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Step culture thrives at Tufts with rich history, longstanding tradition

Published: Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, November 28, 2012 08:11


Justin McCallum / The Tufts Daily

Members of Tufts first all-male step group BlackOut reflect a successful, close-knit and competitive culture of step dancing on campus.


The lights come up in Cohen Auditorium to reveal eight men. They’re dressed in all black with bright red ties around their necks, and as they start to move, a heavy beat fills the stage. The students are members of the campus male step team BlackOut, and they have centuries of history behind them.

Step dancing, a form of traditionally African-American dance made up of rhythms created by the hands and feet while moving in formation and responding to chants or calls, has maintained a strong presence at Tufts over recent years.

This dance form has a long and rich history rooted in African dance tradition and the history of step originates from African tribal cultures, according to Assistant Professor of Dance and Drama Monica Ndounou. The drum, an important instrument for communication, rituals and everyday life in these cultures, laid the rhythmic foundations for step. Step evolved as a percussive form of dance with an objective of making music using one’s body as an instrument, she explained.

More specifically, step descended from the gumboot dance, which was used as a form of communication in South African mines, Vice President of the African Student Organization (ASO) and sophomore Hafsa Anoua said. The miners were not allowed to speak to each other and communicated and entertained each other by stomping their gumboots on the ground.

This form of expressive dance, combined with elements of African rhythmic dance and music, transferred to the United States through slavery. During this time, it continued to play a prominent role in African American culture.

“It becomes a way of survival and a way of maintaining culture,” Ndounou said. “You can see a little bit of every era of black history etched into the step culture.”

According to Ndounou, black fraternities and sororities popularized step in American culture. Anoua traced the exact emergence of step on college campuses to 1906 when black students were denied entrance to a white fraternity at Cornell University.

“My experiences with step teams stem from the fraternities and sororities, having gone to a historically black college,” Director of the Africana Center Katrina Moore said. “It’s just another form of expression that’s used throughout the community.”

Step more recently has been broadly popularized through the film industry, with the emergence of mainstream movies featuring the dance form such as Stomp the Yard (2007), Ndounou said.

At Tufts, while the step tradition is not based on fraternities and sororities, the step groups share these organizations’ values of brotherhood, sisterhood and community.

BlackOut, Tufts’ first all-male step group, and Envy, Tufts’ all-female step group, both unofficially performed their first shows in the Spirit of Color Fall Show in 2003, according to BlackOut’s website. This show gave step the needed exposure, and BlackOut was officially established in Jan. 2004, with Envy following shortly after in 2005.

Both became part of the ASO, honoring the African heritage of their performing art, according to the BlackOut mission statement.

“When I first came to Tufts, I wanted to be part of that community because they seemed really close, like brothers,” co-captain Wale Odulate-Williams, a junior, said. “Now I can really see that brotherhood aspect and the joint goal to be successful in what we do.”

Classmate and fellow co-captain Jared Vallair shared similar sentiments. 

“As we joined the team and went through tryouts, the bonds that you make and the closeness — we’re really just like brothers now,” he said. “Having a close-knit group I can call my brothers is helpful, being far from home.”

The nature of the art itself, as well as the thrill of competition, has attracted many students to the step culture and resonated with the Tufts community.

“I’m not a super sports fan. I don’t play on many teams. And so to come to Tufts and be able to do something athletic, the intensity, the thrill and the love of the crowd was a great factor,” Vallair said.

“I enjoy competing because there is so much adrenaline and hype,” Envy co-captain Jameelah Morris, a senior, said. “We have so much hunger for winning and showing off what we’ve been practicing extremely hard for. You can feel the energy from the crowd.” 

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