Sunday, February 22, 2009

Stepping on Gender

The 2008 Stomping On The Yard stepping competition was recently televised on CBS College Sports Network.

If you are not familiar with stepping, I strongly recommend that you rent the movie, Stomp The Yard, for an excellent portrait of stepping and some of the best movie dancing ever. For more complete historical and cultural analysis, read Steppin’ on the Blues: The Visible Rhythms of African American Dance by Jacqui Malone. Minimally, you need to know that stepping was developed in traditionally Black college fraternities and sororities. Emerging in the 1960s, stepping has its roots in black marching bands, tap, and a host of other African American dance forms. As a competitive form, it is purely Africanist. Malone argues that “competitive interaction” is at the heart of African American social forms from jazz to playing the dozens to tap and break dancing battles.

Here’s what else I learned from the CBS broadcast:

Stepping is not a goal in itself: Stepping is about becoming a man. It’s a tool to help young black men develop leadership skills. By working as a team in both stepping practices and in community service, they learn about the power of cooperation, about brotherhood, fraternity. They train local kids to step in an effort to inspire them, to help them imagine themselves as college students. They show respect for their churches demonstrating that god, community, and dance are integrated into one whole lifestyle.

Warrior themes are common in men’s choreography: from Star Wars storm troopers to Roman warriors to American military. Other crews wear suits, representing modern leadership positions. Precision, synchronized hamboning and stomping is paired with theatrical and athletic tricks, and always accompanied by fierce facial expressions.

Black sororities also have stepping teams who compete for the women’s title at SOTY. They also serve their communities, teaching step to children, and sponsoring pageants for the girls. But their overall mission does not seem as clear as it is for the men: and their choreography, which doesn’t seem to be fully developed, reflects this. Leadership, with its symbolic representation in the Warrior, is the issue Black men contend with in their step. Black women’s issues must be different. How might those issues change stepping for women? I would love to hear comments on this subject.

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