“Stepping” is a type of partner dance. Partner dances are dances whose basic choreography involves coordinated dancing of two partners, as opposed to individuals dancing alone or individually in a non-coordinated manner, and as opposed to groups of people dancing simultaneously in a coordinated manner like in a “Line” dance. In “Stepping” as a partner dance, one, typically a man, is the lead; the other, typically a woman, is the follow. And at times partners of the same sex are “Stepping”. As a rule, dancers maintain connection with each other and in “Stepping” the connection is both loose and sometimes involves body contact. Stepping is “one dance with many variations.” that includes “walking” as part of the social partner dance.
The history of partner dance for African American people is quite different from the European. And in this essay the objective is to completely reveal the social partner dance of the African American community as a completely unique experience not connected or bound to any European traditions or standards. Although there will be some similarities African American for the most part are separate. According to Katrina Dyonne Thompson (2014) in her book Ring Shout, Wheel About: The Racial Politics of Music and Dance in North American Slavery, Slave masters forced the slaves to sing and dance as a form of entertainment and this oppressive action was the catalyst for the evolution of black dance thus establishing African American dance as a true form of release from the oppression of their day to day lives as slaves. Reclaiming the dance and devoloping a social culture is something that is “African American and not someone else’s.
“Stepping” today as a social partner dance was not created by any one person, set, or community. Although there are claims to the creation of patterns or counts. “Stepping” much like many other forms of dance can’t be traced to any one moment. The social partner dance has evolved since the days of slavery when the slaves were forced to dance at the slave master’s pleasure. There have been many names to describe African American social partner dancing, Swing, Shag, Charleston, Lindy Hop, Hand Dancing, Ballroom Dancing and Bop.
The “Bop” is the modern day forerunner to “Stepping”. Some will argue that Stepping came from the Lindy Hop. And for some it will be another place. Most will agree that the “Bop” is kin and a member of the Swing style dances however the Bop in Chicago took on a uniquely different style of its own just like Hand Dancing did in Washington, DC and the Ballroom styles of Detroit. “Stepping” in Chicago or “Chicago Style Stepping” has steps that communities in the city agreed on, however, there is no one style of “Stepping” in Chicago or from Chicago, because the reality of the social partner dance “Stepping” is about the individuals and their creative coordinated identities. Because of that, social partner dances like “Chicago Style Stepping” bubble up and spread like wildfires through the communities and the nation. When the Worlds Largest Steppers Contest was created in 1989 there was a merging of Boppers and Steppers as the evolution of the dance continued creating the “bubbles” that has led to what the Stepping Community is today.
In most African-American dance cultures, learning to dance does not happen in formal classrooms, dance studios or with paid instructors. Since the modern internet era, social partner dancing has become part of a commercial dance and event industry which features fee based dance workshops and paid instructors are becoming the norm. Historically, in learning the social partner dance styles like “Stepping” children often learn to dance as they grow up, developing not only a body awareness but also aesthetics of dance which are particular to their community. Learning to Step – learning about rhythmic movement – happens in much the same way as developing a local language ‘accent’ or a particular set of social values.
For some learning to “Step” happened during the teenage years and for many who learned in the early years of the dance still dance the same way today. The trends of today finds people of all ages learning to do this social partner dance “Stepping”. Although the teenagers today don’t regard the “social partner” dance as previous generations. Children learn specific dance steps or ‘how to dance’ from their families – most often from older brothers and sisters, cousins or other older children.
Today the trend of learning to “Step” comes from contest winners and people who have moved to other areas in the nation with a partner and brought a different style of dancing to the community that was migrated to. The couples or individuals then promote themselves as dance instructors establishing themselves in the industry of social partner dance instruction. Because cultural dance happens in everyday spaces in the African American community, before the dance instructor revolution, children often danced with older members of the community around their homes and neighborhoods, at parties and dances, on special occasions, or whenever groups of people gather to ‘have a good time’. Today some “Steppers” are devoid of the teenage experience and others who are taking on the dance come form Disco and House. Many adults today learn the social partner dance style in their middle ages from instructors and what is missing from that experience in learning about the dance is the culture and “cultural” dance traditions within the social partner dance community.
Cultural dance traditions are therefore often cross-generational traditions, with younger dancers often ‘reviving’ dances from previous generations, albeit with new ‘cool’ variations and ‘styling’. This is not to suggest that there are no social limitations on who may dance with whom and when. Dance partners (or people to dance with) are chosen by a range of social factors, including age, sex, kinship, interest and so on. The amazing thing about the social partner dance tradition is that it continues to thrive in the midst of differences and sometimes chaos brought about by the impact of the dollar and revenue generated in the social partner dance industry.
Today, so much attention has been placed on the commercialization of the dance that the most important parts of the experience, the music and culture are often overlooked. Lee Ellen Friedland and other authors argue that to “talk about cultural dancing without talking about music or art or drama is like talking about fish without talking about water. Music and dance are intimately related in African-American cultural dance, not only as accompaniments, but as intertwined creative processes”. The evolution of the dance is closely related to the different dance style.
