On Friday, Sept. 12, Illinois Wesleyan University’s Black Student Union hosted an event called “Step Exhibition” in Hansen. The show centered around the style of dance known as ‘Step,’ with a goal to educate, inform and entertain the Wesleyan community on less common aspects of black culture. There were an estimated 300 people in the audience, and while some were visiting from University of Illinois, Eastern Illinois and Illinois State, a large portion of the crowd was made up of Wesleyan students.
Some of you might have seen the students from the BSU gather in the Dugout during lunch hour on Friday and perform a type of “flash mob” to help advertise the event. I happened to be there when this flash mob occurred, and I did not know what ‘Step’ is or the detailed history behind it. According to BSU president Tia Simms, “’Step’ is an art and poetry in motion that not everyone can do. Traditionally, it has expressed self, culture and unity in the black community.”
‘Step’ has roots that reach as far back as “gumboot,” which was a form of dance conceived by Black miners in South Africa as an alternative to drumming, which at the time was restricted by authorities. Miners also weren’t allowed to speak to one another, so “gumboot” was also utilized for silent communication to avoid punishment. Miners often wore wellington boots, which in South Africa are commonly referred to as “gumboots,” which explains the dance’s unique name.
Today, ‘Step’ has evolved into its own category of dance, in which steppers use their entire body as an instrument to produce complex rhythms and sounds through footsteps, spoken word and claps. ‘Step’ is very popular in the African-American Greek society, popularized by the nine historically black fraternities and sororities, called the ‘Divine Nine.’ The “Nine” include five fraternities: Alpha Phi Alpha, Kappa Alpha Psi, Omega Psi Phi, Phi Beta Sigma and Iota Phi Theta. The “Nine” also includes four sororities: Alpha Kappa Alpha, Delta Sigma Theta, Zeta Phi Beta and Sigma Gammo Rho.
The main focus of BSU’s Step Exhibition was on ‘Step,’ with four different performances mixed in with history of the “Divine Nine.” Brandon Common and Dave Nicholson, worked as MCs and helped introduce the exec board and visiting Greeks to the audience. Before each performance, they would give a brief, Cliffnotes-esque history of one or two of the “Divine Nine.”
Because there are no black Greek affiliations here at Illinois Wesleyan, Greek groups Sigma Gamma Rho, Omega Psi Phi and Phi Beta Sigma from University of Illinois and Sigma Gamma Rho from Eastern Illinois came and joined the BSU in performing. There was also a poetry group from Illinois State University in attendance called “IsReal.”
Spread out across the nation, the Divine Nine often host annual events at their university or college with one of them being a step show (or, as was the case here at IWU, a step exhibition). At those events, the Greek groups involved compete against one another with the steps they put together, which require choreographing songs, chants or strolls (a unity dance) to their performance. At the end of the competition, winners are awarded some type of trophy, be it a monetary prize or simply bragging rights.
Wesleyan’s Step exhibition did not have such a competition, as the BSU’s goal was simply to provide an education that is lacking here on campus. “The Black Student Union felt there was not much of the black culture expressed on this campus and we wanted to do something about it,” Sims said. “This will soon become an annual event that will hope will last after we graduate.”