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The GW Hatchet


The GW Hatchet

Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet

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College students step into the light

The women of the D.C. chapter of Delta Sigma Theta, Inc., stomped into Lisner Auditorium Saturday and danced – rather stepped – in reverence to their ancestors.

Stepping into the light is honoring our unsung heroes … preparing our community for the future, chanted the women who were decked out in sparkly silver smocks. Delta’s done that for 87 years.

The women took home the overall championship award at the third-annual step show sponsored by the Nu Beta chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. GW’s chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority and Howard University’s Alpha Phi Alpha chapter respectively took home first place in the sorority and fraternity competitions.

Step is a compilation of African and African-American dance moves put into a show to send a message, said Yemi Oshinnaiye, a Georgetown University graduate and adviser to Alpha Phi Alpha.

The theme of this year’s show, Illuminating the Past: Stepping into the Light, encouraged performers to include pieces of their organization’s history in their choreography. The act of stepping is a major part of the traditions maintained by the historically black fraternities and sororities.

Though historical documentation is sparse, most people agree that stepping originated in the early 1700s when Africans were enslaved in the United States.

When the Africans arrived, they were stripped of their drums, but owners issued boots to slaves working in coal mines. These boots soon replaced drums, according to an essay by Maurice Ragland, co-chairman of the Rochester Step-Off Committee, in February 1996.

On Sundays, owners permitted the slaves to exercise and what is referred to as the African boot dance was born. According to Ragland’s essay, the slaves entertained white owners and townspeople by reviving the beat of their drums with foot stomping and hand clapping.

Oshinnaiye said the slaves also used stomping and clapping to secretly communicate about the Underground Railroad and other information that needed to be hidden from their owners.

We carry (step) on because it represents something so deep and rich in our history, he said.

At the turn of the century, African Americans began attending universities, and Northern black men led a movement to create fraternities for their people.

We started because we couldn’t be part of the (Interfraternity Council), Oshinnaiye said. The reason why Alpha started was because African-American men needed a place to get together.

When World War II arrived, many of the fraternity men went off to war. These military men returned and inspired chants and marches that boasted of fraternity deeds and degraded other fraternities in a humorous way, according to Ragland’s essay.

But stepping has evolved since the post-war era.

Modern stepping includes songs or chants that originated with white fraternities, according to a Phi Beta Sigma Web site about the history of step. Black fraternity men added their own twist to these traditional songs. They sang a cappella trying to please the ladies.

If you got the ladies, you got more recruits – much like it is today, according to Phi Beta Sigma’s history.

Popular Motown bands such as the Temptations and the Four Tops inspired the young men to put moves to their lyrics. During the 1960s, African-American college students became interested in the Back to Africa Movement. This political activity restored the men’s interest in African ritual.

Soon the men combined African tradition with modern elements from cheerleading, gymnastics and tap, among others. Sororities began stepping a few years after the fraternities. Through the years, Greek-letter members integrated stunts and props into step routines.

Back in Lisner Auditorium, fraternity and sorority audience members flaunted these traditions by chanting timeless phrases, reveling in their respective group’s success. Their routines were a reflection of these audience celebrations.

I’m just mad about Alpha and Alpha’s mad about me, chanted the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity from Howard as they spoofed the infamous GAP commercials.

In addition to stepping, the historically black fraternities and sororities are philanthropic by nature. Saturday’s show brought in about $1,500, which Alpha Phi Alpha will give to high school senior Shalita Stewart.

Stewart won an essay contest by writing about Marcus Garvey, a controversial figure who propelled activism such as the Back to Africa Movement. Like stepping, the scholarship is symbolic of the fraternity’s purpose. Stewart’s essay about Garvey represented Alpha Phi Alpha ideals because she remembered a black leader that is often forgotten, Oshinnaiye said at the show.

Performers in the step show took Stewart’s cue and combined the achievements of blacks in America with traditional Greek-letter heritage.

One chant showed the diversity unique to the historically black groups – another reminder of the past.

First we’re black, and then we’re Greek.

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