Precision dance in the age of Obama

Precision dance in the age of Obama

It starts like this: One set of feet goes Stomp.


Stomp, stomp, clap.

Stomp, stomp, clap, clap, stomp.


And then many feet-many hands 10 times faster, stomp stompstomp stomp clap, clapclapclap, clapstompclapstomp.

The Best of Both Worlds Dance and Step Competition MLK Performing Arts Center
Saturday, January 24

The Best of Both Worlds Dance and Step Competition, back for a second year, draws a Saturday night crowd outside of the Martin Luther King Performing Arts Center that covers the sidewalk in its entirety, a crowd that is cold but amped up as they wait for 6:30pm when the doors will open. And when they do, the crowd moves through the security pat down, dressed up and lookin’ good.

The crowd rolls and hops and chatters into the auditorium, ignoring the list of “Concert Etiquette” posted on the doors. This is not that kind of show; this won’t be a captive audience.

“Go, Britney!” they yell.

“You better hold it!”

“Go, white girl!”

If you’re good, the audience steps with you; if you make a mistake, they step up and let you know.

We won by this much…: Steppers With Pride, from Hermitage High School in Richmond, took first place in the Step competition.

Ten teams, a mix of high schools and colleges from all over Virginia and one from Delaware, converged over the weekend to compete for $1,500 in total prize money, with proceeds going towards a local scholarship fund. The evening was billed as a celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Barack Obama, and our new President’s name was emblazoned on everything from pins to scarves.

Steppers With Pride from Hermitage High School in Richmond take first place in the Step division. Sleek and sexy in black and red striped tights, the large group of girls moves with complicated polyrhythms like 100 coordinated popcorn machines. Our homegrown team from Monticello and Albemarle high schools takes second with an elaborate classroom pastiche, including an awesome slo-mo Step pantomime.



Time out! A brief explanation: Step is, as they used to say in the early ’90s, a Black Thing, coming largely out of African-American fraternities and sororities, but it isn’t by any means exclusive. It’s for everybody, every body (it’s a post-racial thing, as we say today). The teams are dominated by girls that make the often masculine moves (clenched fists, angry grimaces, martial shouts) look surprisingly feminine, but not in a skinny ballerina way. The teams comprise every type of human figure, and there is, I discover, expressiveness in a larger body that stick figures just don’t possess. Step is stomping and clapping and body slapping in rhythm and in sync. It’s full-body percussion mixed with precision marching. Call it drum line theater. It’s Patty cake, Patty cake, (stomp clap stomp clapaclapa boppadda STOMP) with an attitude.

Local pride: Gregory Thomas (left) performing with the Monticello-Albemarle High School Step Team.

This crowd gets LOUD. There’s spontaneous dancing in the aisles and an impromptu serenade from a young man in the audience, who ascends the stage during a lull, grabs a mic and sings a “song I wrote called MySpace” that is, yes, a social networking love song.

The blurring of lines between stage and seats goes even further, finally yielding this age-of-Obama human drama:

When the Harrisonburg High Dance Team comes out last, they at first seem out of place. All white, with pom-poms and Rockette kicks. Halfway through they pause, wait for the music to cue up, and when it fails to, they keep waiting, looking around sheepishly. The crowd starts to stir, growing restless, but instead of laughing or jeering, they begin to clap their hands in a strong, fast rhythm. They chant, “No mu-sic, no mu-sic” and the HHS girls grin, look at each other, and then dance. They flow into the rest of their routine in perfect harmony with the crowd’s rhythm: their own human beat box.

Clap. Clap clap, clap clap.

No mu-sic, no mu-sic!

Stomp clap clap buddap tap, clap.


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