Saturday, October 1, 2016

Correcting The Record - South African Boot Dancing Isn't The Direct Source Of Fraternity & Sorority Stepping

Edited by Azizi Powell

Latest revision- Dec. 8, 2020

This pancocojams post provides excerpts that help to correct what I believe is a misconception that South African boot dancing was the direct source of the African American originated performance movement forms that are known as "stepping".

The majority of this post consist of excerpts from Elizabeth C. Fine's 2003 book Soulstepping: African American Step Shows.

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

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to Elizabeth C. Fine and all others who are quoted in this post.

Click for more information about the origins of South African gumboot dancing (boot dancing, isicathulo).

Also read these pancocojams posts for more information and comments about the early history of stepping:



Judging from a number of online articles and YouTube discussion thread comments, it's becoming a generally accepted belief that the African American originated movement form known as "stepping" directly comes from South African boot dancing. Here are two examples:

Excerpt #1
"The Art of Stepping is defined as a style of dance that utilizes the body as its instrument to produce rhythms & sounds through hand claps, footsteps, and spoken word. Moreover, its history can be traced back more than a century to cultural dance traditions derived from the continent of Africa. Historians most reference the “Gumboot Dance” style from the gold mines of South Africa, its birthplace."

Excerpt #2
"The practice’s [steppings'] origins are also African, and can boast roots in the call-and-response tradition as well as in games played by Congo children and in the gum-boot dancers of South African mines."
Read my comment below about the reference to "games played by Congo children".

Here's a longer available online excerpt from an article that credits gumboot dancing as the source of "stepping":
Excerpt #3
From "Not Dancing, Not Marching, It's Stepping", by Caitlin Johnson, CBS, January 7, 2007
..."Black fraternities and sororities were born of necessity on the campuses of historically black colleges* roughly a hundred years ago.

African-American Greek letter organizations, unlike many other mainstream fraternities and sororities, were founded because at the time African Americans couldn't join the other fraternities and sororities," said ["Stomp the Yard" (movie) producer Will] Packer [who was a fraternity stepper himself]. "They couldn't join the white fraternities and they weren't accepted in mainstream America as part of the general society brotherhood so they formed these organizations to create a brotherhood amongst themselves, a sisterhood amongst themselves, and also reach out and give back to those less fortunate than them....

Some of the moves in stepping are said to come from the Welly dance, a traditional stomp that South African laborers would perform in rubber Wellington work boots.

The old Welly dance has been adapted, modified and stylized into stepping."...
Pancocojams Editor:
*Note that three of the nine historically Black Greek letter organizations that are part of The National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC) which is colloquially known as "the Divine Nine" were founded on the campuses of predominately White universities.

In spite of the prevailing belief that South African boot dancing is the source of fraternity and sorority stepping, and in spite of the close similarities between these two movement forms, the historical record of stepping doesn't support the conclusion that gumboot dancing is the direct early source of, or is one of the direct early sources of stepping.

Here's an excerpt from an article on the origin of stepping that was written by some members of the historically Black Greek lettered fraternity Phi Beta Sigma, Inc.
Phi Beta Sigma; Kappa Lamda Chapter - The history of Stepping according to the Temple of Blue
..."Stepping evolved with groups of guys singing acapella, and when groups like the Temptations and the Four Tops were popular in the 50's and 60's brothers started mimicking their steps. This is part of the reason why it is called "Stepping" now. Brothers would try to come up with the best steps while they were singing to please the ladies. If you got the ladies you got more recruits. Much like it is today.

Others say that stepping replaced the doo wop sounds and cardigan sweaters of the 50's. At around the same time as the "Black Power" Movements and Africa centered movements of the 60's, stepping started to flourish with the incorporation of some traditional African ritual dancing and the incorporation of other elements like cheer leading, tap, gymnastics, etc. Over the years stepping has become very intricate and demanding incorporating props, high levels of gymnastics and other elements found in team sports.

Please note that some people want to give the credit to the South African Boot Dance, but it would be unfair to ignore everything that stepping was in the beginning and it is now.

Stepping is an original art form that was influenced by many elements from our past."
Pancocojams Editor's Note, added October 3, 2016; revised August 21, 2018
I agree with the members of Phi Beta Sigma, Fraternity Inc. who were quoted above that South African boot dancing wasn't the direct early source of the African American originated stepping.

I think that one of the reasons why so many African Americans believe that South African boot dances with historically Black Greek letter fraternity and sorority stepping is that the ways that stepping are performed now closely resemble South African boot dancing. However, from the Phi Beta Sigma quote given above-and other comments- it wasn't until the 1960s and 1970s that stepping resembled those South African dances.

That said, I believe that the percussive foot work, rhythmic hand clapping, body patting accompaniment, the call & response patterns, and bragging and insult characteristics of stepping and its accompanying chants exemplify Black Americans' appreciation for and cultural retention of African aesthetics.

Furthermore, as a portion of the excerpt given below indicates, it's possible that South African students studying in the United States in the early 20th century could have demonstrated and taught gumboot dancing to African Americans. And it's documented that African American step teams-Greek lettered or otherwise, have traveled to post apartheid South Africa to share stepping techniques and to learn South African boot dancing.

Note that these excerpts are given without the citations that are indicated by the numbers in parenthesis.

"Chapter 1: A History Of Stepping
Steppers at Howard University began to find a wider audience for their talents in the early in the 1990s. Alpha Phi Alpha stepped in President Bill Clinton’s Inaugural festivities after appearing in a Footlocker commercial in 1992. The Alphas expanded their audience even further when the team traveled to South Africa in 1995. In workshops with children, the step team demonstrated their art and joined South Africans in gumboot dancing, which some believe, may have influenced African American stepping. (46)


"Chapter 3: Stepping Out An African Heritage
p. 77
Despite the many claims of stepping’s African origins, not all agree. Michael Gordon, former executive director of the NPHC, pledged the Alpha Phi chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi at Virginia State University in 1955. He says that he “disappoints a lot of younger brothers” when he tells them that during this period “there was no great Afrocentric movement”. Indeed, Gordon recalls, “especially in the historically black colleges during that period, Africa was the last thing that people tried to identify with.” Although there “were certain individual people who were a little more advanced than others who cared about or knew about African history and maybe admired W.E. B. DuBois, … most young black people in the colleges in the 1950s were trying to be upwardly mobile and accepted in the mainstream of American society.” Gordon acknowledged that the stepping of that period reflected African movements, such as an African American way of walking, as well as African American songs, such as the spirituals from which may fraternity and sorority songs borrowed their tunes, but maintains that steppers did not self-consciously imitate African movements. Not until the early 1970s at Howard University did Gordon encounter “Omega Psi Phi men who deliberately put on certain movements that recalled their African heritage. And I remember being thrilled about that.” (3)

Confirming Gordon’s assessment that steppers in earlier years did not associate their activities with African influences, Darryl R. Matthews, Sr., a former executive director of Alpha Phi Alpha who pledged in the Delta Rho chapter at the University of Missouri at Kansas City in 1972, wrote in an e-mail debate with a younger brother:
When my big brothers did it in the 60s, it was to the doo-wopping style of the r&b artist of the day. There was nothing deliberately African about that. In the 70s we modeled ourselves after the Temptations and the Dramatics. It was syncopated harmony with show business choreography, pure and simple. It was not about anything African.

We did not know anything about this side of Africa. We only knew of the British imposed colonial imperialism and the revolutionaries who were trying to free their physically and mentally enslaved countrymen. To say we were stepping to relate to Mother Africa is disingenuous and inaccurate.

No news, art, dances, nothing was getting in or out of South Africa so we did not know anything about rubber boot dancing. That is recently discovered phenomena. I guess y’all young folks had the serious hook up on the goings on inside the formerly apartheid-ridden regime. Nobody else did, and there was no CNN in those days.(4)

p. 78
The rubber boot or gumboot dancing to which Matthews refers is an excellent example of the complex relationships between African and African American music and dance. Gumboot dancing (isicathulo), one of the first urban working-class dances in South Africa, may have been developed in rural missions by Zulu pupils who were not allowed to perform traditional dances. The word isicathulo, Hugh Tracey notes, means “shoe”. When the students danced the shoes that missions required them to wear created louder sounds than did bare feet. Around the time of World War I “rural, urban, mission, and working-class performance traditions” intermingled in isicathulo, which “as a step-dance” was closely related if not identical to other dance forms that had evolved earlier among farm laborers and inhabitants of the rural reserves.” (3)

Erlmann suggest that isicathulo dancers “frequently indulge in sophisticated solo stepping, prototypes of which had been available to migrant workers, from the mid-1920s through Charlie Chaplin and Fred Astaire movies as well as touring black tap dance groups.” Indeed, South Africans were exposed to African American music and dance traditions as early as 1890, when Orpheus M. McAdoo and the Virginia Jubilee Singers spent almost five years touring South Africa. In subsequent years, black South Africans came to the United States. One, the famous “ragtime composer Reuben T. Caluza, renowned “as a skilled isicathulo dancer”, enrolled in Virginia’s Hampton Institute in 1930 to earn a B.A. in music. Caluza and three other students from Africa formed the African Quartette performing both songs and dances along the East Coast.

They even sang for Franklin D. Roosevelt Quartet member Dwight Sumner wrote that in their summer tour of 1931 the “African Quartette sang Zulu songs, under the direction of Mr. Caluza, and also gave African folk dances.” It is likely that Caluza shared his talents with students. If so, members of fraternities and sororities could have incorporated some gumboot movements into stepping. Caluza went on to earn a masters degree at Columbia University in 1935, where again he could have shared gumboot dancing with students.

