Thursday, April 9, 2015

When Did Historically Black Greek Letter Fraternity & Sorority Stepping Begin?

Edited by Azizi Powell

This is Part I of a two part series on the history of and influences on Black Greek letter fraternity and sorority stepping (steppin).

This post provides excerpts from Elizabeth C. Fine's 2003 groundbreaking book SoulStepping: African American Step Shows (University of Illinois Press). An excerpt from Wikipedia's page on Stepping is also given in the Addendum to this post. This post also includes with some of my thoughts on the subject of early cultural influences on fraternity and sorority stepping.

Click for Part II of this series.

Part II provides excerpts from comments on the subject of stepping that are part of a discussion thread for a 2013 YouTube video of an Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Stroll Off performance. That post also features that video of that performance.

I believe that the information and comments about the history of and sources for stepping that are included in this post can also be considered to be part of the history of and sources for what are now referred to as "stroll offs" and "party walks". Several pancocojams posts on stroll offs/party walks will be published ASAP and links to those post will be added to this post.

The content of this post is presented for historical and cultural purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to Elizabeth C. Fine for her research and writing on this subject. Thanks also to all others who are quoted in this post.

There are a number of pancocojams posts on historically Black Greek letter[ed] fraternity and sorority stepping. Click the tags found below or use this blog's search engine to find those posts.

"Stepping is a complex performance that melds folk traditions with popular culture and involves synchronized percussive movement, singing, speaking, chanting, and drama. Elizabeth C. Fine's stunningly elaborate and vibrant portrayal of the cultural politics of stepping draws on interviews with individuals on college campuses and steppers and stepping coaches from high schools, community groups, churches, and dance organizations. Soulstepping is the first book to document the history of stepping, its roots in African and African American culture, and its transformation by churches, schools, and social groups into a powerful tool for instilling group identity and community involvement."

[These quotes are given without the citations that are noted in that book.]

Pages 15-16
“The earliest written reference to what might be stepping appears in the 25 November 1925 [Howard University] student newspaper The Hilltop. In an article entitled “Hell-Week”, Van Taylor described pledging activities of Omega Psi Phi and Kappa Alpha Psi fraternities;”What desire is this is that will cause young men, stalwart of frame and rugged of heart and mind, demurely and aesthetically to dance about the campus as if in time to the fairy Pipes of Pan?”. Hell Week, of course, is a colloquial expression for the intense pledge activities that probates must endure before the week before they are accepted into a society. The phrase fairy Pipes of Pan suggests that the men are performing to a music or beat that only they can heard, in other words, there is no accompanying music. The word demurely suggests a certain restraint or gravity to their movements, as might befit initiates in a ritual; aesthetically suggests an artful quality to their movements. Within eighteen years of the formation of the first black Greek-letter society, a public ritual dance associated with pledging had developed.

Van Taylor’s description of dancing young fraternity men may also be an account of the ritual performance of group identity called “marching on line,” from which stepping evolved. During the pledge period, pledges ("probates”) demonstrate their newfound brotherhood or sisterhood by walking together across campus, all wearing their group’s colors, and symbols and cultivating the same style, and movement...

Pledging rituals photographed during the 1940s and 1950s reveal the linear formations of pledges marching on line."

P. 18
"The visual record of probates on line increased dramatically in the [Howard University yearbook] Bison during the 1950s. and marching on line often involved singing or chanting and syncopated and synchronized movements...

In contrast to the linear patterns in photographs from the previous two decades, the circle was the most commonly photographed pattern in both singing and stepping rituals during the 1960s. During that decade, twenty-four photographs in the Bison revealed some type of singing or stepping. Fifteen were of groups in circles, with eight of these showing circular movement. Six of the eight indicated counterclockwise motion. Prevalent in African dance, the counterclockwise pattern seen in early step routines reflects the influence of African culture. Such patterns echo the circular, counter clockwise pattern of the ring shout and pattin juba, early African American dance (chapter 2)."

Page 19
"The first photographs of a formalized indoor stepping program called “Greek Weekend” appeared in the 1965 Bison....The Weekend included six individual sessions on Greek life as well as “a colorful pledge club program in the auxiliary gym of the New Men’s Gymnasium."

Page 23
"Photographs of the late 1960s showed both singing and stepping in Howard’s Yard, although the term stepping is not used."

Page 27
"The words demonstrate and demonstration to describe stepping began to appear in campus periodicals in the 1960s....A 1969 Bison caption proclaimed “Brothers demonstrate “Omega Bop” for spectators on Fridays.

Photographs of stepping and indoor step shows increased substantially in the 1970s. In most cases writers referred to stepping as a “demonstration.”... A 1973 photograph of the Kappas stepping in the Yard refers to “Kappa Stomping.” But in 1974, for the first time, the Bison contained one page of photographs of an indoor step show with the heading “Greek Demonstration”."

Page 28
"After 1975 the word demonstration no longer appears in conjunction with stepping."

