If you are only cursorily familiar with the term ‘step dance’ or ‘stepping’, it’s time to get acquainted with a cultural phenomenon that has attracted fresh focus and admiration in recent years, but can actually be traced back more than a century… and beyond.
The short answer to the question “what is step dance?” is that it is a highly energetic and percussive art form that began to emerge as we now know it in the first decade of the 20th century, when African Americans gradually started to make their presences felt at colleges across the United States.
Seven students at Cornell University in 1906 decided to form a fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, which would represent a safe haven for African Americans at a then still largely white institution. Faced with high levels of racism, the students connected with and supported each other through the African American form of dance – juba – that served as a precursor to stepping.
But stepping also has much deeper origins
The above is neither the start nor end of the development of step dance. Indeed, the roots of this art form that places such strong emphasis on the use of the body as an instrument, with claps, footsteps and spoken word utilized in the creation of complex poly-rhythms, go back literally centuries.
It was as long ago as the 16th century when the Portuguese began to bring enslaved people from the West African region of Senegambia to the Americas. The dance tradition in this part of the world embraced such elements as rapid movement, leaps, foot percussion and simultaneous body movements, which effectively provided a foundation for African American dance.
West-central Africa, however, had a unique dance tradition of its own, more closely oriented to the earth and emphasizing keeping the hips down and the upper body isolated. When enslaved people began to be brought in from this part of Africa from the 17th century onwards, the two traditions combined in American enslaved communities to create a highly influential circular dance.
“Stepping” forward to the 20th century, African Americans’ creation of their own Greek-letter organizations as a source of academic, social and community support soon gathered momentum. Further entities established over the ensuing years included the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority at Howard University in 1908, the Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity at Indiana University in 1911, and the other fraternities and sororities that now make up the “Divine Nine”.
How step dance has retained its influence through the late 20th and early 21st centuries
Today, step dance has truly cemented itself as a not merely national, but worldwide phenomenon, practiced by people of all ages and from a variety of organizations, encompassing college fraternities and sororities, churches, high schools, drill teams and more.
All the while, modern-day stepping has continued to showcase the possibilities for the use of the body to make sounds through clapping, stomping, spoken word, and even elements of break dancing, tap dancing, gymnastics and Afro-Caribbean dance.
Stepping has shown up everywhere in recent decades from major motion pictures like School Daze, Stomp the Yard and Step, to the Opening Ceremony of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, and even the inauguration of President Bill Clinton, where Alpha Phi Alpha performed.
In short, the 21st century is seeing step dance continuing to exert its influence and establish a potent legacy far transcending its origins – and long may its remarkable story continue!