From lowly pledge to high stepper

The Baltimore Sun

If you had told me I would be a member of the Iota Phi Theta Fraternity Inc., I would have looked at you like you were crazy.

Iota Phi who? Never heard of them. Growing up, the only fraternity I saw on television was Omega Psi Phi.

But even as a freshman at Coppin State University, I knew I wanted to pledge a fraternity and join a brotherhood that had a lot of social benefits.

At first, I wanted to find a frat that had my favorite colors - blue and red. And just my luck, there were two fraternities with those colors. Kappa Alpha Psi's colors are red and white and Phi Beta Sigma's are blue and white. (Omega Psi Phi's colors are purple and gold.)

But I soon changed my perspective after attending a forum to discuss Greek life.

It would take me more than a year before I would find the fraternity I would pledge. In that time, I went to my fair share of parties and other events hosted by various fraternities.

During that time, I came upon Iota Phi Theta.

One night, from the window of my dorm room, I saw a bunch of people moving toward the direction of the campus library. I quickly ran outside and joined them to watch four hooded and masked fraternity pledges, wearing brown and yellow, perform. (What ugly colors, I thought then.)

They yelled words that were not audible to me because I was too far away. But I moved up closer to watch them step in formation.

It blew my mind.

They made a human jump rope with one person acting as the rope and two of them turning him while the last man was jumping over him. The crowd screamed and yelled, as did the other members of their organization.

At the end of the performance, one by one, each pledge took off his mask, yelling and screaming and shaking as if he were in pain.

The crowd yelled and screamed as the show came to a close.

As I walked back to my room, I remembered feeling excited about Greek life, but I still hadn't decided which organization to join. I was leaning toward the Omega Psi Phi fraternity until a chance encounter that same night changed my mind.

I headed back to my dorm, got on the elevator and noticed that a guy next to me had Greek letters on his clothing and was an Omega. I spoke to him and said, "What's up, man?"

He gave no response, and I remembered feeling upset and hurt. I felt that he thought he was too good to speak to me. This awkward moment stayed in the back of my mind.

During the fall 2003 semester, I solidified my choice after watching the Iota men interact around campus. They sat together in the cafeteria as one big family. They had six Iota sweethearts, college girls who wore the letter "I" with the shape of a heart next to it. They were part of the fraternity's auxiliary. They looked like they were having fun.

One of the fraternity brothers was in one of my classes, and he kept asking me to come to a meeting to hear about the fraternity. Eventually, I did after meeting another member of the fraternity.

I listened and determined that this was where I belonged.

In the spring semester of 2004, I began the intake process, pledging to learn about the organization in depth.

I gained an understanding of what brotherhood truly meant and life lessons of what it meant to be a leader. I pledged with three other guys. The hardest part for me was learning and grasping the art of stepping, the rhythmic pattern and beats created with your feet and hands while in constant motion.

But I got better with plenty of practice, which I did in my room and in secluded areas.

Later that semester, the four of us went "over" and became Iota Phi Theta members after going through the ritual performance on the campus library grounds.

It was then that I thought I would give up stepping because it was too difficult. And I did, but not for long.

I regained interest when I saw the other guys in the fraternity going to stepping competitions.

I began practicing outside on the "yard" (main campus), inside my room and even in the cafeteria. I, along with a group of my chapter members, decided to join Morgan State University's Iota Phi Theta chapter to form a step team.

We call ourselves the Untouchables. We became national champions last summer in Atlanta at the Iota Phi Theta National Conclave.

Ever since then, we have performed in "Stomping on the Yard" national championship competitions, Howard University's homecoming step show and even at Madison Square Garden in New York.

For more information about the fraternity, go to

Ovan Shortt, 23, graduated from Coppin State University in December. He earned a liberal arts degree, with a concentration in social work and psychology. He is a full-time substitute teacher at Coppin Academy, where he also teaches the art of stepping.

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