"This step has never been performed before by women in these United States," a young woman intoned as eight members of Zeta Phi Beta sorority tied blindfolds across their eyes.
"Please, please, don't try this at home," the woman teased.
The eight women stood on a dimly lit, unadorned stage. They were all wearing white shorts, multicolored T-shirts, black patent-leather shoes with blue ribbon, and white socks -- the Zeta colors. Then they coupled off and were into it. Feet intersected with feet, hands slapped hands, knees linked but never knocked. They created danceable rhythms with hands and feet. When it was over, the crowd conferred its version of a standing ovation, a mixture of barking, clapping and ululating. Or was it meowing?
A few routines later, chanting "Zetas are the only ones licensed to groove," the women stood with their legs apart. Then each tapped the left foot twice, the right once, clapped hands, jumped on the left foot, slapped the sole of the right, pivoted, turned 360 degrees and did the whole sequence again.
Or something like that, the foot and hand often being quicker than the eye in "stepping," a ritual already familiar to the 200,000 African American college students who belong to fraternities and sororities, their 2 million alumni, and anyone who saw Spike Lee's 1988 film, "School Daze."
Stepping is tap dancing without tap shoes, James Brown without the music of the JB's, Cab Calloway sans piano, a marching band without John Philip Sousa. It is jazz, funk, rhythm and blues, and rap without instruments.
Stepping is lean and mean. The music comes from the synchronized interplay of hands and feet, from chants and hollers. It is a way to make music using the body as instrument. Stepping has been a part of the rituals of African American fraternities and sororities for a half century, but its roots reach all the way back to Africa.
"The actual stepping is based on African dance, especially West Africa," said Maurice Henderson, whose book "Black Greek Letter Organizations: A Lesson in Egyptology and African American Heritage" will be published in July by Civilized Publications.
The first African American fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, was founded in 1906 at Cornell University. According to Henderson, step shows originated in fraternities in the mid-1940s. Women didn't start stepping until the 1950s.
"When I first joined a frat and I was stepping, they showed a film in anthropology class that showed Africans dancing, and I said, 'Hey, that's stepping!' " recalled Henderson, who declines to identify his fraternity.
"Stepping started ... as celebration, but it is subconsciously rooted in the African tradition of celebrating culture and heritage," Henderson said. "The hand motions, like the hambone, came from people who joined the frats who were from New Orleans, or other parts of the Southern region. The pitapat that's created with hands and feet comes from the patty-cake, hopscotch and other childhood games. It also comes from black marching bands and drill teams, things that little children do. Stepping just made it more complex.
"The step shows have call and response, toasts, dozens and signification. All these things are deep-seated in African American history," said Henderson. "If you listen to different jazz artists, when they scat, the sounds made in step shows are almost the same as scatting. It's basically a combination of African and African American history."
While stepping and other recreational activities are an important part of fraternity life, these organizations continue to play another, more important role in the African American community. "Fraternities provide black male bonding and black male role models, which is really important today, when more than 50 percent of black families are headed by black women," said Henderson. "They provide nurturing for upwardly mobile blacks."
They also can provide a forum for political discussion. "During the 1960s, the fraternity memberships totally decreased," said Henderson, explaining that fraternities seemed anachronistic during the political upheaval of the time. "During the '70s there was a simmering period, with slight interest. Then when the 1980s came around, there was a growing interest, because fraternities and sororities started to use more things in their step shows that talked about black culture, African history and the community, and people were interested in that."
Elements of stepping have moved from the college campus to the choreography of some singers, particularly rappers. "That's because some of the new up-and-coming rappers were college-educated, and that environment had to influence their choreography," said Henderson. "Another influence was rappers being asked to perform on college campuses. From there, some of the basic step movements went into rap dancers. Now you can see stepping in the work of all the major rap artists, especially M.C. Hammer."
Stepping is spontaneous, creative, competitive. It is a physical manifestation of celebration and the fun part of pledging. Once pledges have crossed over, stepping is most often done because they feel like it.
"StepFest 90" at the D.C. Convention Center late last month was a way of bringing together Greeks from area colleges for one big competition and show. Along with the Zetas, there were members of Delta Sigma Theta sorority and of fraternities Alpha Phi Alpha, Omega Psi Phi and Phi Beta Sigma. Several hundred students attended, part of the show as much as spectators.
The show was the brainchild of George Washington University students Kent Cushenberry II and Chuck Baker, who formed an events production company, jokingly named it C.N. Bank ("seein' bank" means making money) and brought in four friends as assistants. They looked around for a business venture and decided that this area, with a number of historically black colleges and black students, would support a step show.
Baker and Cushenberry are smooth, which is good, not slick, which is bad. They exude confidence and success, so much so that, when near them, one can almost hear the strains of the O'Jays singing "Money, Money, Money." They're also clean, in gray suits, roaming the Convention Center, greeting friends, averting mini-disasters, chill at all times.
