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African American Drill and Step Teams

Name: Santa Rita High School Rough Diamonds and Black Pearls
Contacts: Bonnie Worthman
Address: 3951 S. Pantano Tucson, AZ 85730
Phone: (520)731-7500

Brief description of performance focus: Within the Tucson region, steppers demonstrate the art of “stepping” (sometimes “blocking”), a dance form that combines elements of military drills with contemporary jazz and hip-hop moves. In stepping, the body takes place of the drum: clapping, slapping the hands against various parts of the body, and stomping the feet that produce the complex rhythmic foundation for the dance. In addition to this array of bodily percussion, stepping also features complex synchronized body movements, along with singing, chanting, and verbal play. Mastering and performing this dance form is a traditional part of the initiation process in many African American sororities and fraternities, but stepping has more recently become a popular activity for children and teens.

Created by African American fraternities and sororities in the mid-twentieth century, stepping is a complex dance form that grew out of a wider African American tradition and aesthetic. Over the past fifty years, stepping has incorporated elements of many other popular artistic forms, including military drills, children’s games, cheerleading, martical arts, acrobatics, hip-hop, and tap dancing-to name a few-while retaining its distinctiveness.

Style: While specific traditions are rarely mentioned the dance is rooted in African dance practice, dance serves as a complex diversity of social purposes; social recreation or ritual celebration. Its earth-centered dancing, where dancers return to the earth as they give themselves to the rhythmic pulses of their dance, interpreting the percussive patterns of the music through their postures, gestures, and steps. Dancers externalize rhythmic patterns in the surrounding space by moving through, rather than to, fixed positions in the space surrounding the body. Thus, the criteria for assessing skill are based on rhythmic rather than spatial precision. Perhaps the most important element is the rhythmic handclapping, and precision stepping, which are frequently cited as practices that have provided foundations for the development of stepping and drill squads in the United States. The rhythm is provided by musicians playing percussion instruments, by singers (live or audio recordings) or by a combination of music and song, presented by a call and response patterning, adding to the precision and synchronicity of drill and step performances.

Although the tradition is often defined as African American, participation in squads in Tucson is not limited to young people of African American ancestry. Furthermore, while drill and step teams share some elements they have developed into different traditions. Below is a listing of some of the major distinctions.

Drill teams:

- Have the distinction for having percussion and disciplined teamwork, more connected to American military and marching band (signifying drill teams).

- Tend to consist of 40-60 members and in teams as little as 10 members.

- Typically consist of African American girls, and recently male members between the ages of 7-13. However, in Tucson age and ethnicity are not restricted.

- Teach discipline and choreographed routines, also teaching participants exercise, how to love themselves and above all, respect for others.

- And they are recognized through the American Marching Association (AMA), and United Marching Guild.

- Exist primarily through scholastic institutions as well as independent companies.

- Are distinguished from other marchers by relying on pure percussion (without brass instruments) and a certain do-it-yourself ethic, accompanied by a drum corps whose proximity and power gets people on their feet, the steppers (which drillers are also known as) run through a rigid regimen of cheerleading and funky tribal moves, jazz and military steps that team captains choreograph themselves, creating dance steps from crazy new movements that look nice, sometimes borrowed from popular music videos.

Step Teams:

- Consist mainly of but are not limited to, African American women and girls, as well as men.

- Are associated with secondary and post-secondary educational institutions each may develop a unique style to represent individual sororities or fraternities (within post-secondary).

Training and background: Often today, the training is part of after school activities that are held at the institution or scheduled rehearsal sites and are lead by step masters (captains). Each performance usually has a principal as well as a number of subsidiary purposes, which may express or reflect the communal values and social relationships of the people. In order to distinguish between the varieties of dance styles, therefore, it is necessary to establish the purpose for which each dance is performed, whether it’s a ritual or a social performance. Performances are not limited to competitions; they can be seen at high school games or other school functions. Unfortunately, the Epic Step Squad and Drillers Never Stop were of two step and drill groups that used to exist in the Tucson region.

Availability: Step competitions are a powerful exhibit of a piece of African culture. During the March APA Ice Train Classics Step Show (2001), a display of pride and a linear genre of dance were observed, giving an example of the close-knit fraternity within an age grade all done in the counterclockwise direction.

If you are interested in attending any functions or need information concerning competitions or performance, contact:

Santa Rita High School for information on Santa Rita H.S. Rough Diamonds and Black Pearls .Bonnie Worthman at (520) 731-7501

African American Student Affairs (The University of Arizona) for information regarding the APA Ice Train Classic Step Show.

Mailing Address: 1150 E. 8th Street, Apt 109 Tucson, AZ 85719

See also the Tucson Meet Yourself Festival and the APA Ice Train Classic Step Show where steppers are featured annually at the Tucson Convention Center around March.

It is also interesting to note that stepping is featured in Spike Lee’s 1988 film, “School Daze” where the first wide spread exposure of step began, and “Drum Line,” and the VH1 presentation of Michael Jackson’s “Ghosts.”