Stepping Out

Stepping Out

Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc.– represented at Denison by (l-r) Michael Henry II ‘06, Jamar Orr ‘06, and Jared Roper ‘07–is widely credited for creating the Greek stepping ritual at Howard University in the early 20th Century.

Photo: Jerid Davies

The art of “stepping” is an almost century-old ritual of African American fraternities and sororities that bears deep meaning for its participants. For them, stepping’s complex mixture of rhythmic clapping, stomping, shuffling, chanting, and occasional singing is about cultural expression and heritage, unity, and personal achievement. And watching it, the casual observer will often have his own toe-tapping, head-bobbing, and sometimes even jaw-dropping experience.

But “it’s not really for the crowd,” points out Vincent Briley, Denison’s director of multicultural student affairs, a stepmaster for Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc., and former president of the Stepmaster Honor Society at Ohio State University. “It exemplifies the best that we can do for (our own fraternities and sororities).” Within African American Greek organizations, pledges must learn their group’s unique moves as an initiation rite. Stepping requires pledges and members to train together for hours upon hours, and take pride in the production. By virtue of this unifying effect, the ritual has also taken hold in African American churches, schools, and community groups as well as Latino, Asian- American and multicultural college organizations.

“It’s a major, major piece of culture,” says Briley, noting that the practice can be traced back to slaves in 19th century America, who were often prohibited musical instruments, and the even earlier “body music” techniques of West Africa.

Phi Beta Sigma member Michael Henry II ‘06 says modern stepping also takes a cue from the singing rituals of white fraternities; African American fraternities simply added a physical component to the vocals. “Traditionally, stepping was done in celebration of crossing over into the brotherhood of the fraternity,” he said. “From this it has built into shows and a form of entertainment.”

Today, stepping consists of three categories. “Yardstepping” is the most informal, often referring to practice sessions that occur on campus lawns. “Party stepping” is a popular ritual at Greek functions and “step shows” are formal competitions between organizations.

Briley explains that a step show is judged on the technical qualities of the performance, and often the judges will go against the will of the spectators. But even though stepping is more about expression than amusement, the audience can’t help but become involved. “In stepping, there’s a constant communication” between the audience and the performers, Briley notes. Step show audiences will clap and stomp along with the steppers and even call to them on stage. Likewise, the stepper will return the sentiment and may even venture into the audience.

For Sigma member Jamar Orr ‘07, stepping is less about theatre and more about friendship. “It’s the times stepping with my fraternity brothers that I really love. It’s the pursuit of the perfect step; it’s the whole bonding thing!”

Published November 2010