In a small rec center exercise room off Rose Hill Drive, a group of girls who are no older than 14 face a floor-to-ceiling mirror. They’re watching UVA student Athena Bannister, who’s demonstrating a complicated series of fast-paced steps, claps, and stomps. At the signal from Bannister, the girls slowly repeat the motions, faces scrunched in concentration as they clap and slap their feet and thighs in time with one another.
Stepping, a style of dance that uses the entire body as an instrument of rhythm, originated in Africa as a form of communication among tribal communities. It uses movement and sound—chanting, clapping, stomping—to convey allegiance to a group, and became popular among African-American fraternities and sororities in the early 1900s.
Amechia Faulkner is one of 10 girls who meet twice a week through the local youth empowerment group Helping Young People Evolve (HYPE) to learn and practice stepping routines. The girls are preparing for the day they’ll be under the bright lights at The Paramount Theater, performing in front of hundreds of people and competing against some of the state’s best step teams. This is the second year in a row they’re part of the lineup for the Best of Both Worlds Dance & Step Competition (4pm on Saturday, November 16), an annual contest coordinated by local business owner and event planner Ty Cooper. It’s brought dozens of the region’s competitive dance and step teams to Charlottesville every year since 2007.
The teenagers in the back are at least a head taller than the girls in the front, whose spunk and sass make up for the fact that their limbs seem to get ahead of them and get lost somewhere in the steps. One of the smallest steppers, 8-year-old Faulkner, glances up at the older girl next to her throughout the moves, mouthing the counts to herself as she learns the new steps.
“If we get it wrong, they don’t yell at us and stuff,” Faulkner said. “We just try it again.”
The Burnley Moran third-grader joined the step team last year, but said she got discouraged early on when the routines were too complicated for her.
“I couldn’t get the steps, so I stopped,” she said. “But I came back. I like to dance, and it’s getting easier.”
The step and dance moves are still challenging for her and the other girls her age, but it’s the support and feeling of sisterhood with her teammates that keeps Faulkner coming back each week. Most girls in the group are from low-income families in Westhaven, so despite the age differences and the spats that come along with a group of girls, they’ve developed a family-like bond and are always recruiting new neighborhood kids to the team.
“I like meeting new people,” Faulkner said. “We learn from each other and make new friends.”
Local promoter Ty Cooper was shocked by the lack of diversity in Charlottesville’s arts and culture scene when he relocated here from Virginia Beach four years ago. In a city that prides itself on being historical and artistic, where were the shows geared toward minorities? Why weren’t there any African-American art galleries? Why wasn’t there a black club?
Shortly after moving here, Cooper was invited to join The Paramount Theater’s board of directors. He was the only African-American board member in an institution that was trying to broaden its programming.
“I came in really wanting to make some immediate change in who we cater to,” Cooper said. “If you call yourself a community theater, you must satisfy the demands and desires of the entire community, not just high-priced ticket items.”
For the last two years, he’s held Best of Both Worlds at the Paramount instead of other local theaters, at the cost of a $6,000 price difference and a drop in attendance. But it’s worth it, he said.
“The Performing Arts Center is tucked away, but at the Paramount, people are spilling out onto the Mall. Young blacks, whites, Asians—faces that may not have even been in that building ever, in there for the first time because of the step show,” Cooper said.
The Paramount was, in its first incarnation, a segregated theater. Cooper said he understands a hesitation from the black community to venture out onto the Mall for a show, but it’s time to relieve some of that tension.
“Young people don’t have the experience of back in the days of Jim Crow when blacks had to come in through the Third Street entrance, so they don’t have that excuse,” he said. “I think people were intimidated by the Paramount because it isn’t known for reaching out to them, but we really need to tear down that wall.”
Assistant City Manager David Ellis, who’s serving as a judge at the Best of Both Worlds competition, said stepping was an integral part of his experience in Kappa Alpha Psi at James Madison University.
“It’s an opportunity for fraternities to put themselves out there,” Ellis said. “It’s highly competitive, but it’s also a healthy form of expression and good exercise.”
Traditional black fraternities like Ellis’s are known for passing group-specific step moves through generations and generations of brothers, integrating props like canes into the performance and keeping a tight lid on tradition. Each step number tells a story. But as stepping has evolved and begun to influence mainstream culture, it’s also begun to appropriate from other art forms, incorporating more music, singing, and even background videos into performances.
“I think people have seen the value of integrating popular dance moves with traditional steps,” Ellis said. “The crowd gets really into it, which gives everyone more energy.”
Ellis didn’t get into stepping until he joined Kappa Alpha Psi, and noted that the children’s teams at the competition may actually have an advantage over the older steppers.
“Some of these kids have been doing this their whole lives, and may have more experience than college students,” he said. “It’ll be interesting to see how it all plays out.”
Interesting also is that local girls are learning step from Bannister, who learned the form with her Zeta Phi Beta sisters at UVA. That story leads back to HYPE organizer Wes Bellamy, who two years ago started a program to teach mostly African-American low-income boys discipline and structure through boxing.
When a group of young girls—who tried their hand at boxing and decided it wasn’t for them—approached him and said they wanted to start a step team, he was stumped. A boxer himself, he could teach punching and footwork all day long, but when it came to dancing and stepping, he had no idea where to begin. But what he did know is that stepping is an aspect of African-American culture that could give the girls lessons in discipline and teamwork that they weren’t getting anywhere else.
“Africans have proven to be more eccentric learners, and do things with their hands, get up and move around,” Bellamy said. “They learn that way, and they’re confined at school when they have to sit down, look straight, and not express themselves. With stepping they get a chance to let it all out, and they’re in tune with their ancestors.”
That’s when he turned to the community and volunteers at UVA for help. He recruited a small group of sorority sisters who immediately jumped on board to teach the girls stepping, teamwork, and discipline.
“It’s crazy how things just work out,” Bellamy said.
The group started out practicing at Tonsler Park, and moved into the community center conference room whenever it wasn’t booked for a meeting. The girls had little to no experience, Bellamy said, and it was a rocky start. But as neighbors began noticing their routines in the park and commented on their progress, Bellamy said the girls grew more sure of themselves. This time last year, they participated in their first competition—the Best of Both Worlds Dance & Step Competition 2012.
“Just to see the looks on their faces, man, it was incredible,” Bellamy said. “These girls had never even been in the Paramount before, and for Ty to let them come out and perform, their confidence just shot through the roof.”