Note: While this show occurred before we retreated into quarantine, we decided that the article is still a meaningful review to share.
Walking in to the step show, you can immediately tell that this is unlike any performing arts show you have ever been to. Bright lights, music blasting, and people dancing gives you the feeling of entering a party rather than a performance. The newest rap and hip hop shake the floor, interrupted only by the quintessential R&B hits of earlier generations. It didn’t matter if it was Aaliyah or Roddy Rich; if you could dance to it, they’re playing it. Young and old folk alike swayed and stepped, sliding in unison. They did not tell you to put your phone away as at a typical play, instead encouraging the audience “to charge up [their] phones and get ready to put this up on insta.” Kids demonstrated the popular “renegade” dance before the show. And after, their parents showed off the electric slide from their childhood. Doing the “wobble” was all but a requirement for those of us in the audience. Everyone danced together, no matter where they were from, what they looked like, or which team their kids were on. The music was played in its full, explicit entirety: an uncensored, unfiltered, unapologetic tribute to Blackness. A student led the audience in the Pledge of Allegiance, and during the line, “with liberty and justice for all,” half of the crowd spontaneously said “with liberty and justice for some.” The most powerful moment of the show was the student rendition of the Black National Anthem. The power came not from her spectacular performance, but from everyone singing in unison. Everyone sang the song that embodies pride in Black history, Black culture, and Black triumph. Everyone sang in defiance against a system that has only suppressed Black pride. At the end, everyone raised their fist in the air: Black power.
On the final day of Black History Month, Black history was appropriately a throughline of the show. A local Black educator led us in call and response: “Black, HISTORY, Black, HISTORY… I’M Black AND I’M PROUD… Black history is what I’ve been making since I came out of the womb, and when I drop this mic, you should make some too.” And this all was just the introduction to the show.
The Wikipedia entry for stepping (steppin’) says that it “is a form of percussive dance in which the participant’s entire body is used as an instrument to produce complex rhythms and sounds,” but this definition does not even begin to capture the essence of what steppin’ is. The origins of steppin’ can be traced back to South Africa, and it’s a way for the Black community to uphold the African traditions that were stripped through slavery; it’s a way to uphold Black history.
During the show, teams of multiple ages, from multiple places, competed in front of judges. Elementary school kids and high school seniors alike stepped to represent themselves, their schools, and their ancestry. Although mostly Black, the step teams featured a diverse mix of students. Each step routine told a story. One was in the form of a podcast, and another was about Chick-Fil-A. Each was meticulously planned and flawlessly executed, despite the multitude of cameras and the immense pressure. Between the routines, Black entrepreneurs were invited on stage to promote their businesses. One business made shirts that said “from the hometown to college town,” and another made shirts that said “I love to see my people doing good.” During these breaks was when the prominent message to the youth was stressed: college education is the most important thing for you. Stemming from steppin’s prominence on college campuses, the show took time to honor Black scholars: college graduates and doctors, business owners and artists. They offered scholarships to Historically Black Colleges and Universities to seniors competing in the show. College education is how you find excellence, and as one entrepreneur said, “Black lives matter, Black excellence matters, Black business matters.” The most memorable moment was when the MC asked if anyone in the audience had a poem to share. One high school girl, Chienne, from El Camino Real in Los Angeles, delivered her powerful poem titled “The African American Disease.” The poem described how she must have a disease, because she feels as if her life could just end because of the color of her skin, and how police officers and white supremacists could take her life just as abruptly as a disease can.
It became apparent during the show that all of the teams were cheering for all of their competitors, despite a cash prize for the winners. All of the parents rooted for the children of other parents and everyone supported each other, rather than competed against them. The event shows that steppin’ not only serves to preserve history and pride, but serves to strengthen the Black community and elevate one another. This was not a display or a performance or a competition. This was a celebration; a celebration of Black history, Black scholarship, Black excellence, Black pride, and Black triumph.
It’s impossible to explain the emotion and the power of a step show experience in just 700 words. Steppin’ is something that you very much have to experience to truly understand.