Mould, Tom. 2005. "’Running the Yard’: The Negotiation of Masculinities in African American Stepping." In Manly Traditions: The Folk Roots of American Masculinities, edited by Simon J. Bronner,
It’s the Spring Fling festival at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and the Alpha Phi Alphas are hosting a step competition. DJs from the most popular local hip-hop radio station are spinning out the recent favorites, feeding the anticipatory energy of the crowd. The audience is almost entirely African American, almost entirely of college age. Many of the men wear clothing touting various black Greek letter organizations or jerseys from professional ball teams with their favorite players’ names on the back. The women are dressed impeccably, hair perfectly coiffed.
By 9:30 p.m., the show is already well under way. During the first hour, the sororities competed. Now the men are about to start. The music abruptly stops and the crowd murmurs, necks craning around to see where the steppers will enter. Many in the audience pull out video cameras and aim them around the room. One of the DJs steps to the stage: “And now it’s time for the oldest, the coldest, the ice cold brothers of Alpha Phi Alpha, Incorporated.” He draws out the “in” in “incorporated” just as fraternity and sorority members do. Then, an odd shift in music. Instead of hip-hop, the Peanuts cartoon theme music jingles out over the audience as the Alpha Phi Alphas stumble and trip their way through the auditorium. Dressed in ill-fitting plaid shirts and thick glasses, they mimic stereotypical geeks.
A recorded woman’s voice booms through the speakers, scolding them for being so lame and unworthy of Alpha Phi Alpha. She then appears on stage and passes a two-liter soda bottle around to each member who pretends to drink from it until he falls to the floor. The woman leaves and after a moment or two, the men rise up, ripping off their goofy shirts and glasses to reveal black muscle shirts that complement black pants and black combat boots. Their goofy grins have been replaced with exaggerated scowls. The crowd erupts. Greek men and women in the audience give their organizations’ calls, skeewee-ing and barking over the cheers. The six Alpha men line up in formation, elbows up, fists together. Then, with a signal from their step leader, the men start stepping. They are in complete unison, each foot stomp, hand beat, and jump timed in perfect sync with the others.
Twenty minutes or so later, the judges are tallying the scores while fraternity and sorority members line and party hop around the auditorium. The Kappa fraternity members are shimmying; the AKA sorority members are doing some of their prissy steps, pinkies extended into the air. Many non-Greeks are dancing in the aisles to the hip-hop music once again being pumped out of the speakers throughout the auditorium. Finally, the winners are announced. The crowd is hardly surprised when the sisters of Delta Sigma Theta win. The crowd response during their performance was twice that of the other sororities. There is more speculation about the men. Only the Alphas and the Kappas competed in this show. Second place goes to the Kappas. The Alphas began calling out and cheering, drowning out the Kappas who storm out down the center aisle, claiming injustice in the various epithets they hurl at the Alphas. Once outside the auditorium, however, any antagonism seems to have dissipated as people discuss their night’s plans. The step show is over; the parties are just beginning.
STEPPING IN BLACK FRATERNITY AND SORORITY LIFE
Stepping is an integral part of black fraternity and sorority life, and until recently, has been confined to black Greek letter organizations. Members step at competition step shows, exhibition shows, probate shows where new members are introduced to the campus community, and both formally and informally at parties. “Other people dance,” says Jimmie MacMillan, Kappa Alpha Psi member at Indiana University, “we step.”
Using the body and the floor as a drum, black men and women clap, stomp, and beat out a series of intricate rhythms while executing physically exhausting moves. Coupled with chants, music, costumes, and themes, stepping is a vibrant and exciting form of entertainment for its audiences. But the social and artistic elements of stepping are often secondary to stepping’s major goal: the cultivation and expression of group identity, and specifically of superiority over the other organizations. Simply put, “Step shows are a chance for you to profess to the campus that you are the best” (Roderick Wheeler, Alpha Phi Alpha, Indiana University).
For most non-black college students, step shows are their first and most frequent encounters with black Greek life. Many black Greeks find this problematic, fearing the reinforcement of racist stereotypes of blacks solely as entertainers as well as a distortion of black Greek life. Stepping has been constructed over the years to portray only a small and idealized part of black Greek identity, and therefore presents problems as a means for understanding the complexity of black identity. Studied in its broader social context, however, stepping can provide an understanding of some of the core values underlying various black masculine identities and how those identities are negotiated as very real social power outside the performance context.
