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  • Soulstepping: African American Step Shows
  • E. Michael Sutton
Soulstepping: African American Step Shows Elizabeth C. Fine Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2003, 208 pages, $24.95 (hardcover)

The traditions and customs that characterize the Black Greek experience are often misunderstood and misinterpreted. Perhaps the most misperceived tradition among this college sub-culture is the custom of stepping. However, Elizabeth Fine's Soul Stepping: African American Step Shows not only raises the novice's awareness of stepping but defines this custom within the context of African folk tradition.

The "History of Stepping" in chapter one describes the transformation of this phenomenon from the perspective of four significant time eras. For example, steps described as demure or performed with a certain restraint or gravity characterized stepping during the 1920's and 1930's, while the formation of members walking in lines and singing depicted the custom during the 1940's and 1950's. As a result of civil unrest and students dissatisfaction with campus facilities during the 1960's the "shout 'n foot stomp 'n tribalism" war dance dominated stepping formats during this era. However the decade of the 1970's and the beginning of events as Greek Weekend, stepping performances began to transform to more [End Page 583] formal performances that emphasized increased competition among the steppers who adorned elaborate costumes. Congruent with each era the author provides a thorough explanation describing how stepping was influenced by African dance folklore. This is particularly noted during the 1960's and 1970's among sorority women whose counter clock pattern of stepping is associated with the African dance patterns of the ring shout and the patting jumba. The chapter concludes describing how stepping has evolved into a multi-business venture for many African American Greek-letter organizations as a result of increased competition for financial awards.

In chapter two "A Ritual Dance of Identity" stepping is shown to be the primary venue for current members to authenticate the identity of new members. This is usually observed at the conclusion of the initiation ceremony when current members publicly step with their new brothers and sisters. In addition to stepping, group identity is also promulgated by common language shared among members. The terms "brother," "sister" "line," "sands," or "shippee" for example are all titles members use to greet and identify each other. Moreover group identity is also fostered when new members adopt the organization's mores, traditions and customs. This is noticeable in the members' attire that adorn the line numbers and colors of their respective Greek organization.

While stepping emphasizes the contributions of the group or team, often a member performs individually. This individual commonly known as the "freaker" or the "show dog," not only enhances the step show by breaking unity or synchronization with the group but also invokes a greater response from the audience. Despite the individual performance by the "freaker" or the "showdog," it is usually the denigrating chants by the steppers as a whole that extracts the greatest audience response. This behavior known as "cracking" occurs when members of one organization contrast the identity of another by mocks and jeers. Although perceived by some as playful gesture, the behavior often results in negative sentiments and sometimes-physical altercations between members of Greek-letter organizations.

A common assumption held by non-members as well as members of African American Greek organizations is that stepping originated from the African culture. This assumption is clarified adequately in Chapter 3 "Stepping out an African Heritage." Contrary to popular opinion, the contemporary method of stepping is really a hybrid of both African and African American music and dance. Such an amalgam occurred as a result of African and African American dancers exchanging dance movements. While the author clearly implies that some stepping patterns may have been conscious adoptions of African dance patterns, it is more likely that the first immigrants and slaves modified them upon their arrival in the United States. Aside from this debate, it is obvious that certain aesthetics observed during stepping are deeply entrenched within the music and dance of African culture. For example the percussive dominance where the stepper throws down a sharply percussive rhythm with the feet...


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