Malone notes that during the 1970s and 1980s gumboot dancing “was introduced in North American urban areas and showcased by many of the dance companies that performed styles of traditional African dances.” Evidence from Erlmann, however, suggest the possibility if a much earlier exposure to gumboot dancing and, conversely, the incorporation of African American influences into South African dances. Caluza’s story is only one small example of the continuous interactions among Africans and African Americans that created a complex interaction between music and dance forms on both continents. The founding director of the Soweto Dance

p. 79
Theatre, Jackie Semela, explains that just as South Africans were influenced in their music and dance by touring performers from the United States such as Duke Ellington, so too, did South African display their own dances: “And whenever South Africans travel, they would always show a gumboot dance, they would also show as Zulu dance, they would also show some tradition of South Africa in some of their songs.”. Semela agrees that there is a “likelihood” that Caluza’s interactions with black people in colleges in the United States could have brought a gumboot influence to stepping. (7).

Thus, it is impossible to argue that “pure” African dances directly influenced African American stepping, because the same popular culture traditions that were influencing stepping in American might also have been influencing African dances. As James Clifford observes, identities in the twentieth century “no longer presuppose continuous cultures or traditions. Everywhere individuals and groups improvise local performances from (re)collected pasts, drawings on foreign media, symbols, and languages.” The more recent work of Step Afrika! To exchange American, U.K, and African

dance traditions in an annual international festival in Johannesburg has only heightened the intercultural mixture of movement traditions. (chapter 5). The step team of the D.C. Coalition of Alpha Phi Alpha, Inc. has used “Dun-Dun-Bah”, a West African dance from Guinea, as well as Zulu dances from South Africa in their step shows, Jeff Johnson reports. (8).

Some movement patterns in stepping may have been conscious adoptions of African dance patterns, but it is more likely that movement and communicative patterns from Africa came with the first black immigrants and slaves who adapted those patterns to their new North American environment. A people who had highly developed verbal, musical, and dance traditions in their various cultures would surely find some way to continue them in new contexts, especially when they offered psychological release from the horrors of slavery. These African traditions melded with traditions from other cultures to create the distinctive African expressive genres found in stepping.
The next section in that chapter is entitled “Patting Juba and Ring Shouts”. Here are the first two sentences from that section:
p. 81
“The characteristic clapping and stomping movements of stepping have their earliest counterparts in African American dances that emerged during slavery. Patting 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 among slaves for fear they would be used to communicate revolts”

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  1. I'm not sure what the "games played by Congo children" reference is in the second quote given above from articles that credit gumboot dancing as the source (or one of the sources) of stepping.

    However, in this 2011 pancocojams post entitled "Pattin Juba, Hambone, And The Bo Diddley Beat", I featured a video of Jola children from Senegal, West African performing traditional body patting games.

    However, the Congo is in Central Africa. And I don't know if that video clip has anything to do with that quote about Congolese children's games being a source of the performance art of stepping that originated with African Americans.

  2. For the historical record, I'll add that boot dancers was one component of Committee for Unified Newark (CFUN), the Newark, New Jersey, the afrocentric cultural group that I was a member of from 1967-1969.

    The boot dancers were young males (mostly young adults). The group's name was "Simba Wachunga" which we were told was Swahili for "young lions".*

    The boot dancers performed shirtless, with long black Western style pants that weren't baggy. They wore black boots without bells attached, and did not wear hard hats.

    *Notice the Swahili name for these males who performed a South African (Zulu) art form. When I was a member of The Committee For Unified Newark (CFUN), that Newark, New Jersey afrocentric organization frequently mixed Swahili and Zulu cultures. For instance, we said the Zulu word "Yebo" for "Yes" and we were the first organization in the East coast of the United States to celebrate the Swahili language based "Kwanzaa" holiday.

    Also, for the record, the CFUN boot dancers were also considered the so-called "military" arm of that organization, although "military" was in name only as those brothers learned judo and never had any guns, knives, or other weapons.

    1. And for contrast, I remember that CFUN knew about boot dancing before we knew about djembe drums. The drummers in that group (who like the boot dancers were exclusively males) played conga drums or bongo drums and not djembe (pronounced gym-bay) drums.

      I don't think that West African djembe drums which are so popular now in the USA became widely known in this country until sometime around the mid 1970s.

    2. I wrote that the young men in that CFUN group learned judo. But I'm not sure which type of martial art they were taught. It may have been karate which was growing in popularity in the USA in the 1970s.

    3. I just came across this quote from* that mentions an early source for historically African American Greek letter fraternity and sorority stepping:

      ..."in parts of the coastal South [USA], many slaves broke away from the Christian tradition and engaged in festivities with roots from their West African heritage in a celebration called “John Kunering.”

      The primary element of the John Kunering ceremony consisted of black men dressed in rags and animal skins, playing instruments, singing, dancing, and marching from home to home to perform for masters and overseers. Those who witnessed the show were to reward the men with money and alcohol.

      This ritual has the same roots as New Orleans “second line” parades and is a precursor to the modern-day performances of black marching bands and the step routines of black fraternities and sororities."...
      This quote alludes to the position that historically African American stepping has its roots in West African and/or Central African traditional African dancing and not South African boot dancing.

      *How slaves celebrated Christmas in America by Theodore R. Johnson | December 25, 2013