Specifically, stepping provides black collegiate men and women a vibrant arena for cultivating specific identities that argue for strength and superiority and that hold currency in constructing social hierarchies in daily life. These identities are forcefully gendered for both men and women, often dealing quite explicitly with what it means to be a black man or woman. Further, while the cultivation of fraternity and sorority identities is most explicit, stepping is more clearly a black creative tradition for the college setting rather than a Greek one. White Greek organizations do not step. Further, when stepping has moved outside the black Greek system, it has done so primarily within the black community, in black churches, youth organizations and professional performances such as Step Afrika.
In keeping with the focus of this book, I will attend specifically to men’s stepping, and how images and ideas of masculinity are constructed, reified, and challenged. Ultimately, I will be arguing for one of the volume’s basic premises: that folklore often provides the means not merely for expressing values and attitudes about gender, but for defining and challenging them, with implications that extend beyond the performance event and into daily life.
STEPPING IN THE FIELD
This study is based on fieldwork conducted at Indiana University during the 1997-98 school year and at Elon University and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) from 2002-2004 and includes video taping and analysis of competition step shows, yard shows, probate shows, rehearsals and black Greek parties, as well as taped interviews with members of black Greek organizations (both male and female, current students and graduates) and non-Greek students who have regularly attended step shows. Further, non-stepping members of an organization frequently videotape their brothers and sisters’ step performances, enabling me to study a number of step performances from other schools and time periods in Indiana and North Carolina. This chapter will focus specifically on competition step shows.
The published scholarship on stepping is fairly limited. Elizabeth Fine’s recent book Soulstepping (2003) is the only book-length study of the genre, joining just a handful of scholarly articles and brief mentions in books (Bronner 1995:134-36; Davis 1996; Farrar 2001; Fine 1995; Malone 1996; Rouverol 1996; Woodside 1995; Yarger 1996). Like Fine’s book, this study relies most heavily on ethnographic fieldwork and interviews and follows the mandate of performance studies with particular attention to the process and construction of performance events, the dynamic interaction between audience and performer, and the importance of contextualization as a means for accessing various referential meanings. However, this study seeks to expand the existing literature by attending specifically to the construction of gendered identities in stepping, one of the dominant arenas for the construction of meaning for this genre. Further, I will explore how these identities are translated outside the performance event, both in terms of group and individual identity formation.
I should point out that much of the discussion here can be usefully compared and contrasted to women’s stepping. Given the focus of this book, it is not possible to delve fully into women’s stepping except in how steppers conceive of it in contrast to men’s stepping. Another omission is the specific discussion of class differences that might explain some of the conceptions of black manliness in stepping. None of my informants mentioned class differences as an element of stepping, even when asked specifically. However, scholars have noted the problems of divorcing class from discussions of gender and race in terms of identity (Lemelle 2001; Majors & Gordon 1994:xi; Spraggins 1999). Further study into the relationship between gender, race, and class as embodied in stepping will no doubt prove useful.
THE FUNCTIONS OF STEPPING
Summing up the objectives of the step show, one stepper noted:
It's all about getting the crowd to respond, and get your name out there, and let people know who you are, and getting remembered. (Calvin Sutton, Omega Psi Phi, Elon University 2003)
Men and women who step often mention entertainment, exercise, and the construction of social bonds between members as relevant functions of stepping. Anyone who has seen a step show can understand how entertaining it is. Anyone who has watched a step show from the front row, seen the sweat bead up on brows after only the first of five or six full step routines understands the exercise benefits. And anyone who has observed the nightly rehearsals that run for weeks understands how social bonds can be formed and strengthened.
