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Stepping up to beat the competition

The Baltimore Sun

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.

Thomas organized lines, added and cut claps, arranged steppers by height. "You need to focus; you aren't here," he tells one brother. He runs them through a memorized routine three times, the steppers' rubber soles snapping asphalt like strings of detonating firecrackers.

The cohesion has broader implicatons. "To succeed [in stepping], you must work long hours with a group," says Fine. "You learn to move as one -- a tonic in an individualistic culture like ours -- and bond closely with your mates. " Shortt passes the tradition on as a step coach at a charter high school, Eckles models steps for the fourth-graders he teaches in Baltimore, and Thomas has brought step to churches and middle schools.

The Iotas' main goal, they say, is to perpetuate the sport within the fraternity -- to "leave a legacy," Eckles says. But they're no altruists. Each is a serious athlete -- Sean Barber is a baseball star with a full ride at Coppin State; Landon White is a Morgan State lacrosse and tennis player; Christian "T.O." Durant, a black belt in tae kwon do.

"The mind frame of being competitive is a huge thing in stepping," Shortt says. "Come to a step show, and you'll see -- it's all about competition."

The 'Untouchables'

That was the plan in Florida last winter, a night no Iota wants to dwell on. Sometimes things don't mesh -- the crowd noise, judges' moods, your moves. But things were so bad that show, even Thomas mulled the "q" word.

"It's one thing when strangers tell you to quit," he says. "Even those who love us sat us down and asked what we were doing. That makes you think."

Thomas called a meeting, and the core four -- Thomas, Mitchum, Eckles and Shortt -- decided to look hard at their act and retool. They renamed themselves "The Untouchables." On March 31, they entered the Ultimate Challenge Step Show in Prince George's County.

As the curtain rose that night, a voice boomed through a packed Show Place Arena in Upper Marlboro. "Iota stepping is in grave danger," it intoned. "Your mission -- should you decide to accept it -- is to reverse that trend. To step with precision, speed and style."

Amid fog and flashing lights, the Mission: Impossible theme pulsing through the hall as they took the stage in dark suits and ties. Thomas, Shortt and Mitchum dangled Eckles over a gasping crowd, and the four reeled off a flawless undulating "snake," a "Centaur Walk," the Iotas' charter step and a "human bicycle," with one man as the moving pedals, another the handlebars, a third in the driver's seat. They won, trouncing eight other teams.

They soon landed five more steppers and taught them their routines. Nine Untouchables, the first incarnation of the current team, traveled to Atlanta for Iota's national convention last month, where a step show would select a fraternity champ for the first time.

At stake: a trip to Super Stomp, to face four teams culled from the 160 that stepped on tour.

They won. Afterward, Shortt, a former wrestling champ, fell to his knees and broke down in tears. "I never cry," he says. "I couldn't help it."

Final steps

At a practice late last week, spirits were high.

School was just starting at Morgan State, and across campus, the football Bears were trouncing Savannah State, 47-7. The Untouchables roared past the finish line of a one-mile run, then segued into routines.

"Must use college education," joked Mitchum in a robotic voice as the team struggled with the ripple, a complex maneuver that creates undulation along two lines. "Must think!" Under a fluorescent glow, they worked out kinks in spacing and speed.

No one mentioned what was at stake this weekend -- money, fame and a title. A chance to silence doubters and solidify stepping for Iotas yet to come.

As the moon rose over the parking lot, their ripple looked like a wave swelling, cresting, then crashing to earth. And when The Untouchables stomped, it sounded like nine men trying to put holes in the pavement.

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

Stomping On The Yard

National Step Show Championship, 6 p.m. tomorrow at the Liacouras Center, 1776 N. Broad St., Philadelphia. Tickets: $12 in advance, $17 day of show, call ComcastTix 800-298-4200 or 215-204-8499, or go to liacourascenter.com/tickets. The contest and documentary film will be shown on ESPN in December, date to be announced.

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