History of Step Dance

By K. Lynn Wallace

Step dancing can be traced back to the very beginning of the African American experience and was a rich part of early American culture. Step dancing has developed and is still alive today. Step dancing is a dance where the movement of the feet takes precedence over any other element of the dance. Arms are generally left hanging at the sides of the body, though they are also used for percussion, and the dancers are unencumbered by intricate formations or patterns. The dance is highly intricate and percussive, with the movement existing as both music and dance. Understanding the development of step dance is integral to understanding American dance history.

Beginning

Early slaves were discouraged from communicating in their native languages and from continuing their native customs. Slave owners believed that allowing slaves to continue their cultures would hinder the owners' ability to control and manage the slaves. As a result, slaves developed their own culture, and step dance was a part of that culture. During slavery, step dance was a method of communication and was used to communicate important messages and news regarding the underground railroad.

World War II

During World War II, many African American soldiers incorporated step dancing into their routines. This provided entertainment and uplifted the men during the hard times of battle. World War II transformed the dance from a practical communication method to an entertaining dance. This was an important transition for step dancing.

Transition from Communication to Entertainment

As the need for covert communication disappeared, step dance took on a new life a source of entertainment. The rhythms of Motown and hip hop were incorporated, and the dances became more athletic and intricate. As the dances became more complicated, they became a larger part of the dance culture.

College Step Dance

Step dance is commonly practiced by historically black fraternities and plays a large role on the campus of many historically black colleges. Many colleges and fraternities have signature step dances, which may even playfully mock the dances of other schools and organizations. Learning intricate step dances is often used as an initiation for pledges into certain fraternities and is a large part of campus life for these fraternities.

The Future

Step dancing continues to influence other dance styles and is likely to continue influencing the development of American dance. Step dancing is supported by the National Panhellenic Council, which is a group of nine historically black collegiate organizations. This organization helps to keep step dancing alive and growing at the nation's colleges and works to preserve and develop step dancing in the United States.

Related Dance Styles

Irish Step Dance, which gained popularity through Riverdance, is derived from step dancing. Other styles of dance that are related include tap, clogging and hip hop. Stepping was one of the first dances brought to the United States, and it has had a great impact on the development of American dance culture.

Step Dancing in the Media

Step dancing has gained popularity and has been seen on the television show "So You Think You Can Dance." It was also portrayed in the movie "Stomp the Yard" in 2007.

Stepping can also be seen in "School Daze" (1988), "Mac and Me" (1988), "Drumline" (2002), and television shows "A Different World" and "Sister, Sister."

About the Author

K. Lynn Wallace attended the University of the Arts and University of Baltimore Law school and is now an attorney in Maryland. She has a general litigation practice and has been a writer since 2009. She has served on the editorial board of the "University of Baltimore Intellectual Property Journal."