When an all-white sorority wins first place in an otherwise all black step show, all hell breaks loose. Black people, young and old, are up in arms! Many feel that the black community has lost something—“given it away” or “sold it” to mainstream America. While others see the infiltration as a wake up call and a challenge. Most, however, recognize it as the beginning of the end to a black tradition, once infused with history and culture.
The controversy continues to wage online as word quickly spread that the all-white Zeta Tau Alpha step team from Arkansas took first place honors at the prestigious Sprite Step-Off Step Show in Atlanta this past weekend. As if the Zeta win in the normally all black venue were not enough to create big buzz, Coca Cola, apparently in response to the outcry from the black community, changed the outcome by declaring a tie between the Zetas and formerly second-place winners, the Alpha Kappa Alphas from Indiana University. Alpha Kappa Alpha is a historically all black female sorority formed in 1908 in response to the exclusion of black women from traditionally white sororities. Are we already seeing the crazy irony here?
Historically, stepping has been a way for Black fraternities and sororities to come together for a common group effort, represent their organizations and interact among themselves and the greater community. Step shows have also been used for philanthropic fundraising among these service-oriented greek organizations. For those who have never heard of the African-American tradition of stepping– have never seen the movie, Stomp the Yard— Elizabeth C. Fine, in her book Soulstepping: African American Step Show, defines it as:
…a complex performance that melds folk traditions with popular culture and involves synchronized percussive movement, singing, speaking, chanting, and drama.
In addition, as step has evolved and become more difficult and complex, it also has developed an oral tradition deeply rooted in African-American history and the histories and legacies of each group. It is a way that these groups showcase who they are; what they are doing and have done; and what distinguishes them from each other. Over time, each group has developed its own style and trademark movements. If you attend a step show, you’ll know the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity by their red and white striped canes, for example. The Omega Psi Phi fraternity specializes in those athletic acrobatics and all of that dog barking. And both the male and female Alphas chant a lot about being the first black greeks established. These features have been passed down from generation to generation.
For many of these black greek organizations, stepping is a serious matter. They devote an incredible amount of time and resources to competing locally and nationally for rewards, but mostly bragging rights. The Sprite Step-Off competition represented an important shift. Firstly, the first place prize was a $100,000 scholarship, the largest step show booty to date. And secondly, the show garnered television coverage by MTV. Not just event coverage. MTV produced a six part series about the sequence of competitions culminating with the national finals in Atlanta.
If there was any question that the art of stepping has hit the mainstream, Coca Cola and MTV have answered with a decisive “YES”. But we all know there is a price to fame, fortune…and hopping in bed with mainstream media. Many in the stepping world are certain that they’ve now paid that hefty price with the Zeta win.
Black folks have a long witnessed their cultural traditions and innovations discredited and invalidated only until taken and repackaged by white America. The appropriation of black culture is as much a part of this country’s history as…I don’t know…greed! We have seen it in every aspect of American life, not just music (Jazz, rock and roll), but dance, sports and science. And we’ve seen it over and over again. From Pat Boone’s watering down of Little Richard’s music to Justin Timberlake’s R&B-in-a-white-package persona, this fear is far from baseless. In the last few days, many black folks have been expressing dismay all over the Internet about this new potential cultural theft.
Str* G at Straightgangsterism.com says:
I had issues with this competition from the very beginning. I saw it as another example of one of our sacred traditions being commoditized and mass-mediated by corporate America. I feared that it would lead to us losing control of it…By relinquishing the cultural rights to this tradition, which we did through our participation and support, we opened the door for outsiders to step in and establish themselves within it.
Certainly, I’m sensitive to the concerns of those African-Americans who feel the mainstream often steals from black culture without crediting its founders. In his groundbreaking book, “Forty Million Dollar Slaves,” New York Times columnist William C. Rhoden contends that the integration of baseball was really a setback for African-Americans because Major League Baseball was allowed to poach the best talent from the Negro Leagues without also being forced to make room for black managers, executives and owners. The fear is that if stepping hits the mainstream, a historically black form of expression will be lost.
I don’t think those who oppose the Zeta’s participation in the show fear that this group of women will single-handedly change the face of step. The Zetas worked hard, performed well and were gracious about the change in their first-place stature. If you want to place blame, it seems to me, you really should take a look at how the Zetas (and the participants for that matter) were used by sponsors and MTV. The Zetas did not just show up out of nowhere and win, after all. Their road to the national Step-Off competition had a long and much hyped build-up, MTV style.
MTV chose six groups to follow and highlight during the regional competitions. The Zetas, being a novelty as the only all-white group, were, of course, chosen as one of the six. Onlookers involved with the TV series and those present backstage at the Step-Off finale commented that throughout the process, the Zetas were promoted as the underdogs and given the lion’s share of MTV’s attention. Participants told Aaron Randle at Hilltoponline.com (Howard University’s news site) that “MTV and Sprite took the story of the anomalous Zeta’s and ran with it.” According to Randle’s article:
Mentioning how the Zetas received a biased amount of television coverage and were treated more favorably than the other participating sororities, many felt after the Zeta’s made it to the National Final, MTV and Sprite became less concerned with treating all their participants fairly and more concerned with promoting the Zeta’s unlikely story.
This perceived preferential treatment of the Zeta’s led some to believe the outcome was predetermined. Frank Ski, popular Atlanta radio personality, interviewed two judges post- show, who expressed some surprise at the outcome.
Other comments, like PTA Mom’s at SmokingSection.com, suggest that sponsor and MTV orchestration was also evident in other choices made throughout the production: the sponsors chose celebrity judges with little to no knowledge of or background in the traditions of step; they changed the competition schedule in Chicago, where they had another “score discrepancy”; and canceled the step-off that was supposed to happen between the first and second place women’s teams. (A step-off is when two teams go toe-to-toe on stage exchanging words and showcasing their best moves. The winner is determined by crowd response). Taken as a whole and without takng anything away from the performers, it seems to me the entire process smacked of a manipulated outcome at worst, and the usurpation and corruption of the step show tradition at best.
Welcome to Hollywood!
Step shows will continue, and other groups will continue to join in. This is nothing new. The folks that wish to keep stepping in the black community are not being realistic. That train has forever left the station. As Philander Smith College President and black greek expert Walter Kimbrough stated:
What has happened is black youth culture, what people would call hip hop, sort of made black culture accessible and appealing to all kinds of people … It really now has become an American experience. (see opposingviews.com)
And as with all “American experiences,” in the hands of other groups, stepping will spin off and become something new. It may look like the Zetas’ Matrix routine, or it may look like this white fraternity from Kentucky. If black frats and sororities desire to keep their traditions the way they want them, it will be up to them to do so. In light of the Coca-Cola response, and the public reaction to their response, it’ll be interesting to see what step shows become from here on.
Here is the group who originally got second place, but now shares the first place title: