It is Friday night, homecoming eve at N.C. A&T State University.
Not until tomorrow morning will the high-stepping Marchin' Aggies band lead the homecoming parade down East Market Street. Not until tomorrow afternoon will A&T's powerful football team play Bethune-Cookman College before a packed house of students, alumni and fans at Aggie Stadium. Not until tomorrow night will students don their finery for the big homecoming concert.No, this is merely Friday night, but already a boisterous crowd of 6,000-plus has filled Corbett Sports Arena to something dangerously beyond standing room. People are spilling out of the bleachers, over the railings, seemingly into the rafters. The noise level is high, and so are expectations. After all, these folks have paid $5 apiece to come here and witness another A&T tradition - the Homecoming Step Show.
On the gym floor, 40 large sheets of plywood have been jammed together to form a square stage and protect the shiny basketball court beneath. Surrounding the impromptu dance platform are fraternity and sorority members dressed in their respective colors.
The brothers of Kappa Alpha Psi are wearing red and white, while Alpha Phi Alpha men are in black and gold, Phi Beta Sigmas in blue and white and Omega Psi Phi members in purple and gold. Wearing blue and white are the sisters of Zeta Phi Beta, while the Alpha Kappa Alpha women are dressed in pink and green. They are grouped together by color and by choice; they are here to cheer on their Greek brothers and sisters in step competition, which for nearly half a century has helped define college life for black undergraduates.
``Greeks get a lot of respect,' says Randall Dunn, a stepper and a member of Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity's Alpha Nu chapter at A&T.
``People understand the hardships you have to go through to join a fraternity or sorority, and how hard you work for the community.' And, he might have added, people appreciate how much effort goes into a step show - a ritualistic group dance and chant that has been described as a blend of African rhythms and American jazz.
A typical ``step' routine, for example, combines high-stepping, hand-clapping, acrobatics and possibly tap-dance moves, all executed by five, 10, 20 or more performers in perfect unison and to a heavy back beat. And while they are executing these maneuvers, the steppers often also chant lyrics that extol the virtues of their own Greek organization and, at times, ridicule those of other fraternities or sororities.
Each organization has its trademark ``step' or chant. The brothers of Alpha Phi Alpha, for example, take pride in the vigor of their steps. Members of the rival Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity use sawed-off, red-and-white-striped canes, which they periodically thump on the floor in unison, as their calling card.
We are the men of distinction
From far and near.
We heard there was confusion,
So we came to set it clear.
We only live by the rules
From 9 to 5.
So let's get live, get live, get all the way live.
``It's tremendously dynamic, powerful and synchronized,' says Dr. Paul Ferguson, a professor in the performance studies program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a frequent spectator at campus step shows.
``It's oral poetry, performed with a combination of extremely synchronized choreography and body percussion. But in the midst of all the unity that we expect in traditional choreography, there is also tremendous freedom of performance. The audience finds itself moving; it's impossible not to empathize with it.'
Dr. Elizabeth Fine, a professor in the communication studies department at Virginia Techand a recognized national authority on step shows, says the tradition's origins are murky, but appear to date back to the 1940s, to pledging rituals in black Greek organizations.
``I get conflicting reports,' says Fine. ``One Kappa student said he believed stepping started in the 1940s, and grew out of his fraternity marching on line during the pledge period, and students started improvising and adding steps. Other people tell me it developed in the 1960s. That's when we have stepping like today. Before that, groups would move in a circle and sing songs. The wasn't the emphasis on intricate physical movement that there is today.'
There is a widespread belief that stepping, or ``blocking,' has a direct link to African dance tradition.
``At least one example of a striking similarity to stepping occurs in the West African country of Dahomey,' Fine wrote in a recent research paper. ``There, every month, people participate in a monthly dance called 'avogan' in which young men and women from different quarters of a city take turns satirizing those of another.'
This satirizing, called ``cracking,' has been on the decline in recent years, say both experts and students. Dunn, the Kappa Alpha Psi member at N.C. A&T, says that every group still recites ``put-down' lyrics, but not to the extent of years past. There is more unity these days, he says, among the nation's estimated 500,000 black Greeks. ``We all work together.'
At Virginia Tech, says Fine, step shows now contain less ``cracking' and more intricate footwork, called ``hard-stepping' by students. Because of the insults in past years, she says, rivalries between black Greeks intensified to dangerous levels. ``Students tended to take the cracks too seriously, and it resulted in schisms,' Fine says.
At Corbett Sports Arena on the A&T campus, there is no room for schisms. In the prime seats - around the plywood dance floor - there is barely room for anyone to sit. The ``Que-Dogs' of Omega Psi Phi fraternity are jammed shoulder-to-shoulder with the Kappas, the Alphas and the Sigmas, not to mention sorority women from Zeta Phi Beta and Alpha Kappa Alpha.
