‘Stepping’ Back in Time
Cal State East Bay students use historical art form to share their legacy
In honor of their heritage and culture, a group of Cal State East Bay students from the university’s black Greek fraternities and sororities recently came together to ‘step’ back in time and revisit their history through a mixture of footsteps, spoken word and hand claps at the 4th Annual Summertime Set Owt. The practice of “stepping” as it’s known, goes back to a time when men working on the railroad and in the military would use the art form to communicate their thoughts and boost morale.
While stepping, students transform their bodies into instruments, creating rhythms and sounds that have been used for generations, and to share the legacy of their organizations.
“I was introduced to stepping as a young girl at a family reunion in Alabama,” said student Alyssa Steverson, who took part in the May 25 event. “We had relatives that were part of stepping through their fraternities and sororities. I’ve always been interested in dance, hip-hop and jazz, and once I joined my sorority in 2014, it really opened the doors for me to venture into stepping and be part of something special and meaningful.”
Steverson, who is a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority at Cal State East Bay, joined the festivities in the courtyard outside Lassen Dormitory as a representative of The National Pan-Hellenic Council, a coalition of nine traditionally black sororities and fraternities founded between 1906 and 1963. Since its beginnings, The National Pan-Hellenic Council’s mission has been to promote “Unanimity of thought and action as far as possible in the conduct of Greek letter collegiate fraternities and sororities, and to consider problems of mutual interest to its member organizations.”
The Cal State East Bay event, which was intended to generate interest in joining a black fraternity or sorority, brought together approximately 250 students and alumni. Each of the nine groups that performed used their stepping routine as a way of not only speaking about themselves but showing potential recruits how they can become a part of preserving space for black culture within the wider Greek system.
“It’s extremely important for me to spread the knowledge of this tradition that dates back to Africa, where my family originated,” Steverson said. “It allows me to express myself and also learn and understand the history it stems from.”
For example, Phi Beta Sigma, which was chartered in 1965 at Cal State East Bay and is the oldest black fraternity on campus, shared a message about destigmatizing college for black youth and reinforced their motto of power, strength and revolution. By comparison, Kappa Alpha Psi, used its routine to announce their reactivation on campus in a lighthearted way. But, the fraternity also capitalized on its stage time to promote their community service cause of choice at the university, Project HOPE, which provides assistance to homeless and food insecure students.
It’s a common theme among the black fraternities and sororities on campus, for which community service is a foundational element, along with the tradition of excellence among famous Pan-Hellenic alumni. Students at Cal State East Bay are continuing the legacy of graduates such as Martin Luther King, Jr., poet Langston Hughes, inventor and educator George Washington Carver, and entertainers Lena Horne and Sarah Vaughn — figures whose stories play into the history and themes that stepping all across the United States strives to preserve.
“I love that these are lifelong organizations,” Steverson said. “I find myself constantly building relationships and contacts, which may provide opportunities in the future. These famous alumni went through the same experience we did, having to push ahead to realize your dreams. It’s inspiring to know they achieved so much and we can too.”