Rhythm and Sole: Stepping to the beat


Almost every day, Gabrielle Holley and the step team spends at least an hour practicing. Photo courtesy of Gabrielle Holley

Caroline Watt

Almost every day, Gabrielle Holley spends at least an hour practicing. Between homework, a 20-hour schedule and sorority responsibilities, Holley barely has enough time to maintain her rigorous schedule. A huge part of her routine revolves around one thing: perfecting her step.

Stepping is rhythmic dance that is structured and controlled. During step, the body is used as an instrument to create sound through footsteps, claps and words. Being a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA) Theta Sigma Chapter, she is able to share the bond of stepping with her sisters. AKA was the first greek-lettered organization established in the United States for black women and part of its purpose was to support women with similar ideals for mutual uplifting and display of talents and strengths.

Stepping comes easy to Holley. Although she didn’t formally step until college, all it took was someone “to show her the way,” as she said. Every organization has its own tryouts and from there they pick their team. Still, each member is able to collaborate and build the show together.

Kaylon Graham, a junior majoring in apparel and textile design and general business, is a member of Phi Beta Sigma. Phi Beta Sigma is a historically black fraternity that was founded to exemplify brotherhood, scholarship and service. Graham called the creative process a spitball of information. Stepping, like any other art, he said, is created through inspiration.

“It’s about taking something and making it relate to the people and putting your creative spin on it,” Graham said. “It takes time to develop. It’s a piece by piece kind of thing.”

Graham says teaching people about the roots of stepping and African culture is so important. He said that educating people about its history will open up doors for people who didn’t come from that background.

“Getting people to understand each other is a positive step in the right direction,” Graham said. “The better understanding we have for each other’s culture, the better chance we have of coming together as a cohesive community.”

For more than 30 years, the annual Homecoming Step Show has been a part of the The University of Alabama. The National Pan-Hellenic Council is the organization for historic African-American fraternities and sororities. Each year, the NPHC organizations battle it out on stage through intricate step, powerhouse voices and creative sets. The show is exhilarating and brings a sense of empowerment for both the performers and audience.

“The step show is a good experience because it provides an insight into the NPHC organizations while also highlighting the Pan-Hellenic organization that wins the dance competition the night before,” said Bryonna Burrows, vice president of the NPHC. “It is a family atmosphere that brings together all students and gets to highlight the hard work of each organization.”

Stepping serves as a ritual identity for the NPHC organizations. Their story is about opportunity. It’s about hard work, dedication and patience within the bonds of family. Holley and Graham agreed it’s their moment to show the world who they are.

“Homecoming is when we really don’t play games,” Holley said. “We really buckle down and show campus what we have. If you’re performing, you come to win, and if you’re watching, you come dressed to kill.”

Holley’s practices can range from an hour to four hours, seven days a week. Performing step also has its restrictions. The routines have to be tasteful and the outfits must be appropriate. Each team has free reign, but it must be approved.

“It’s strenuous, but it’s very rewarding,” said Holley. “You work so hard and so long, so when you finally get to do your show and you watch it back and see all your hard work on stage – it’s really fulfilling.”

Even as a junior, Holley still gets pre-performance jitters.

“I’ve gained a sense of patience, in that not everything is going to happen at a set time,” Holley said. “Sometimes life throws you multiple curve balls and what you have planned doesn’t necessarily happen. You have to learn to take a step back and re-evaluate.”

After winning UA’s homecoming step show, AKA received offers from numerous schools to perform. Coming up in March, the team has its regional conference step show they will perform at in Mobile. This past semester the team performed at Alabama A&M’s homecoming show.

“Winning was an awesome experience. It makes our organizations closer because where there’s competitiveness, there’s also that spirit of cheering on another team,” Holley said. “For me, I like to win, but I also like to see other people’s hard work being performed on stage.”

Stepping reflects the ethnicities, culture and beliefs of African-Americans in an effort to attain freedom and equality. Graham said that traditionally black fraternities and sororities would perform stepping as a greek coming out presentation.

“Step is an expression of pride,” Graham said. “A celebration of your organization. It takes a lot of time, practice and effort, but once it comes together, it’s a beautiful thing to see.”

Graham learned his own form of rhythm early on. He played saxophone for three years. From age 10 to 12, he was on a praise team. He said having those experiences eventually led him to stepping. For Graham, stepping means happiness.

“To be able to be a part of this organization and have touched so many lives and continue touching so many lives is amazing,” Graham said. “It brings a smile to my face to be able to share it with the people I call my brothers.”

At first, Graham didn’t consider being a part of a step team or a fraternity in general. Now he says he has every intention of being apart of stepping, even if that means not being able to actually step.

“If stepping is a way for people to see us, even if it’s a small part, I want to be able to do it to the best of our abilities,” Graham said. “I want you to know I appreciate the time you take to watch us and our art that we put in front of you.”