Sprite Step Off: In step with the times, or going a step too far?

By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 4, 2010

It sounds like a cheesy Hollywood movie:

White college girls from Arkansas go to a national step dancing competition -- a dance form that is a hallmark of black fraternities and sororities -- and, gee whiz, win the whole darned thing! Boy, are the black sorority sisters steamed!

But wait!

In the final reel, five days after the results set off a national ruckus, show organizers say they discovered a "scoring discrepancy." They say the second-place sorority from Indiana University, the pink-and-green Alpha Kappa Alpha, the nation's oldest black sorority, is also a winner! Each team gets $100,000 in scholarships!

The only problem with this eye-rolling scenario is that . . . it actually happened. And the Feb. 20 national finals of the Sprite Step Off competition in Atlanta, in which the all-white Zeta Tau Alpha team from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville won what sponsors billed as "the largest Greek stepping competition ever," is scheduled to be broadcast at 3 p.m. Sunday on MTV2.

"I was nervous it'd be a train wreck and we'd go too fast," Alexandra Kosmitis, a junior accounting major and a member of the Zeta team, said of its nine-minute, stomp-and-shout "Matrix"-themed routine. "But halfway through, it became more about having fun."

When the team finished -- to wild applause -- emcee Ryan Cameron, a local radio personality, rushed onstage: "Whoa! Wow!" Then he playfully admonished the sold-out crowd of 4,600 fans, nearly all of them black, not to be so surprised that the evening's only white contestants were that good.

"Close your mouth! Close your mouth!" he said with a laugh. "Stepping is for everybody. If you can step, you can step."

But later, when it was announced that the Zetas won, the feel-good vibe evaporated. Large sections of the crowd starting booing. Then Internet and radio-call-in warfare broke out when the videos were posted on YouTube. There were allegations of cultural theft and reverse racism, not to mention race-based taunting and name-calling.

Late last week, Sprite officials said they discovered the scoring discrepancy. This was odd because the show's host, rapper Ludacris, assured the crowd that the judges' scores had been "double-checked."

The footage of the Zetas' routine that night has drawn more than 500,000 hits on YouTube. It was shot by Anthony Antoine, a community activist and HIV prevention coordinator in Atlanta who posted it, he said, "just so my girlfriend could see how good those girls really were."

Instead, viewer comments have been so vitriolic that friends have urged him to disable the comments entirely. He declined.

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