Getting young people in step with religion Praise: Precision dance has moved from historically black fraternities and sororities into churches.

April 06, 1997|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- This is worshiping with a twist.

More than 800 people packed the auditorium of Theodore Roosevelt High School one recent Saturday. Dressed in jeans, sweats, T-shirts and sneakers, they applauded wildly for teen-agers who delivered a series of fast-clapping, foot-stomping, hallelujah-shouting dances.

This is also stepping with a twist.

Stepping -- a precision, cadenced dance in which performers establish a rhythm with lightning-speed hand and foot moves -- has long been a tradition at colleges with historically black fraternities and sororities.

But stepping recently has entered Washington and Baltimore area churches.

Far from the boasting and belittling often associated with the art form as done by black fraternal organizations, performers on the Theodore Roosevelt High School stage had a different message: Jesus Christ died for you.

"This is our mission, to step for God, to show you that God is head of our lives," the Rev. Tyrone Petty told this unconventional congregation.

No one knows which group first brought the art form into a church, but in the past five years, at least a dozen church step teams have sprung up, mostly in Prince George's County. Baltimore area churches have at least five.

An Easter weekend show at Theodore Roosevelt was one of the first and largest exhibitions of the Christian step teams.

One after another at 10-minute intervals, 11 teams stomped, marched, slid, glided and strutted across the stage shouting Bible verses and religious rhymes. The force of their feet pounding against the wooden stage sent dust dancing up in a cloud from the floorboards.

Troop GOD, from First Baptist Church of Guilford in Columbia, stomped across the stage in gray camouflage clothing and black boots performing a call-and-response routine that sounded like a military chant.

"I don't know what you've been told, but Jesus Christ can save your soul," the members sang as they marched in formation.

"Outstanding," shouted Linda Murphy, watching youths from the Academy of the Redeemed in Lanham. They wore their school's navy blue sweat suits and patted out beats on their forearms, chests, feet and the floor.

Mary Mills traveled five hours from her hometown of Blacksburg, Va., to see the show.

"I think it's just fantastic," she said. "It's so good to see young people doing something like this."

Although historically black Greek letter organizations have been stepping since the 1940s, the art form "has received little formal study," according to Elizabeth C. Fine, an associate professor of communication studies at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, who is writing a book about stepping.

Fine said the intricate dance routines grew out of initiation rites that required fraternity pledges to march in military-style lines.

But over the next 40 years, the rituals became increasingly elaborate and evolved to include chants, synchronized movements, clapping and stomping in patterns that resemble the gumboot dances of South African miners and the dances slaves stomped out on wooden floors in the late 18th century, Fine said.

In this decade, stepping has gone mainstream, with groups performing in commercials for McDonald's and FootLocker and in a televised competition.

"It's happening now in high schools, in housing projects and in churches," Fine said.

She sees clear connections between the stepping art form and churches; many church leaders belong to black fraternities and sororities and some of the songs the fraternal groups have used in step routines are converted Negro spirituals.

"The fraternities took [the songs] from the church and now the churches have taken those frat songs and changed them [to use] in religious steps," she said. "It is truly a folk tradition."

Church leaders see the dance routines as much more. For them, stepping is an innovative way to make an age-old message of redemption come alive for a generation bred on video games.

"The first time I saw the Praise Steppers perform, I knew [stepping] was something God could take and use," said the Rev. Charles Cato, pastor of Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Lanham whose church started the Praise Steppers about five years ago.

Pub Date: 4/06/97

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