Seven young women in black rubber leggings stomping and twisting and clapping in perfect unison across a platform erected on the 50-yard line of the Superdome in New Orleans. Five young men in white vests, loose blue pants, and gold-painted Army boots, arms raised, knees high, chanting at the top of their lungs. It was the day after Thanksgiving, the night before the Bayou Classic, a football game between Grambling and Southern, two historically black Louisiana universities, and about 25,000 people had come out to watch the show. Four blindfolded women dancing on chairs; five women with their faces painted gold to match their gold-lamé jumpsuits; seven men in camo pants, face masks, and white gloves performing a boisterous series of spins, claps, and hops before falling simultaneously into splits. The stage was miked, and there was almost no music, just the complex rhythms of feet hitting the floor and hands smacking together. For especially fine moves—a double-time break, a drop-dead ending—the crowd stood up and shouted, and their cheers washed through the stadium.
“I’m going to the step shows,” I’d told my friends. And they had said, “To the what?”
Stepping is a rite, a tradition, a performance, a competition, a point of pride, and about as much fun as any 10 minutes on the planet. It’s somewhere between a dance, a march, and a vignette—and a unique art form developed by black fraternities and sororities, most of which were founded at historically black colleges and universities early in the 20th century and have swelled, in the years since, to include countless chapters across the country. Each chapter develops its own routine and competes against its campus rivals at homecoming; the winners meet at occasions like this: a weekend of Greek shows, marching bands, and football. “It’s a privilege, you know,” an Omega named Simon Theus told me. “School, community activities, and stepping are our main priorities.”
So it was that at sundown that Friday, scores of young men and women—though they seemed so young that it was difficult not to think of them as boys and girls—milled around a small concrete warren of rooms somewhere behind the Superdome’s stands. The men were darting in and out of their dressing rooms, laughing and bouncing on the balls of their feet, exhibiting that endearing combination of bravado and guardedness that comes from being young, strong, exuberant, and very polite. The women were performing the kind of half-motions one makes when nervously rehearsing a routine, eyes turned mnemonically to the ceiling; others were fretting over their outfits.
Behind one door, the Alpha Kappa Alphas were getting ready, ironing one another’s hair, laughing, and talking softly. They were from Southern, wearing pink windbreakers with the sorority’s letters on the front and painting their faces a subtle green (their theme was The Hunger Games). Their step master—logistical captain and guardian of the team’s spirit—was a self-possessed senior named Prentice Garrett, trained in ballet and aiming for a job teaching middle school science. She called me “sir” until I insisted she stop, and then she started calling me Mr. Jim instead—half-joking, but only half.
I asked her how the routines are choreographed. “We usually make the majority of our shows up together,” she said. “We always do everything together.” Do they get nervous before a competition? Not her: It was her second time competing in this event, and she wasn’t nervous at all, though the younger members were more fidgety. “We just try to stay humble and focused, but, of course, we want first place. For most of them, this will be their first time on the stage before a big crowd. But I’m more than confident,” she said sweetly. “They’re going to be fine.” Perhaps this was a canned response; perhaps it was a case of saying it to make it so. But it worked: You could tell when they hit the stage an hour or so later and performed a routine that was fast, surprisingly intense, and in flawless unison.
Stepping is the sort of thing you either know well or you’ve never heard of, a supremely community and tradition-bound American art form, like shape-note singing or low-riding. When Rick Owens brought a group of step teams to Paris to model his spring collection last September, it caused a sensation, not just because the women were mostly black and brown, and more athletically built than your standard runway model, nor simply because of the martial ferocity of the show, the shouts and grimaces, was startling, but because the form was something that much of his audience had never seen. “Stepping combines soul, discipline, and artifice—three of my favorite things,” Owens said. “That’s the tone I was after with this show. But the variety of women that performed was just a plus. The results surpassed my hopes.”
There are untold numbers of step teams across the United States, but where the practice comes from remains a mystery even to those closest to it. A fraternity is, after all, a sort of secret society: Its rituals are passed down from upperclassmen to pledges—not all that different from the way you learn stickball or how to jump rope.
Read through the literature on stepping (there isn’t very much), go to a couple of shows, or watch the homemade videos that get posted on YouTube and you’ll find evidence of dozens of influences: African foot dancing, the synchronized choreography of vocal backup groups like the Miracles or the Pips, military close-order drilling (which explains the dancers’ grimaces and shouted call-and-response), tap dancing, gymnastics, cheerleading, even patty-cake and a little double Dutch, plus a dose of broad chitlin’-circuit vaudeville—all mashed together into a performance that has to be taken on its own terms. The routines are set up as little stories, though they can be hard for the uninitiated to follow, involving, as they do, a slew of in-jokes, plays on each fraternity’s reputation (suave, athletic, nerdy, frilly), and references to campus life.
The result is an activity unlike any other—“I don’t know how to dance, but I know how to step,” one of the Omegas told me—and beholden only to itself. Pop music, for example, is used very sparingly—a bit of ear candy to warm up the crowd; once things get under way, the only sounds you hear are chanting, the thundering rhythmic stomp of feet on the stage, and hands clapping. In the wider world, this year’s beat is next year’s forgotten fad, but stepping is as bound to tradition as a religious ceremony. Old school is pretty much the only school, and change comes gradually. When one of the Omegas suggested that he was trying to “modernize” their show, he meant adding a bit of video projection above the stage, not overhauling the moves.
It is bound, as well, to the rituals of unity, of brotherhood and sisterhood. There are no real solos; no one shines at the expense of the others (and this, too, makes it hard to introduce it to the wider world: American media, from magazines to movies, like a star to focus on). “There are four principles to stepping,” one of the men in Omega Psi Phi told me. “Style, soul, grace, and expression.” But the unspoken mandate—too obvious even to mention—is solidarity, sometimes taken to a level that might discomfit an outsider. As I spoke to the Omegas, I noticed identical configurations of scar tissue on their upper arms: They had branded themselves with hot irons, burning the letter Ω into their flesh.
The Omegas looked tough, but they were earnest and sweet, and their stepping had a similar mixture of showmanship and playfulness. Their routine that night involved wooden guns, masks, and a lot of loud drill sergeant shouting, but the story line was perfectly anodyne, even goofy: They were playing bank robbers of a sort, but the “bank” was the Superdome, their objective was to steal the show—and they succeeded, winning first place and a check for $3,000.
They were glorious, all the steppers were that night: loose and funny but also powerfully virtuosic. It was a beautiful thing, and by the end, as the Omegas took the stage to collect their accolades, my cheeks hurt from grinning so much. You know how it is, when you see something you’ve never seen before, and it’s done right; all the pieces fit, everyone’s happy, and you say, “Ohhh!” It was a good time.