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'Stepping' is marching to center stage


First come the brothers of Kappa Alpha Psi, smacking their canes on the floor and marching with a sly sidestep.

Then come the sisters of Sigma Gamma Rho, looking haughty as they throw back their heads in time to the rhythm of their feet.

Finally, from backstage comes the rest of the Greek alphabet as members of six more fraternities and sororities join the ranks in teams of eight until 128 feet are locked into a single groove and generating a thunder that echoes across the sound stage at the Disney-MGM Studios in Orlando, Fla.

The sound is palpable. Seats vibrate. The set threatens to shake apart. This is serious stepping.

That's what the members of black Greek-letter organizations call this high-powered, high-energy cross between marching and dancing that is usually performed with no music but the beats of their bodies in motion.

Until recently about the only place to see stepping was on a college campus, where stepping is a proud show of Greek unity and annual competitions are a highlight of the year.

But Frank Mercado-Valdes, a Miami-born television producer and member of Kappa Alpha Psi, is convinced stepping will be the next bigthing. So he created S.T.O.M.P., a nationally syndicated contest that brings together the best steppers in the country.

The show, now in its second year, was taped recently in Orlando and will be shown this fall.

"I saw the hip hop revolution and saw how similar hip hop was to stepping," Mr. Mercado-Valdes said. "In fact, stepping is the origin of hip hop."

The two are certainly close relations.

About the only way to describe the synchronized footwork, rhythmic hand clapping and unified chants of stepping is to compare it with that better known dance style.

"It's almost as if you've got 15 MC Hammers on the stage," Mr. Mercado-Valdes said.

Although only black collegians have had much contact with stepping, Mr. Mercado-Valdes said he knew the dance style could gain popular acceptance when he saw S.T.O.M.P. choreographer Vernon Jackson on a daytime television show.

"When I saw him teaching white women to step on the 'Home' show," Mr. Mercado-Valdes said, "I knew stepping was going to work."

Since choreographing S.T.O.M.P. last year, Mr. Jackson and partner Jimmy Hamilton have put together routines for the Soul Train Music Awards, the NAACP Image Awards and the American Television Awards.

Calling themselves Step X Step, the two 24-year-olds have signed a deal to record an album of step-dancing music. And Mr. Mercado-Valdes said he is negotiating to produce the first step movie. (A scene or two in Spike Lee's 1988 film "School Daze" notwithstanding.)

But if the future of stepping seems bright, its past remains murky.

The contestants at S.T.O.M.P. said with authority that stepping finds its roots in the boot dances of South African miners.

Elizabeth Fine, an associate professor of communication studies and humanities at Virginia Tech, has studied stepping and said little is known of its origins.

"You can find African dance traditions that are very, very similar," she said. The verbal jousts that sometimes accompany stepping fit with the verbal folklore of Africa.

Roger Abrahams, a folklore professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said he thinks stepping may have developed out of the foot-stomping dances that slaves performed on wooden floors in the late 18th century.

Modern-day stepping can be traced to the 1940s, when fraternities required potential members to march in line, military-style, during the pledge period.

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