In the upper level, where non-Greeks must sit, things are even more crunched. Lee Enoch, a student who is directing the Homecoming Step Show for the A&T Student Government Association, must take the microphone a half-dozen times to make a plea for new arrivals to leave the rails in front of the bleachers and stand in the rear. Because of the crush, the show starts nearly an hour late.
Finally, the house lights dim and five Zeta Phi Beta sorority sisters, dressed in harem pants and turbans, file in to perform the first step of the night.
The Zetas are vigorously stepping, stamping, clapping and chanting, but draw little reaction from the huge crowd. In fact, there are a few scattered boos. Audience response is an integral part of the step show tradition. A brilliant or unexpected maneuver will draw loud, sometimes distinctive cheers.
``Some fraternities will bark like dogs,' says Fine, the Virginia Tech professor. ``If someone scores, the audience will let them know by yelling out with one of those calls. There's great audience reaction.'
Consequently, steppers who don't live up to crowd expectations can expect to be roundly booed. ``Being a black Greek is very competitive,' says Fine. ``All of the groups are competing for students.'
Film maker Spike Lee, in his 1988 movie ``School Daze,' set in a fictional black college in the South, ridicules the Greek competitiveness and step dances as silly and divisive. Lee portrays Greek pledges as bouncing around, dog-like, on all fours before an imaginary step show.
Nationally, up to 20 percent of all black college students are members of fraternities and sororities. Big step shows in locales such as Virginia Beach, Va., draw 9,000 or 10,000 fans annually. Rappers like M.C. Hammer and Vanilla Ice steal liberally from college steppers for their dance videos and even lyrics, and mainstream corporations like McDonald's use step routines in their commercials.
In fact, some step shows are crossing cultural lines these days, though Fine contends that few other than black Greek-letter societies and black college students have witnessed stepping in person.
At Virginia Tech, a white fraternity participated in a step competition last year, Fine says, and a black fraternity had a white member as its step master, or choreographer.
Dunn, the A&T Kappa who has stepped for three years now, served as step master last year. Of the chapter's 40 members, he says, only about 10 are picked to perform. Only those who have the best dance and athletic skills.
``When you step, you step with a message,' he says. ``It's an opportunity for each organization to express themselves.' An industrial engineering major from Augusta, Ga., Dunn saw his first step show at age 15, on a visit to Clemson University. ``It was interesting,' he says. ``It was different.'
Tonight, Dunn and his nine Kappa brothers are back in the dressing room, already wearing their red-and-white striped uniforms and nervously practicing with their canes while waiting their cue to go on. Weeks of midnight rehearsals have come down to 15 minutes in Corbett.
In the gym, the Zetas have finished their routine and given way to the brothers of Phi Beta Sigma, who are followed by the Que-Dogs of Omega Psi Phi. Between each set, Lee Enoch, the show director, must again take the microphone and plead for those standing at the rail to move back and let everyone see. Finally, the Kappas get the call.
They begin without the canes, which non-stepping fraternity brothers have aligned in formation on the plywood. A familiar funk tune booms over the sound system, and the Kappas begin to step in unison, calling out their trademark ``Yo!' They move slowly, step by step, to the canes, picking them up simultaneously.
Now the action gets frenzied - canes are tossed, canes are twirled, canes are hooked, men jump over canes, all in perfect unison. A couple of times, canes are dropped and the crowd hoots, but the miscues are quickly forgotten. By the end of the routine, the cheering is loud, and Kappas sitting by the dance floor are giving each other ferocious high-fives.
Next comes Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, followed by the final act, the fraternity brothers of Alpha Phi Alpha. The Alphas wow everyone with acrobatic, dramatic moves, flips and falls. Votes from the panel of four judges - local faculty members and radio personalities - are quickly tallied, and first place goes to Phi Beta Sigma, the top fraternity steppers for the second straight year. Finishing second is Alpha Phi Alpha, with Omega Psi Phi and Kappa Alpha Psi tied for third. Among the sorority competitors, Alpha Kappa Alpha was judged tops for the second year in a row.
Dunn, the Kappa stepper, is philosophical about finishing third. ``We didn't perform up to the level of our capability,' he says, ``but the actual show and choreography were very good.' And when you dance with a cane, the crowd is always looking for someone to drop it, he says. ``Your palms get sweaty.'
Besides, there are eight or nine other opportunities to step at A&T during the academic year, plus invitations to perform at nearby schools such as Winston-Salem State. It's the brotherly thing to do.