STEPPING Black teens pick up rhythm of traditional dance
The dance form is derived from West African dance and slaves' pantomime.
By ADRIENNE P. SAMUELS
Once exclusive to colleges, the historically black art form of "stepping" is keeping younger students off the streets and headed toward success.
"No, no. It goes like this. Watch me," says the wide-eyed girl with the big smile.
She slaps her left thigh, claps her hands and stomps a foot three times on the floor.
She does it again. And again. The rhythm catches on with the rest of the group, and in a matter of minutes, the six high-schoolers are stomping and clapping the complex beat in unison.
Kayla Currithers doesn't need to look at her teammates to know they have the steps down pat. All she has to do is listen.
One wrong move throws the beat off, and a misplaced hand clap or too-quick foot tap could mean the difference between first and last place in a competition.
Called "stepping," this historically black art form is essentially a heavily rhythmic beat perfectly played out on a percussion of human body parts. When synchronized and multiplied by an entire team, it turns into a roar of rhythmic sounds that would shame any band.
History of stepping
Stepping once was exclusively used by historically black fraternities and sororities to introduce their newest pledge classes to college society. The fraternities, in turn, derived stepping from a combination of West African dance moves and pantomimed skits created by enslaved Africans living in North America.
Over the years, some groups added music between their steps, and then the form trickled down to younger students such as Currithers. Competition is a huge part of the step culture, but these teens participate for the rhythm and the friendships that come from sharing the beat.
"You learn dedication, confidence and self-respect," she said.
Cindy Robinson, a physical education teacher at Dunedin High, became coach seven years ago when two students asked her if she'd sponsor a team. She committed herself to 2 1/2-hour practices twice a week, a promise to conduct overnight trips and the creation of a program to improve the lives and grades of the step kids.
High school stepping started in the 1990s as fraternity and sorority members became teachers who created the junior step teams. Many fraternity steps imitate the pantomime skits and dances of enslaved Africans. One such skit was the "cake walk," which used heavily rhythmic, exaggerated movements to pantomime the actions of slave labor: hoisting cotton, hoeing corn or swinging a scythe.
Every fraternal organization has a traditional step that, out of respect, is not imitated by other groups. High school groups adopt the same policy. Unlike other high school clubs, a wrong move on "Coach Robb's" team won't leave you sitting on the bench.
"You can be on this team no matter what," says Currithers, something of a self-made team leader. "Everybody makes the team. Even if you've got no rhythm."
Coach has only a few rules: maintain a 2.0 GPA, keep a good attitude, learn to work with others and come to practice on time.
The teens see Robinson as a surrogate mother or a friend. She listens to their relationship problems and offers career advice. She lectures the girls on how to behave and dress. She tells the boys who dream of being football stars to always have a Plan B.
"What I'm trying to do is get the kids thinking on a positive line on everything they do," Robinson said. "A lot of times we might go into the classroom, and in the first hour I'll say, 'Let's talk about different issues that are going on, like the spaceship or a racial thing at school.'"
Damien Mebane loves the feeling he gets from just being a part of the production. A tall young man, Mebane could have gone for the basketball team. Step ended up being more his flavor.
"How hard is it to throw a ball, catch it and run?" he asked. "This? This is more hard work."