"I'm a stepper myself," said Baker, 21, a finance and philosophy student and an Omega who handled the publicity and outreach to contestants. "Stepping actually originated to unify the people stepping and those in the chapter. Everyone works on the choreography. When we step, we step tight, real close to each other. It kind of creates the atmosphere that we're one. It signifies unity, of everyone stepping as one."
Cushenberry, 20, a management major, said "StepFest," which planned to donate some of the proceeds to charity, didn't break even. Undaunted, he and Baker plan to keep on steppin'. They're already looking for the best location and date for next year.
During the not-so-brief breaks between steppers, the audience, mostly people under 25, crowded the floor and the steps leading up to the bleachers. A conga line snaked down one aisle, a group of male voguers dominated another, free-form dancers did their thing someplace else. The more inhibited stood at their seats, elbows bent and hands in fists, and simply shook. Everyone sized everyone else up, in a nice way.
The crowd, smaller than anticipated, made up for size with enthusiasm. They booed, barked, meowed and hissed when the Deltas, dressed in white overalls, red blouses and red-and-white saddle shoes, chanted, "What is a Delta?/ A Delta is what a Zeta ain't/ What an Alpha wants to be/ And what a Sigma Rho can't." Their rap was bad, but their stepping was lackadaisical and several times -- the kiss of death for a step show -- off beat. Afterward, Dee Cunningham, a 21-year-old junior, acknowledged, "We've done better in the previous two shows. We just got a little off beat tonight."
After the women stepped, it was time for the men. Twelve Alphas from the University of Virginia took the stage, dressed in loose gold shirts and billowing black pants, looking like the Giorgio Armanis of step.
The Alphas kicked it off with a brief speech about entering the 1990s and the struggles ahead. Mention that "Nelson Mandela is free but South Africa is not" brought applause and the now-familiar barks and meows, but it was the Alphas' stepping that really turned it out. Chanting, "Ice, ice, baby. Too
cold, too cold," the Alphas blended the traditional and the contemporary into a pounding stampede.
Imagine 12 young black men moving their hands, feet, legs and bodies in graceful, rhythmic unison. Then add a few Bobby Brown gyrations, some Watusi-like crouches with arms outstretched, winglike, and some deep-voiced chanting, and you'll have an inkling, but only an inkling, of how the Alphas stepped.
They stepped so high, they almost flew.
Backstage afterward, the Alphas hugged and sweated. "We're a business organization, not a social club," said stepmaster Leonard Spady, 21, a third-year government major. "The stepping isn't the important thing; the focus is. The stepping is just a sideshow. We focus on service, brotherhood, scholarship, love for all mankind."
If the Alphas looked as if they were dressed by Armani, the brothers of Omega Psi Phi, from Virginia State, 1988 national step champions, looked uncomfortably stiff in purple shirts, gold ties and black slacks from like maybe Robert Hall.
It wasn't until the end of their set, ties awry and belts coming undone, that the Omegas loosened up. They paired off, one Omega lying on the floor with his knees up, another sitting on his midriff facing his knees. Then, simultaneously, one Omega worked his arms, the other his legs, clapping, stamping, creating rhythms as if they were one person.
Finally came the Sigmas from Howard, the university's 1990 Homecoming Step Champions and favorite sons. Reflecting the new Afro-centricity of black fraternities, the restive attitude on some college campuses and the power of popular culture, they were dressed in white dashiki-like shirts, long baggy shorts trimmed with kente cloth and matching hats.
Their show began with vogueing, in which one stepper struck model-like poses while a tape of a speech by Malcolm X that ended "The price of freedom is death" played in the background.
The Sigmas' winning move involved eight brothers lying opposite each other on the floor, holding hands -- or was it ankles? -- and then, somehow, still prone, each pair leaped over and under each other to exchange places. Kind of pick-up sticks with humans.
Again, the crowd barked, meowed, ululated, applauded and stomped.
Then it was over and time for the judges, WRC's Susan Kidd, Redskin Alvin Walton, ex-Redskin Vernon Dean and Miss D.C. 1989 Donya Baker, to decide who were the best steppers.
It wasn't too much of a surprise when it was announced that Howard's Zetas took first place. But there was some suspense and tension when it came to the men, to who deserved first place, the Alphas or the Sigmas. There was little disagreement that the Omegas were third.
When it was announced that the Alphas came in second, the audience went wild, flowing like a tidal wave down from the bleachers to the stage, hundreds of feet creating their own spontaneous step show of celebration as they ran to embrace the men of Phi Beta Sigma, the winners.
"Homeboy! Homeboy!" shouted a young man as he ran to hug a friend, flinging his legs around the other man's waist. Lifting him, his homeboy spun him around in a weird, insectlike, four-legged dance. After a few turns, the man lowered his feet to the floor. He and his friend began jumping up in the air, fists clenched, screaming, "You know! You know!" which for some reason is the Sigmas' chant.
When their feet hit the ground they tapped away in a spontaneous step show of their own. Around them, many others danced similar spontaneous dances of celebration, culture, heritage.