Jay L. Clendenin

Before the highly-anticipated documentary 'STEP' premieres in theaters this week, brush up on the history of the cultural phenomenon with this brief breakdown.

Veronica Hilbring
Aug, 03, 2017

We’ve seen the art of stepping in major motion pictures in films like School Daze, Drumline and Stomp the Yard.

But the new documentary STEP takes a deeper look into one of the most artistic and cultural dances in our culture. STEP follows the senior year of an all-girls high school step team in Baltimore fighting against all odds to win a city-wide competition and become first-generation college students. 

Stepping is more than a dance. It’s an art form.  Noted American dance historian Jacqui Malone even labeled stepping as “one of the most exciting dance forms to evolve in the 20th century.” Here are 

- Stepping is now a worldwide phenomenon practiced amongst people of all ages from drill teams, churches, high schools to college fraternities and sororities and more. In stepping, the body is used to make sounds through clapping, stomping and spoken word. Modern day stepping also uses elements of tap dancing, break dancing, gymnastics and Afro-Caribbean dance.

- Stepping has had a long tradition in African and Black communities. While its origins are in the Black community, stepping has spread to Latino, Asian cultures to multicultural fraternities and sororities as well.

- There isn’t a specific origin date, but the start of stepping dates back to Africa.

- The African gumboot dance performed by dancers in boots is said to be one of stepping’s biggest influence. Its modern day roots began in the early 1900s when organizations of the National Pan-Hellenic Council held “Greek Sings.”  The organizations of the NHPC (the Divine Nine) used songs and dance as a call and response to uplift audiences. It has also become a way for organizations to show pride and unity in their group.

- That grand tradition of unity and camaraderie in step has been passed through generations of organizations. "Greek Sings" evolved into Greek shows which eventually progressed into step shows that remain popular to this day. Stepping is judged on sportsmanship, originality of the step routine, stage presence and uniforms. Stepping competitions and battles can be fierce and only the team with strongest performance will prevail.  

- The pop culture impact of stepping has multiplied over the last 30 years.

- Stepping was featured in many episodes of the Cosby Show spinoff Different World. In 1992, the first nationally syndicated stepping contest S.T.O.M.P was televised. In that same year, the Black fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha stepped at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton. The Opening Ceremony of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta also featured stepping.

- BET Networks was an early supporter of step shows, often showcasing step teams on popular shows from Teen Summit, to 106 & Park to the annual Spring Bling event. The popular MTV show America’s Best Dance Crew featured teams which regularly used step routines in their performances.

With the release of STEP, the legacy of the art will continue to grow and reach new generations of young people.