The music of the social partner dance has evolved along with the changes in the dance. Jazz and R & B music has always been the backbone of social partner dancing. As the big band era ended many of the “swing style dances” began to evolve with the new R&B music, jazz and the Motown sound. The Bop emerged and became prominent in the 60’s with dancers attending the night clubs and ballrooms around the city. The music played by the DJ’s spoke about love, heartbreaks and relationships. Bopping was moving forward and the culture of the Bop demonstrated the epitome of smooth and cool. In 1968, the Chess Records house band the “Soulful Strings” released a swing jazz tempo smash called the “The Stepper” that would go unnoticed until a DJ and Promoter Sam Chatman would coin the phrase “Stepping,” at one of his affairs in the mid to late 70’s and all of a sudden “bopping” as a term made a quiet exit however the “bop” social partner dance style remained and is the foundation of what is called “STEPPING” today.
Sam Chatman the former CTA Bus Driver turned DJ and Promoter, found a niche that would be catalyst for the “Underground Steppers” movement which began in a placed called “the Dungeon” and would eventually spread to other places around the city. Another place for the underground movement was called the “FORT”. The FORT was located on the LOW END side of town and most alumni of the area called themselves “Low End” Steppers. In addition to the FORT and the Dungeon there was movement on the “West Side” of Chicago as well. DJ Sam Chatman is the common thread of the Underground Steppers Movement. Radio personality Herb Kent (the King of Dusties) was called the Pied Piper to the Teenagers and Sam Chatman became the Pied Piper to the teenagers who were pushing another variation of the bop among the youth. Sam Chatman like the late great Herbert Roger Kent, has many of the same fans since they were teenagers to mature adults. Sam has played music on the scene for nearly 5 decades making Sam Chatman the “Godfather”. There will be no other DJ in our lifetime that will capture and have the same impact on the “Social Partner” dance called “Stepping” as DJ Sam. Other DJ’s will only add to the foundation that Mr. Chatman set.
My initiation into having a good time socially came from the many parties that I witnessed in the home of my parents. My family partied “at will” for any, good, bad and no reason. We partied all the time where I lived. I learned and appreciated the social partner dance and culture from family. Dancing socially was a living part of the culture in our home. The dance that was being done was the Bop and of course “slow dancing” the forerunner to the “walking” styles. The bop that was done was a two step swing style dance that recently has resurfaced in Texas today as the two step swing. My older brother Robert was an amazing dancer who “bopped” much like our father. And my cousin Sharon was equally gifted and together the two were smooth, and stylish doing incredible turns. My brother and mom would also set the floor on fire much like my mom and dad would when they danced. As my family danced I watched and learned.
And because I was my mother’s last child, she always invited me to dance with her. Those dances allowed me to stay up late and party with them. As a result, I learned fast how to two step bop with mother teaching me and especially giving me instruction on acting within the culture and treating women with respect. My older brothers helped me to refine the “one hand” bopping style. At the parties in my home I started playing records and knew to play everything that mother liked. So the social partner culture was being ingrained in my spirit before I took my try at dancing with a female partner outside of my family.
In the world of a teenager during the time before, Hip Hop, Rap, House, Disco and other dance styles social partner dancing was the direct connection to world of the opposite sex. The music was more romantic. The love songs. The R&B music spoke about relationships and love. As a young man growing up, with hormones racing, those chance encounters with members of the opposite sex kept bopping and slowing dancing as a center of excitement, the “basement party” era became the focal point. My parents were strict about me going parties outside of the neighborhood, they were cautious and didn’t want me too far away from home. So they let me have “basement” parties. My foundation to the social partner was rooted in smooth and slow music. The only song heard at a basement party was something by James Brown.
The neighborhood where I lived had its share of violence with gangs and my parents didn’t want me going anywhere they did not know of the people who owned the establishment. They felt better knowing I was safe. So I confined my partying to the neighborhood. My mother liked to be able to call the other neighbors to find out what was going on. In those formative years of experiencing a social partner dance culture I started in the basements of the community in which I lived. And the norm then was “Bop and Grind”. During those high school years of the late 60’s into the early 70’s bopping was the “in” thing and a step up from the “basement parties” of the neighborhood.
In high school with the attraction for the opposite sex raging through out the bodies and minds of young males. It was an event to go to another high school to dance. For me, Linddblom and Phillips on the south side of Chicago were hot places to go. There was always a belief by many young men that at other schools the young ladies were “finer” and better dancers. However in most cases the belief was just a myth. There were beautiful young women at all the schools the question was “could she bop?” Back then when it came to social partner dances your dancing ability got you in, out and through a lot of places. And both the men and women took “bopping” at a sock hop VERY seriously.
Because of the gangs in Chicago, a young man had to be conscious of where he was dancing. Dance styles in Chicago in the late 60’s and early 70’s during the Bopping era was designate by “zip” codes. In certain areas you had to hold your hands in a certain way. So you had to learn to dance with either hand. The “One Hand” Bop had so much style. In the winter, guys would not “check their coats” and learn how to be stylish with your coat neatly draped over a fore arm.
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