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A Step Ahead

step team competition
central Virginia

A Step AheadAmong the most vital and exciting manifestations of long-practiced traditions on college campuses are the “step shows” organized by African American sororities and fraternities, known as Black Greek-Letter Organizations (BGLOs). Whether informal displays of pride and skill “on the yard,” or formalized competitions before thousands of fans, “stepping” celebrates African American culture, and highlights the contributions that BGLOs make to campus and community life.

One hundred and eleven years after the founding of the first African American fraternity in 1906, the National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC) includes nine member organizations (informally known as “the Divine Nine”) with hundreds of chapters at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Alumni and alumnae chapters also welcome those who wish to join an NPHC organization after college. In addition to providing vital social and academic resources for their members, NPHCs also do significant charitable work in the broader community.

Early fraternities and sororities were known to sing and march in public, but stepping—with its dynamic combination of precision dance moves and verbal dexterity—emerged in the 1940s. Stepping draws on a broad range of African American traditions that use the body as an instrument, including the precision steps of military units and mutual aid drill teams, the synchronized stage routines of R&B singers, playground handclap games, and, more recently, breakdancing. Stepping also incorporates elements of African American verbal artistry to transmit the history and culture of sororities and fraternities, from the ritualized greeting of “the call,” to call-and-response patterns, and even “cracking,” a tradition of playful insults based on “the dozens.” Each of the Divine Nine combines physical and verbal traditions to create a signature “trade step” by which their organization is known.

Stepping hit pop culture in 1988 with the release of Spike Lee’s film School Daze, and national step competitions developed to share the proud traditions of NPHC “sorors” and “frats.” The Richmond Folk Festival is proud to host a friendly competition between six local sororities and fraternities: the ladies of Sigma Gamma Rho (Epsilon Zeta Chapter, Virginia Commonwealth University [VCU]), Zeta Phi Beta (Omega Gamma Zeta Alumnae Chapter), and Delta Sigma Theta (Henrico County Alumnae Chapter); and the men of Kappa Alpha Psi (Eta Xi Chapter, VCU), Omega Psi Phi (Phi Delta Chapter, VCU), and Alpha Phi Alpha (Gamma Chapter from Virginia Union University). During the judges’ deliberations, the Youth Precision Step Team from The Bolden Academy School of Performing Arts will be showcased.