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Stepping Off College Campuses : Art Form of Black Fraternities, Sororities Dances Into Mainstream

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Imagine hip-hop dancing but add three times the energy.

Next throw in angular arm movements vaguely reminiscent of “voguing” and add synchronized clapping and slapping of the chest and thighs. After that toss in rhythmic chanting.

And then imagine the thunderous sound of syncopated stomping as the performers make tight, interweaving formations with military-like precision.

That’s Stepping.

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Until recently, this dance form, which is said to have its roots in South African boot dances, has been performed only in African-American fraternities and sororities, but it is currently making its way from the campus into mainstream entertainment, and will be performed Saturday at the Greek Theatre in a major competition sponsored by the National Pan-Hellenic Council.

Getting ready for an appearance last month on the Arsenio Hall show, six members of a championship college Stepping team from the Omega Psi Fi fraternity at Virginia State University went through a two-minute routine that, peppered with pelvic thrusts, had an arrogant, energetic, in-your-face tone to it.

“Enter! Enter! Enter! . . . We’re coming at you! (Tap! Tap! and Clap!) We’re gonna peel the step off! (boom, slide, boom!) And that’s that! Ssssssssss!” they chant as they dance.

Supervising the rehearsal were Jim Hamilton and Vernon Jackson, a choreographic team who prefer to be known as Step X Step. At 24, the fraternity brothers from Alpha Phi Alpha at Cal State Northridge have garnered a reputation in Hollywood as the gurus of Stepping.

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Their performances, in which they are dressed in black trousers, tucked into shiny military-style boots, and black shirts emblazoned with their Greek letters in gold, have amassed a list of credits that includes a Coca-Cola commercial, a Debbie Allen video as well as appearances on “Soul Train,” “Arsenio Hall” and tours with the Isley Brothers and Jasmine Guy. They also did a gig on the sitcom “A Different World” and have appeared at Prince’s new nightclub Glam Slam.

But it was their choreography for the opening number of this year’s NAACP Image Awards that was “a dream come true,” they said.

“At first we thought Stepping might not be classy enough for a gala like the Image Awards,” Hamilton said, “but we made it very tasteful. We made it entertainment.”

While Hamilton prefers to combine rap with his performance, Jackson displays a ferocious energy when he dances, seeming to have springs in his feet. His face contorts. He clenches his fists. Beads of sweat form on his brow. He likes to improvise, like dropping his hands to the floor and kicking legs out behind him.

The duo also choreographed for “Stomp!,” a nationally televised Stepping competition aired locally in January on KCAL produced by Frank Mercado-Valdes.

An African-American of Cuban descent, the New York-based Mercado-Valdes had never seen Stepping until he attended the University of Miami in the early ‘80s.

“I thought they were having a riot,” he said, claiming to have been shocked by this “strong, very ethnic dancing” at a time when, he said, many blacks were seeking to join the cultural mainstream.

He tried his hand at Stepping and found himself hopelessly uncoordinated, but he eventually went on to produce the first television program to feature the art form. He knew of Step X Step by reputation and contacted them through their agent in Beverly Hills.

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“I’m like the kid who couldn’t play baseball but grew up to buy the baseball team,” the 30-year-old said with a grin.

*

The idea to feature a Stepping competition between fraternities and sororities grew out of another program Mercado-Valdes was already producing, the annual Miss Collegiate African-American Pageant. For the talent portion of the competition, a female soloist did a Stepping performance that was so well received that Mercado-Valdes thought, “Wow! Why not get entire Step teams?”

Again going the syndication route, he brushed aside naysayers who predicted the program would be too expensive to produce, too narrowly ethnic and besides, “How do you explain to a white station program manager in Wichita, Kan., what Stepping is?”

Despite the hurdles, Mercado-Valdes went on to syndicate “Stomp!” to 70 television stations nationwide.

Step X Step and Mercado-Valdes’ emphasis on commercial performances of the art form troubles some purists who believe it should remain within the campus community. But others, such as Anthony Thomas, a sociology major at UCLA, are less dogmatic. Thomas said he believes that only performances should acknowledge the form’s foundation in the black Greek letter societies. As producer of the 15th annual UCLA Step Show, to be held Saturday, Thomas is overseeing its move from its usual location at Pauley Pavilion to the Greek Theatre--the first time it has been held off campus.

Thomas says that in the past years the show has attracted an audience of 5,000, and he hopes it will draw a wider audience at the Greek because “the UCLA campus can be a little intimidating.”

Thomas sees the show as a tool to attract new membership for black Greek letter societies, but more importantly, he thinks this is a way to provide role models for other young African-Americans who could be college-bound.

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Mercado-Valdes, however, sees an even broader role for the art form. He predicts it will be America’s next dance craze.

And who will do it? Twelve- to 24-year-olds who “still have enough energy to pull this off,” he said.

* Saturday’s “Step Show” competition will be held from noon to 5 p.m. at the Greek Theatre, 2700 N. Vermont St. Tickets are $15. Information: (213) 665-1927.


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