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Chairs and end tables are shoved to the walls, morphing what had served as a Drexel student lounge just minutes before into a makeshift performance studio for a first-rate step team. "One, two, three, four!" An insistent rhythm erupts from the movements of a roomful of sorority sisters. Enter the zone: a blur of hands and feet accompanied by a roar of sisterly pride. You almost don't notice that backpacks line the walls, students are sauntering by outside and that the girl in the back just barely missed kicking that damn chair in her way. It's an extremely sophisticated form of patty cake that involves not only hand clapping, but foot stomping, knee slapping and often props. With just the right amount of energy, a pinch of humor and a zealous crowd, you have it -- stepping at its best. A fixture in minority Greek letter organizations across the country, traditional African step dancing has permeated the Penn campus for decades. Eight of the Divine Nine -- traditionally black Greek letter organizations -- were founded in the first two decades of the 1900s. With their inception came an African-American performance culture on college campuses that grew from the simpler songs and skits into the elaborate step shows seen around the nation today. While the origins of stepping are disputed, many believe the dance form can be traced back to South Africa. "It's tied to history... taken from the call and response of slaves," Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., President Taj Frazier says. "It's basically using the feet and the body to tell a story that goes beyond the articulation of words." And that history begins with gum boots -- worn several centuries ago by miners in Africa as protection. But the boots did more than protect, allowing the miners to create complex rhythmic combinations using the noises and clicks the shoes made. Enter step. • Step shows are the exhibition point for minority Greeks. The Philadelphia chapters get to showcase their skills at the Penn Relays in the spring, Temple University's Spring Fling, an annual show at the University of Delaware and the Philly Greek Fest. But "most teams, once they get a routine together, can pretty much do a show anytime," Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc., brother Jabari Evans says. Some chapters perform upwards of eight times -- and that's just in one semester. And the step shows are not just stepping. "As the years go on, people have become more innovative," Frazier says. "Props... setting, scene, popular culture... all that comes into play when doing a show." Often, the shows include short skits. "A lot of times, the skits deal with... making fun of stereotypes of other groups," Evans says. Take Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc., he continues. "They often bark like dogs because they are called 'Q-dawgs.' So we might make fun of the fact that they run around barking like dogs at parties and say that we're more civilized." He pauses. "But it's all in good fun," he adds. "Our stigma is that people say we're pretty boys. So... they might do a skit saying that we're looking in the mirror all the time." Additionally, some skits give the historical backgrounds of the groups. For instance, members of Alpha Kappa Alpha stepped in army fatigue at a show after Sept. 11, and they sometimes step with staffs decorated in pink and green -- the organization's colors. But a show doesn't magically come together. • Those short 10 minutes of rhyme and rhythm are the culmination of months of blood, step and tears. "The practices... they're intense, they're long, they're tiring," Frazier says. To help the practices along, these Greeks have step masters who lead the team. "If the step master is a drill sergeant type, then that's probably how the practices will be conducted," he continues. "But at the same time, he's your brother at the end of the day." At the end of this particular day, three Penn brothers in Lambda Upsilon Lambda Fraternity, Inc., a traditionally Latino fraternity, have gathered to work on their step routine in a living room of sorts -- with couches against the walls and dirty dishes piled high in a sink -- at a house on 40th and Chestnut streets. "You clapped," Lambda Historian Fabricio Bedoya says. "You didn't clap before." "I skipped a part," Lambda Secretary Omar Delgado says, realizing his oversight. "But it was really short." So they go over it again. And again. And again. And that's just five minutes of a two-hour practice. And that's just one practice out of days and weeks and months of practices. "We don't want to look like assholes," BiCultural InterGreek Council President and Lambda community service representative Chris Padilla says. So the steppers scrounge for time and space, even resorting to the outdoors in Hamilton Village. "Technically, we are not performing arts groups," explains Larry Moses, program coordinator for the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Affairs. As a result, they are not entitled to practice space. But the teams seem to make do. After all, it's just one of the challenges these steppers face. • The biggest challenge, explains Kappa brother Carl Foreman, is learning to step in the first place. Despite all the time they put in, Padilla explains that not everyone is gifted with "the ability to move their limbs." But with enough practice, the cacophony of beats eventually fuse into just one. Crooked lines straighten. Furrowed brows become smooth. And confused looks turn confident. Practice makes perfect, and perfect is a combination of chanted cheers, a driving beat and a whole lot of verve. For 10 or 15 