Page 31
"Other stepping synonyms appeared in Kujaliwa Hukumu’s 1976 letter critical of black Greeks: “shout’ n foot stomp’n tribalism”, a “war dance”, and “marches”.

By the late 1970s, pictures of indoor step shows revealed large audiences and elaborate costumes. Malone* notes that during this period the administration at Howard began scheduling noon classes, so stepping in the Yard began to decline slowly. Yet Greek shows of stepping gained in popularity, and by 1976 the first competitive Greek show was scheduled for homecoming week."
*Jacqui Malone, author of Steppin' On the Blues: The Visible Rhythms of African American Dance (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996.)

Page 42
"During the first half or the 1990s a heightened sense of competitiveness and a preference for cash-award competitions characterized the annual Greek show".

Page 43
"Howard university hosted the first national championship step show during homecoming in 1994. The grand prize winner received $2,500."

Page 45
"The published record of stepping at Howard University confirms claims from around the United States that stepping evolved from the marching on line and group singing inherent in pledging rituals. Marching on line, the first ritual performance photographed, appeared in the 1943 and 1947 editions of the Bison. Although Van Taylor suggests that fraternities may have stepped at Howard as early as 1925, stepping evolves at different rates on other campuses. ...[Accounts of stepping from Kappa members] corroborates Wall Street Journal’s statement that stepping’s synchronized and syncopated moves date back to the 1940s, when lines of fraternity pledges marched in lockstep around campus in a rite of initiation.” Julian Bond remembers stepping contests during his student days at Morehouse College in the late 1950...Abbe Nutcgyn Davis, a Alpha Kappa Alpha who pledged at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri, noted that her sorority did not step during the 1950s but did more balletlike "synchronized dancing" than the "stomping kinds of things that men did"... Robert J. Cummings, chair of the African studies department at Howard University and alumnus of Florida A&M University, has said that in the early 1960s his fraternity Omega Psi Phi, has stepped and used the term stepping as well as the terms stomp and march."

Pages 83-84
"The characteristic clapping and stomping movements of stepping have their earliest counterparts in African American dances that emerged during slavery. Pattin juba, perhaps the best known of these dances, may have originated in an African dance called guiouba and grown in popularity after slaveholders outlawed drums for fear they would be used to communicate revolts...

The juba dance was done in a counterclockwise circle with "both the words and the steps" in call-and-response form. It involved improvisation, the shuffle, and clapping...

Early circular stepping routines reflect the influence of pattin juba as well as another early African American dance, the ring shout, which still exists in small areas of the South...

Although ring shouts were part of black religious services, they also occurred in secular contests-in schools and homes and among black soldiers-and were very popular with adults as well as children."

Page 87
"Groups frequently enter [the step show stage] to popular music, often performing what black fraternities and sororities label “party walks” and what Latino Greek organizations call “strolls”. [Jacqui] Malone defines a party walk as an ‘organized line movement performed around the floor at a party.” Party walks and strolls may or may not include the characteristic stomping and clapping of stepping, but they are performed to music.

Page 113
"Although the words [of chants performed by Latino Greek-letter organizations] conveyed Latino identity, the stepping differed little in style from that of black Greeks. In contrast, the Latino groups performed their strolls or party walks to popular Latino music and with many Latino dance movements from the salsa, rumba, and merengue."

Page 162
“Stepping in Omega Psi Phi fraternity may have been influenced by the lindy hop. According to Stephon D. Henderson (interview 25 May 1995), stepping began “at the Rho Chi chapter at Tennessee State –anywhere between 1941 and 1956” and was called “hopping” here. Brothers at Tennesee State and in that middle Tennessee area still refer to it as hopping, because it was first referred to as hopping.” A photograph captioned the “Omega Bop” in the 1969 Bison (221) shows Omega brothers standing on their right legs and kicking to the side in a movement reminiscent of the kicks done in the lindy hop... Rouverol (“ 'Hot’, ‘Coo;’ and ‘Getting Down’”, 100) observes that the emphasis on unity, precision, and competition in tap, buck and wing, and chorus–line dancing “may have influenced stepping as we know it today”. Other possible influences, she notes, “include cakewalking, and in recent years, even cheerleading and party walks”.

From [retrieved April 9, 2015]
"Stepping or step-dancing is a form of percussive dance in which the participant's entire body is used as an instrument to produce complex rhythms and sounds through a mixture of footsteps, spoken word, and hand claps. Though stepping may be performed by an individual, it is generally performed by groups of three or more, often in arrangements that resemble military formations.

Stepping may also draw from elements of gymnastics, break dance, tap dance, march, or African and Caribbean dance, or include semi-dangerous stunts as a part of individual routines. The speed of the step depends on the beat and rhythm the performer wants it to sound. Some forms of stepping include the use of props, such as canes, rhythm sticks and/or fire and blindfolds.

The tradition of stepping is rooted within the competitive schoolyard song and dance rituals practiced by historically African American fraternities and sororities, beginning in the mid-1900s[citation needed].

