Stepping toward cultural understanding - Joel Hall

Late last month, the makers of Spite hosted the first-ever Sprite Step Off, arguably the most publicized and highly-anticipated college step show in history -- held right here in Atlanta, Ga.

Until mainstream movies, such as the 2007 film, "Stomp the Yard," stepping was performed as a right of passage for National Pan-Hellenic Council (historically black) fraternities and sororities. Since then, the coveted tradition has become more widely practiced among secondary schools, dance groups, and Greek organizations without historic ties to the black community.

The fact that stepping has become a mainstream phenomenon was evident when Sprite announced that Zeta Tau Alpha (ZTA) Sorority, a predominantly white sorority from the University of Arkansas, took first place in the competition's sorority division.

There is no denying that there is a some novelty and shock value in a white sorority competing in a predominately black step show. Unlike sports and most other forms of dance, stepping is an art from that is rooted almost entirely in black American culture, which until recently, was unknown to most people outside of the black community.

Anyone who saw ZTA step, however, would see that they were deserving of their title. Their routine was crisp, their execution was nearly flawless, and their energy rivaled step shows put on by all-male fraternities. Their win, however, created an immediate backlash among some in the black community. After Sprite announced ZTA as the winning team, accusations of racial bias among the judges -- and culture stealing -- flooded social networking web sites, such as Facebook and Twitter.

Sometime afterwards, Sprite announced a scoring error and declared Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA), of Indiana University, as co-winners of the sorority competition, and gave both teams $100,000 in prize money.

Both ZTA and AKA teams poured their hearts into their routines and are worthy of being recognized. However, the immediate anger of some in the black community at the idea of white sorority out-stepping a black sorority was the wrong reaction, and goes against the nature of stepping.

National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC) fraternities and sororities were created in the early 1900s, a time when blacks were not allowed to attend or participate in campus activities at most colleges and universities. For as long as black fraternities and sororities have been stepping, it has been used not only as a right of passage, but also as a way to bring individuals from various schools of thought into one accord.

As a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., stepping taught me how to work together with my fraternity brothers by leveraging our strengths. On a predominately white campus, we shared the precision and sychronicity of stepping with others in an annual step-show benefit, raising tens of thousands of dollars for sickle cell anemia research.

Now that more people outside of the black community know what stepping is, there are even more opportunities to use the art form as a tool for doing good in the community. It can also be a tool for cross-cultural understanding. If a white sorority is willing to take the time and energy to master something as unique to black culture as stepping, it's a sign that the things that divide us are becoming less important.

The members of ZTA should be applauded for their hard work and willingness to step outside of their cultural comfort zone.

If more people would be willing to learn about, and embrace, the cultures of other people, the world would be better off.

Joel Hall covers government and politics for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached via e-mail at jhall@news-daily.com.