White sorority victory at step competition causes a stir

OPINION - There's more to be gained by sharing black history and culture. The problem arises when the culture is not being fully presented...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

EDITOR’S NOTE: After this piece was published the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported that there was a scoring discrepancy in the Step Off competition and that the Zeta Tau Alpha will now have to share their first place finish with the Tau Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha.

The blogosphere is abuzz with the news that a white sorority won the first Sprite Step Off, a national step competition sponsored and presented by Coca-Cola that is also a six-episode docu-drama set to be broadcast next week on MTV2. Zeta Tau Alpha (ZTA), the winning organization among the female competitors, began as a women’s fraternity in 1898 and counts ESPN’s Erin Andrews among its members.

Is it surprising that these young ladies hail from the University of Arkansas? Considering there’s a former president, who, until recent years, was praised for his soulfulness, Arkansas is more than knee deep in the finer points of black culture. But then again, that’s always been an unacknowledged fact about the South. At the end of the day, a lot of what makes Southern culture distinctive is deeply rooted in African-based and African American-evolved traditions.

That does little to comfort those who have accused Coke of rigging the competition and blamed television cameras for swaying the vote. What producer can resist the narrative of the underdog? Very few people could have predicted that ZTA would win. For television, such an unlikely outcome is usually ratings gold.

Not everyone has greeted the news of ZTA’s win negatively, however. A lot of the comments found on various blogs are very encouraging in fact. Unlike many of those commenting, I actually attended the Sprite Step Off finals on February 20 in Atlanta. For over a decade, I’ve witnessed step shows in both the North and the South and even caught a performance very reminiscent of stepping in a village in Swaziland in 2005.

ZTA was very impressive and definitely were among the top three female groups competing. My vote, however, would have gone to Indiana University’s Tau chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha. For me, the move where they hoisted one leg on each other’s shoulder while one-leg stepping in full symmetry was a showstopper. While some male step teams have performed this step, it is uncommon to see women do it. Still, it’s a move that impresses regardless of who does it.

Had ZTA been black, many bloggers have asked, would they have won? Probably not, if my opinion counts. Dressing like the Matrix was a no-no but then again the Tau AKAs launching with “Rhythm Nation” was also deficit-worthy. The Tau AKAs, however, made up for this dated move as their performance progressed. ZTA were tried and true, with much of the surprise deriving from the fact that that many white girls were so on point in precision and execution.

However, ZTA winning is not the real travesty. Those familiar with step shows know that there are few winners not racked by controversy. It’s just the nature of the game. The real travesty is there’s no communication of the history of Black Greek Letter Organizations (BGLOs) or the origins of stepping. And mind you, I cheered early Sprite Step Off promos for not prominently displaying Greek letters because I believed that that tactic locked in those familiar with stepping while also engaging those who’ve never heard of it.

As the author of African-American History For Dummies, I wholeheartedly believe that there’s more to be gained by sharing black history and culture. The problem arises when the culture is not being fully presented. Will the average person watching the drama of the Sprite Step Off unfold on MTV2 walk away recognizing the significance of BGLOs? It’s estimated that as much as 75 percent of the 20th Century’s notable black Americans have Greek affiliations. The list is astounding: W.E.B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Carter G. Woodson, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Zora Neale Hurston, Hattie McDaniel, Gwendolyn Brooks. And, those are just a few.

Stepping itself is said to have come to prominence during the 1950s. According to Elizabeth C. Fine, who is the white author of Soulstepping: African-American Step Shows, there’s evidence of it as early as the 1920s. The drill and military elements that are still visible today are credited largely to the influence of soldiers who served in World War II.

Digging back even further, stepping has been linked to the Gumboot Dance, which dates back to South Africa in the 1800s where workers in flooded mines were forced to communicate with each other through sounds they made with their gum boots. In addition, a typical step show routine displays many elements of African songs and chats. Pop culture elements are also important. As with much of African-American culture, merging the present with the past is a distinguishing feature.

Ultimately, the foul isn’t that a group of white girls bested black girls in a national step competition. The greatest misstep is that the majority of the Sprite Step Off audience will have no clue what stepping is or why BGLOs exist in the first place.