Stepping finds its origins in a combination of military close-order and exhibition drill, and African foot dances such as the Welly "gumboot" dance. It also originally drew heavily from the stage routines and movements of popular R&B groups such as the Temptations and The Four Tops.[citation needed] During the mid-20th century, historically-black fraternities and sororities on United States college campuses traditionally sang and chanted to celebrate "crossing over" into membership of their respective organizations. Stepping is also performed by schools, churches, cheerleading squads, and drill teams."
That last sentence should also read "as well as by a number of Latino, multi-cultural, and other Greek letter and non-Greek letter university organizations."

"Stepping" (couples' dancing) is completely different from fraternity and sorority stepping and I've never read or heard fraternity/sorority stepping called "step-dancing".

Click for a pancocojams post on Chicago style stepping.

In addition to pattin Juba and the ring shout, I believe that two other 19th century dance forms -the cakewalk and the Grand March- should also be considered as early influences on the performance arts now known as stepping and stroll offs.

I also believe that the walkabout dance also influenced what is now known as fraternity & sorority stepping and stroll offs. "Walkabouts" also became part of the Chicago dancing known as the Bop and now known as Chicago Stepping. In the 19th century walkabouts -with its cakewalk dance- were lifted from African American dancing and used as a part of blackfaced minstrel shows.

I also believe that the popularity of the 1924 African American Ragtime song "Strut Miss Lizzie" and its resulting dances as well as other "strut", "walk" and "hop" dances such as The Lindy Hop, The Camel Walk also significantly contributed to historically Black Greek letter[ed] organizations' stepping and strolling.

Click for for a pancocojams post on the 19th century African American originated dances called the cakewalk and "The Grand March". That posts also includes film clips of that dance.

Click for a pancocojams post on "ring shouts".

Click for a pancocojams post on "Strut Miss Lizzie".

And click for a Wikipedia article about the minstrel show walkarounds.

Thanks for visiting pancocojams.

Visitor comments are welcome.


  1. I'm a long inactive member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc (Gamma Zeta chapter, 1967).

    I remember my line performing for the graduate chapter indoors wearing pink and green dresses that someone made for us. I recall that we did "dance steps" while chanting songs/chants. My recollection is that we pledges were trying to do choreographed moves like R&B groups only we entered and left the "performance area" in a vertical line but stood in a semi-circle to do the actual performance.

    I also remember that we had to do that same routine or more than one routines at a much larger indoor sorority event in New York City (which is near East Orange, New Jersey where I went to college and where, luckily, the statewide pledges (ivies) met.) We weren't the only one of the groups of pledges who performed for that New York event but I can't remember anything else about it except that the program was located in a big building and I was afraid that I would mess up the dance steps that went with the words to the songs.

    *The only pledge chants/songs that I remember are "AKA What You Do To Me", "Hiro Hiro", and "Jem Boobs". The words to the first song can be found by clicking The links to the other examples are given in subsequent alphabetized posts of that series which can be accessed by clicking the link "fraternity and sorority chants

  2. With regard to the 1924 song "Strut Miss Lizzie" being a possible influence on the performance arts known as stepping and stroll offs, it's interesting that Elizabeth C. Fine indicates that Howard University's student newspaper first refers to activities that may have been stepping/strolling in 1925- one year after "Strut Miss Lizzie" was recorded and became such a hit with Black Americans and non-Black Americans.

    Also, it's interesting that the term "strut" is still used as a referent for stroll offs/stepping. Here's one example that I happened upon in a YouTube video discussion thread:
    "Southern University Stroll Off Spring 2012"

    Courielle Rouselle, 2011
    "I see you NEOS!!! Yall have ENHANCED the struts!! LOL! I even see the neo with the Glasses setting it OWT!!"
    "Struts" was used in a few other comment threads for other stroll videos that I've read. It may also be used in stepping discussion threads, although I don't recall if that is the case or not. I noticed that word in the discussion of stroll videos since I had recently edited a post on "Strut Miss Lizzie" and therefore that word stood out when I read it.

    I wonder if calling "strolls" or "steps" struts is a regional thing.

    1. That quote from Courielle Rouselle referred to the Deltas who won that the sorority portion of that stroll off. (towards the end of that video).

      The Sigmas won the fraternity portion.

  3. The lyrics of Scott Joplin's 1902 composition "Ragtime Dance" with its focus on "stamping" reveal what may be another cultural influence on the creation of the historically Black Greek letter fraternity tradition known as "stepping" and "strolling".

    Lyrics: "Now "form a perfect straight line", get ready for the "Stop time" "...

    Instructions: Notice. To get the desired effect of "Stop Time" the pianist will please Stamp the heel of one foot heavily upon the floor at every word "Stamp." Do not raise the toe of the foot from the floor while stamping. Author.

    Click for a pancocojams post on Joplin's "Ragtime Dance". That post includes a YouTube sound file, song lyrics, and the composer's instructions for a quadrille-type group dance.