While millions of people prepare to watch the annual Academy Awards ceremony tonight, millions of others will have their eyes on a nationally-televised step competition finale this afternoon.
The stepshow, sponsored by a major soft drink manufacturer, features collegians from across the United States who competed in regional competitions throughout the 2009-2010 school year.
Traditionally, college step show performers are members of historically African-American fraternities and sororities. Together, these nine organizations make up the National Pan-Hellenic Council, Inc., also known as the Divine Nine. The member groups are Alpha Phi Alpha, Alpha Kappa Alpha, Kappa Alpha Psi, Omega Psi Phi, Delta Sigma Theta, Phi Beta Sigma, Zeta Phi Beta, Sigma Gamma Rho, and Iota Phi Theta.
This year, the competition featured performances from an array of Divine Nine chapters, and a newcomer, Zeta Tau Alpha, a member of the National Panhellenic Conference, from the University of Arkansas.
According to televised statements from ZTA on CNN, women from the Arkansas chapter have been stepping for more than 15 years, after participating in a unified step competition on their campus.
While college Greek step dancing appears to be a rather new phenomenon, on the heels of features in television shows like A Different World and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and major motion pictures like School Daze and Stomp The Yard, the art form has been around for years. Maybe even longer than you think.
Longtime Divine Nine members say the tradition of step dancing or stepping, is a tribute to the non-verbal, rhythmic communication of African slave ancestors.
As documented in various publications, and as witnessed in Amistad and the dramatic miniseries Roots: The Saga of an American Family, based on a novel by Alex Haley, many slaves were not permitted to read and write. Verbal communication was also discouraged, especially in native African tongues. So how do you communicate when you have no voice, no pen, no paper? You make noise. You use hand signals. You turn code words into melodies or songs.
As a college student, I had the privilege of studying under Dr. Clovis Semmes, now the Director of Black Studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. An author and scholar on the African diaspora, Semmes taught us examples of slave communication--some documented, some passed down through generations.
One tap of your foot could say "someone's coming". Two taps could say "the coast is clear". Four taps and a clap might say "there are four nights before we make our escape", and so on. With millions of different people in thousands of locations, you can imagine that creating a perfect universal language was nearly impossible. However, in its' various forms, one might compare these methods of tapping and clapping as a slave "Morse code".
Today, it appears that stepping is a mainstream activity. What was once a utility, that became an educational yet entertaining salute to slave survival over struggle popularized by Black Greek fraternal organizations, is now evolving into a dance competition where the focus is on entertainment value.
Semmes explores similar instances of African-American cultural adaptation in his book, Cultural Hegemony and African American Development.
Stan Dennis, founder of Greekfest, a company who has produced stepshows and Black Greek events for more than 25 years, says the breakdown was imminent.
"The traditions and the knowledge stopped with the pledge process. Step culture is not written down. It has been passed on for generations through a hands-on approach." Dennis, a member of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc. also blames the lack of participation by older fraternity and sorority members with younger members, and non-Greek involvement in commercialized productions.
Taped late last month, the stepshow finale was hosted by rapper Ludacris. The show featured celebrity judges and a surprise ending, with the Epsilon chapter of ZTA, a non-Black organization, taking the top sorority spot. It was later determined that the Tau chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. was the winner due to a scoring discrepancy. The show's producers granted both teams the first-place title and $100,000 each.
From the shock of the winner, to the tie for first place, the news shot across the Internet for more than one week straight. After more than 500,000 YouTube views, the performances have brought critiques from people of all backgrounds.
The traditionalist argues that stepshows are not talent shows, but are battles between Divine Nine organizations and cultural representations, much like the Jewish Horah (seen at weddings), Irish stepdancing like the Riverdance, and the Polynesian hulas. "When we step, we're talking to each other using our own steps and chants--even though many Greeks are emulating Sigma steps," says Dennis, a Sigma since 1982.
No matter their stance on the participation of a historically-white organization, most agree that the Zetas had a good routine. "Based on precision, creativity, and coordination, they were excellent," adds Dennis. "If Black Greeks want to maintain the culture, we all need to stop pointing fingers, remain active, join grad chapters and get involved. The younger members need us to mentor them on the historical importance of stepping and community involvement."