I’ve got a question for you. What if black fraternities and sororities were asked by President Obama to place a moratorium on stepping for exactly one school year? Instead of devoting the time toward practicing and performing steps, or attending step show for that matter, they would instead use that time to create an innovative community service project, something that has never been seen or done before?
Farfetched, you say? Well, why not? I happen to think that stepping has become an albatross for many of our chapters, a beast that threatens to make our organizations irrelevant in the 21st Century. And if we don’t own up to it, future historians will talk about us as being a bunch of empty performers, like circus clowns or modern day minstrels.
Wow. Even for me, that was a pretty heavy statement. But think about this. In the early 2000s, I was lecturing on the Divine Nine at an Eastern college that shall remain nameless. A sorority member challenged me on my argument that stepping takes up too much our time and efforts in comparison to community service. So we did a quantitative breakdown of where her chapter hours were spent.
She calculated that her chapter practiced at least one hour a day, beginning in September, for a February step show, and usually more on the weekends. But for our argument, we conservatively estimated a two hours per day practice on Saturday and Sunday. That came out to around ten hours per week, or a total of 240 hours (10 whole days) devoted to stepping for one step show. She admitted that they participated in more than that show, and also did performances on their campus. I then asked her if there was any community service project her chapter did which took that amount of preparation? The answer was a resounding no.
Now before we go any further, I already know the arguments from fraternity and sorority members when it comes to stepping. I’ve heard them all before. Well, there’s no reason why we can’t do both, stepping and community service. Stepping is an important part of being in a BGLO. We raise money by stepping. Stepping creates brother/sisterhood. But it’s a tradition, and we need to keep our tradition going. This is just another attack on young members by an older member. Kids are attracted to stepping, and then are attracted to going to college.
Maybe. But the problem with stepping is that it has moved from being a reward for all of the hard work we’ve done through the year, and to become an ends to the means. I joke that if you took pledging and stepping away from some black Greek members, they wouldn’t know what to do with their lives.
And stepping has begun to gain a pseudo weight of importance that trumps its actual relevance. The whole Sprite Step Off kerfuffle, where white sorority members of Zeta Tau Alpha had the audacity to participate and win the grand prize, is a prime example. By the reaction in the black fraternal blogosphere, you would have thought that Zeta Tau Alpha had not only won a step show, but had also declared the Negro National Anthem to be their new sorority song, and the red, black and green their new colors. And then came back on stage to slap the mamas of every black person in the country, while declaring that black folks food is bland and without seasoning and they can do better. I could go on.
The point is that stepping, according to the research of Dr. Walter Kimbrough, author of Black Greek 101, isn’t even a particularly old black fraternal tradition. What we know as stepping doesn’t go back more than forty years at the most, and isn’t tied all of the myths I’ve heard black Greeks spout over the years. It doesn’t come from South African boot dances. It isn’t a result of World War II soldiers coming up and marching. Our founders didn't step. Yes, I actually had someone say that. Stepping is simply an evolution of probate shows, where dancing turned into stepping. That’s it.
So where are we now with the art form? Well, when stepping first was codified, the NPHC organizations were in full control of it. They ran the step shows. They created the rules. The money generated went straight into the coffers of the chapters, and was used for community service projects and scholarships.
Today? Often, the step shows are thrown by private promoters, relegating the BGLOs into the role of performer versus organizer. Instead of receiving 100 percent of the revenue, black Greeks get pennies on the dollar, a shiny trophy, and the bragging rights to say that they are the 2010 STEPTHEBEST champions! Meanwhile, the bulk of the money goes to the promoter, who usually gives some vague promise about donating “a percentage” to a charity.
And what about the money won by the performers? More and more, we’re hearing reports that the money doesn’t go to the chapter for community service projects and scholarships, but is split among the people on stage, something unheard of just ten or fifteen years ago. And let’s not even get into black Greeks who are old enough to have mortgages, kids with tuitions, and full time jobs, forming traveling “all star” step teams. It’s all become, in the words of the Monty Python crew, silly.
So is stepping evil? Of course not. I happen to love watching our organizations step. But if your response to the hypothetical Obama request was that you couldn’t give it up for something deeper, then you know that stepping has become overly important. And if that’s the case, black Greeks are sliding toward irrelevance. And there are no steps for changing that.
Contact Lawrence Ross on Twitter: @alpha1906
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Lawrence Ross is the author of the Los Angeles Times best-seller The Divine Nine: The History of African American Fraternities and Sororities. His newest book, Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America’s Campuses, is a blunt and frank look at the historical and contemporary issue of campus racism on predominantly white college campuses. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.