbell said.
Geremy Frison, vice polaris of Iota Phi Alpha, was concerned people who are unfamiliar with stepping will get the wrong impression from "Stomp the Yard," a recently released film.
"It's not a big dance-off. The director should've gotten more Greek input," said Frison.
Stepping has become such a popular activities among Lincoln fraternities and sororities that many students travel to participate in competitions.
Campbell said most fraternity and sorority chapters have a designated step team that competes at district and regional competitions.
"And you can take it to the national level, if you want to," said Lee.
Stepping originated in the Greek organizations. But it's become so popular that other groups - such as church youth groups - are creating their own teams.
"It does require a little rhythm and coordination," admitted Lee. "Not everybody can step."
For the fraternity brothers and sorority sisters who participate, stepping forges deep bonds.
Campbell also said that many will perceive stepping as only for blacks, but that's not true. "The Alphas opened their doors to all races ... from all walks of life," he said.
Lee said she feels stepping is a part of Lincoln's history.
"It's a pride thing... to be a part of something that dates back to the early 1900s," she said.