Step team routines are a form of dancing with roots steeped in African-American culture. At the same time, the modern step teams are all-inclusive, with a diverse range of races, genders, and cultural backgrounds shared by the members. Most of all, though, they share a passion for the dance.
Where Did Step Team Routines Come From?
Much like the roots of Hip-Hop and Swing dance, step teams come from the tradition of the "gumboot" dances of South Africa. Performed by miners to entertain themselves when not in the mines, it came to the U.S. in 1940 and was adopted by the nascent Black fraternities and sororities at institutions of higher learning.
Like all living dance traditions, the step team routines changed as new cultural influences affected it. For example, West African and Caribbean dance steps began to be a part of it, as well as props such as canes. Some of the popular dance moves by rhythm and blues artists such as the Temptations also began to be used.
Since a large part of the purpose of the step team routines was to show unity and precision, a bit of the military style of close-order drill also came in, especially while the step teams were limited to African-American men. Now there are women's step teams (such as Black Ice) and integrated, all-inclusive step teams such as the UNITY step team from Bowdoin College. Their stated purpose is typical of most modern step teams: build new bonds, enable togetherness and serve as a fun activity for all of those involved. With the motto of "Knowledge, Power, Respect, Love" they try to practice their routines in a spirit of umoja, the Swahili word for "unity".
Step Team Chants, Stomps, and Claps
The kinds of moves you'd see in step team routines vary widely, but all have a dominant factor: rhythm and percussion. Using the hands to clap, slap the body (on chest, thighs, and arms) or on the floor, a variety of percussive sounds can be made. The shoes (or boots) stomping on the floor usually form a bass-drum like background, while the chants are used for context, message, and to add a bit of melody to the musical composition.
That is the remarkable thing about step teams (or, as the art is known, "steppin'"): it's not just a dance form, it's a musical art as well. The performers need to be more than athletes, they also have to have a sense of musical dynamics and the ability to chant clearly and in unison. If props such as canes are used, the added demands of dexterity come into play. Aside from canes, tap shoes, rhythm sticks, and other props can be used to fill out the percussive sounds.
Step Teams in Pop Culture
Hollywood, Broadway, and other cultural venues have not been slow in seeing the appeal of steppin' both to entertain and also as an example of the power of unity against oppression. Movies such as Stomp the Yard and Drum Line focus on the strong sense of tradition carried on by the Black fraternities in the U.S. In the popular competitive dance series America's Best Dance Crew the two finalist teams performed a step routine together (and competitively) and the tradition of competing was also shown in the syndicated 1992 S.T.O.M.P.
President Clinton invited the Howard University "Beta" chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity to perform at his inauguration. The number of step team routines appearing in music videos, commercials, television shows, and at parades and festivals all around the country are growing. However, there is more to forming a step team than just the moves.
The True Meaning of Steppin'
Umoja'', the Swahili word for unity'', is the spirit embodied by the precise moves of a step team routine. Likewise, the members of a team are often unified in purpose, whether that be pride in their University or fraternity or a dedication to community service. Many step teams perform charitable work outside of practicing and performing, endeavoring to be a positive part of their community. With a rich tradition of pride, unity, and service, steppin' is one of the more positive and energetic dance forms in the world.