However, far more often, steppers talk about functions of stepping that draw performer and audience into abstract and concrete social interaction. One of the most explicit of these functions is that of the recruitment of new members. As one Alpha Phi Alpha explained,
People come to step shows, they'd be like, "Dag, did you see those Alphas? You know, I could be that,” “I really want to be that, I want to be that,” “Man, they were tight up there, know all their moves." That's where you get most of your interest. That's part of the reason you want to have a tight show. (Justen Baskerville, Alpha Phi Alpha, Elon University 2003)
Fraternities and sororities use step shows as a means of constructing a public image of their organization. That image is, to a great extent, specifically directed to other black students of the same gender. Black men step to attract other black men to their organization as do black women to theirs. The message is clear: We are the best and you should want to be part of our organization. What it means to be the best, of course, is contested and constantly being negotiated. One stepper explained,
Some people compete for the prize money. Some compete for the trophies. I think at the core it's for status. It's mostly, if you win the step show, it's the thing: you're the most popular, the most together, the most unified as an organization…. There's a term that's used, "Who runs the yard." That's basically who's the better organization. (Michael Long, Phi Beta Sigma, Elon University 2003)
In black college vernacular, one speaks not of Big Man on Campus but of Who Runs the Yard. The yard is the college campus; to run the yard is to be the most popular, most influential, most desirable organization on campus—in other words, to be the best. Step shows are explicit ways for black Greek members to establish their superiority on campus. In fact, being the best step group can translate to being the best organization. Things like service to the community, grade point averages, and leadership in other school activities certainly carry some weight in vying for this title, but it is the step show where organizations most clearly, most explicitly, and most creatively negotiate this hierarchy. Further, because the title of who runs the yard is primarily a social construct, it makes sense that it is the public and social performance of stepping that weighs most heavily in this negotiation. Such performances are all the more efficient and effective since audiences are composed almost entirely of black college students—the exact peer set who grants the title of who runs the yard. While this title is not formal, uncontested or confined to men, it nonetheless has very real currency for black college students. Running the yard and constructing an image that will attract other men to one’s organization has the important dual function of attracting women. Certainly there can be dramatic differences between what a man thinks women find desirable in a man, and what they actually do. The assumption most steppers work from is that the men in the audience have internalized these differences. In other words, a black male in the audience will recognize in the behavior of men stepping on stage the kinds of personas that define not only what is desirable to be as a male, but what is desirable to a female. Both functions can be addressed with a particularly well-constructed step. For example,
Sweat Me is one a lot of Sigmas do. That one is a bragging step. Don't sweat me. It can have two meanings. Number one, it's focused on the ladies. “Ladies, I know I look great but don't sweat me.” The other one is guys can potentially be new members. “You might want to be like me and that's great, but tell me once and that's cool.” (Michael Long, Phi Beta Sigma, Elon University 2003)
Men present themselves to audiences including prospective dates, constructing personas that they believe will attract women. If an after-party follows the show, some fraternities will add more suggestive moves into their routines with the intention that this public flirting during performance can be developed off stage as well. Many women in the audience admit that stepping is an important part of courtship in college and that a good step show reflects favorably on the individual steppers.
Crucial to interpreting stepping and the masculine identities constructed during it, therefore, is audience approval. Audiences consist primarily of other black students, both from that particular school and nearby colleges and universities. This approval is made concrete by the judging criteria of competition step shows, where audience engagement is a key element of determining a successful performance. The greatest sin of a step performance is to lose the audience’s attention. Imprecise and unimaginative steps and routines can disappoint an audience, but nothing bores them faster than a performance that lacks energy. As one student explained,
You can watch a step show, I don't care who it is, if they' don't have energy, if they haven't practiced a lot, you can tell right off the bat, because, I don't know what it is but the whole crowd——I've been at shows where the whole crowd starts talking. They may not be that bad, but they're not energized. It's all about how you present yourself. (Justen Baskerville, Alpha Phi Alpha, Elon University 2003)
Conversely, nothing engages an audience as fast as a stepper who exhibits powerful energy while maintaining precision and unity with their fellow steppers.
The fact that approval is granted by peers, specifically other black college men and women, is of no small importance considering the traditional pressures felt by black men in America. Summarizing the scholarship on black masculinity in America, Ronald L. Jackson II observes: “The black masculine subject is concerned with validation. The question is who validates the black male’s masculinity? Is it one or a combination of the following: White males, Black females, other Black males, or some other operating force?” (1997). The answer suggested by many scholars of African American studies is white males, both as validator and model (Connor 1995, Gray 1994, Jackson 1997, Mahalik, Martin and Woodland 2001).
Stepping offers black men an arena for the negotiation of identity that is clearly validated within the black community. Whether or not that identity is derivative of constructions of white masculinity or not remains debatable, but that this negotiation is being performed by black men to a black audience is a liberating shift from past contexts that have risked being hegemonic and alienating