minutes, each team stomps and shouts, proclaiming its organization's history, pride and music. As third-year Drexel student and Alpha Kappa Alpha co-step mistress Kristin Rogers says, they "get out there and make one sound." One sound, one rhythm and one voice -- the fuel for a dynamic stage show. The steppers hold the audience's gaze hostage as spectators make a futile attempt to differentiate one move from the next in the team's speedy fluid combinations. "Some try to perpetuate. Others try to replicate. But you cannot duplicate. Because this is, what? A serious matter!" AKA sisters shout in unison. But what it all comes down to is straight lines. "Everything goes back to the line thing," Padilla says. Brothers and sisters stand next to each other in time and space, and what the audience witnesses as a blur of hands, feet, arms and legs is actually the backdrop of history and culture. • It's game time. And it's a good thing, too, because Frazier's "definitely a game time person. "I love the moment of the show, the momentum that goes into right before you step onstage, that tight feeling you have in your stomach that... disappears as soon as you begin. "Once you start, you get up the energy of the crowd and then you take that and you try and do what you can with it," he says. "You don't have time to even worry about mistakes." After all, come hell or high water, the show must go on. "I've seen a show where this girl's breast popped out, and she didn't know," Evans says. "She stepped with it. She didn't even really fix it until the show was over.... They got a lot more applause." Then there was that show in New Jersey, the one where the wooden stage broke while Frazier was stepping. What did the Alphas do? "We kept stepping," he says. Bare breasts and broken boards are no hindrance to these Greeks. Apparently, neither is fire. Once, when dressed as a Chinese kung fu master, Moses' robe nearly went up in flames. "I'm going, 'OK, I'm on fire. It's a good effect. This can work,'" he says. And work it he did. In fact, stepping itself has been working it on campuses about as long as the United States has been working to adjust to minorities attending college.

Before integration, before affirmative action and before the Civil Rights Movement, the presence of blacks on college campuses was revolutionary. The first black fraternity -- Alpha Phi Alpha -- was incorporated in 1906 at Cornell University. By 1963, there were nine -- the nine which eventually became known as the "The Divine Nine." Four of the Divine Nine are represented here at Penn as part of the BIG-C -- an umbrella organization that encompasses all of Penn's minority fraternities. And Penn's masters of step are all part of citywide chapters that also draw students from other area universities such as Drexel, Temple, Villanova and Philadelphia universities. "Most of these organizations were formed out a sense of isolation," Foreman says. "You need some solidarity." But other minority Greeks have picked up the tradition. "Dancing has always been deep-seated in African American and Latino culture," Padilla says. "It's paying homage to ancestors.... Stepping is a big part of our brotherhood." In fact, it's this fraternal feeling that keeps the steppers moving even after the most grueling of days. But the days and hours dedicated to Greek life as an undergraduate are just the beginning. This brotherhood extends beyond college. Many step masters and mistresses continue as members of the chapter's national team, and some even come back to help brothers or sisters who are still stepping as undergrads. "It's a lifetime commitment," Moses says. And distance is no hindrance to the camaraderie. Each citywide chapter is sprawling geographically -- crossing town, city and state lines -- but the chapters are small in number, and the brotherhood runs deep. "Who wants to travel to Albany to see some random-ass person," Padilla says. "I love you, so we're going to do this... I want to see my brother." Still, chapter members will not let you forget that stepping is far from being the crux of minority Greek organizations -- it's just one part. "Our organizations would be just as vibrant and just as viable without stepping," Moses says. "We don't want people to think that that's all BIG-C organizations are about." Most of all, stepping "is how we have fun," Padilla says. • But when they do it, they do it well. That's why, during this year's national step show at the Penn Relays, the Alphas -- the highlight of last year's show who walked away with second place -- will be conspicuously absent. "We could do it," Frazier says. But "we're all about perfection, and when we can't do that we say, 'Hey, save it for another year.'" Frazier isn't upset about missing out on this year's cash award. After all, it isn't about the money -- most profits go to the Greeks' philanthropic endeavors. Really, it's a matter of pride. The Kappa motto is "achievement in every field of human endeavor," Foreman says. "So if stepping is one of those fields, then we want to achieve in it." Yet beyond mottos and beyond moves, stepping ultimately lies where lines and lineage converge. "When you step and you perform, you see the reason why you do this," Frazier says. "You see your sister or brother smiling and happy and really proud of the performance that you just did." He's talking about the satisfaction of a performance well-done. He's talking about brother and sister, friend and family, all moving together in step. But most of all, he's talking about the solidarity that stepping's founders were striving to achieve. Photo illustrations by Michael Lupoli

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