Stepping up to beat the competition

Iota Phi Theta's `Untouchables' take their routine to the national stage

September 14, 2007|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,Sun reporter

On a steamy night in Baltimore last week, Jordan Thomas drove his fraternity brothers through two-plus hours of running, calisthenics and dance. A videographer from ESPN followed their every move. Banter filled the air.

On a parking lot at Morgan State University, his squad -- Iota Phi Theta fraternity brothers from Morgan State and Coppin State universities -- was drilling for the Super Bowl of their sport.

It is hard to say what brought this unheralded group to the brink of "Super Stomp," otherwise known as the Stomping on the Yard National Step Show Championship. But tomorrow in Philadephia -- at a time when a hit film, a Broadway show and ESPN's televising of the championship have brought stepping wider fame than ever -- they'll debut their long-shot act on a national stage.

It was a far cry from last February's regional competition in Florida. That night, their first stomps were uncharacteristically mushy. They bumped into each other as they turned or spun. During a planned bit, their hand locks were so shaky they nearly dropped a teammate into the crowd. The audience hooted.

"They were looking at us like, `Y'all [stink]," team member Ovan Shortt recalls. "`What're you doing onstage? Go home; quit stepping.' It was humiliating.

"After that, I thought of stopping," says Shortt, a Coppin State senior, sweat marinating his sleeveless tee. "But we took that and learned.

"Do other teams know who we are? Maybe not. But sleep on us, and you might not wake up. We're gonna stomp a hole in the floor."

For those who haven't seen the Spike Lee film School Daze, the Broadway musical Stomp, or this year's Stomp the Yard, stepping is a dance form in which between three and 15 performers use their bodies -- clapping, stomping feet, slapping hands against various body parts -- to establish complex, syncopated rhythms.

Some scholars trace stepping to apartheid-era South Africa, where black miners danced in veiled mockery of their white bosses. Others trace it to early America, where slave-era oppression made "body music" and other nonverbal discourse the safest ways for blacks to communicate.

While carrying out this human percussion, steppers perform rhyming movements -- arm placements, hand pats -- while flowing into new positions as a marching band might. Routines have little musical accompaniment.

"We are the music," says Jason Eckles, a charter member of Morgan's Iotas.

Experts say the form bloomed in the mid-1900s in fraternities and sororities at historically black American colleges. Each had a signature dance move, which members drilled into new pledges. Those flowered into full-fledged routines, with the oldest "Black Greek" organizations -- the historic fraternities and sororities that now make up the Pan-Hellenic Council, or "Divine Nine" -- facing each other in contests. In time, steppers wove in moves from military marches, R&B routines, hip-hop, cheerleading and the martial arts.

"Stepping dates back generations, but it's constantly evolving," says Elizabeth C. Fine, a Virginia Tech folklore professor who wrote Soulstepping, a history of the form. School Daze, a 1988 film which showed college contests, gave the subculture widespread exposure which, says Fine, spread it into church groups and schools. And for the past five years, Dyalect, a Philadelphia marketing firm, has sponsored dozens of competitions around the country each year, including the climactic Super Stomp, which ESPN first broadcast in December as part of a two-hour special. Last year, Eckles watched the ESPN show and practically drooled.

"There was no Iota team," he says. "That was the start of our dream. I said ... `Next year, I'm going to wear that belt.' We haven't won anything yet, but the fact we're where we are now is amazing."

Founded at Morgan State in 1963, the Iotas are the newest of the Divine Nine by a half-century and often find themselves playing catch-up. As late as 2004, the fraternity had almost no organized stepping. But Thomas, a Morgan engineering student and track star, met some older fraternity members who had moves. He saw stepping as a way to draw others to a brotherly path.

"Fraternity life is about relationships," says Thomas, 24, a recent graduate who commutes to practice from Chantilly, Va., where he is now an engineer for Lockheed Martin. "So much about stepping applies to life -- discipline, learning from failure, keeping positive. And the glamor of it gets younger people interested."

It did Eckles, a classmate and elementary education major who took it up. It drew Damon Mitchum, a biology student and ex-football running back. The trio worked up an act, trained hard three times a week, and ended up paying their way, as most steppers do, to contests as far off as Texas and Michigan, performing for the rabidly vocal crowds the sport attracts.

Snapping asphalt

Practice had the feel of a comedy routine. "Can I play myself on TV?" asked Mitchum into the camera, to howls of laughter.

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