Stepping

Historically black fraternities and sororities began to form in 1906 as a response to bigotry and segregation that prevented their inclusion in existing campus organizations. Had they formed their own system with the words like “African” or “Black” in the name they would likely have been banned. By adopting the Greek letter system they could appear to be assimilating to white culture, while covertly developing their own identity. At the same time, they did not want to take up the very segregationist practices they opposed. For that reason they use the phrase "historically black" and are open to students of all ethnicities. In 1949, Alpha Kappa Alpha admitted its first two white sorority sisters.

One controversy in stepping is the question of African influence. At its 4th annual convention in 1911, Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity created a special committee “to do research work, especially as the relation of the Ethiopian of ancient times to the black race of modern times.” Performances like the gumboot dance from South Africa look a lot like stepping, and there were gumboot performances at Hampton University in the 1930s. Kwame Nkrumah, first president of Ghana, was a student at Lincoln University who became a member of Phi Beta Sigma in 1942, and is often credited with bringing the use of canes into stepping, as they were part of an African coming of age ritual. On the other hand, fraternity and sorority students who were asked about their memory of stepping in the 1950s only mentioned synchronized dance moves from groups like the Four Tops and the Temptations. Alpha Kappa Psi members proudly show images of their "kanes" prior to 1942.

While most of the early stepping movement influence likely came from African American drill teams, tap dance, and similar practices, it is important to recall that these styles were influenced by the African polyrhythmic music tradition that had created blues and soul. As Paul Gilroy points out in his book The Black Atlantic, an African American performance group, the Fisk Gospel Singers, performed in South Africa for two years (1890-1892), influencing the local African music and dance. Since the gumboot dance seems to have originated around mission stations in KwaZulu Natal, it is possible that the influence was in both directions: a reverberation that continues today as African American group StepAfrika has been teaching their routines in Cape Town.

Stepping did not have a strong presence until after WWII, when black college attendance began to rise with civil rights. By 1965, the rate of college attendance by African Americans was at 10%, and that doubled by 1975. Each era contributes different elements to stepping; for example, during the 1980s, moves from breakdance and other hip-hop contributions were added. National attention began with the 1988 Spike Lee movie School Daze, and a variety of popular media and live national appearances quickly followed.

Traditional coming of age ritual in Ghana.
Blu Diamondz, a high school team.
Early photo of AKP with canes at Fisk.
StepAfrika teaching in Cape Town SA