When Grace James Academy of Excellence sixth grader Alicea Gatewood gets a new step in her head, she can’t stop thinking about it.
“Usually when I start doing them, I can’t stop doing them,” Gatewood said at an afterschool practice for Grace James Academy’s step team—the Gems.
This is Gatewood’s first year doing step, a historically Black art form of synchronized movement, stomping, clapping and spoken word. The team spent February, Black History Month, working with the school’s Black Student Union to explore the history of step and prepare for a performance in front of parents and classmates.
One of the girls’ coaches is Alissa Nannie, who also teaches sixth grade math. The stage boomed to a complicated rhythm as sixteen different feet hit at about the same time, punctuated with a smattering of claps.
“Better!” Nannie called. But she wasn’t quite satisfied yet. “Again! More people aren’t getting it. Five, six, seven, eight!”
Nannie’s been stepping since her middle school years, but got really into it in college as a member of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority.
When small numbers of Black students began to be admitted to predominantly white institutions in the early 1900s, they formed their own sororities and fraternities and practiced a precursor to step known as “patting juba.” Over the years, the dance evolved and became known as step.
Stepping is most often associated with historically Black sororities at colleges and universities.
Nannie wanted to bring that sense of sisterhood and togetherness to her students here at Grace James – an all-girls public school with an Afrocentric curriculum.
“Before I even got hired, I always knew that I would sponsor a step team because I love it,” Nannie said.
Step is hard work. It’s both mentally and physically challenging. But Gatewood said, when she comes to practice, she learns more than the steps themselves.
“It represents sisterhood,” she said. “You’re all working together, and it’s like one sound—so one sound, one beat.”
It’s not enough for a couple team members to have the steps down. If one person is off, you can hear it.
During a run-through, a few girls who really had the routine down took off faster than everyone else. And when they nailed the final stomp, they cheered. But their coaches stopped them.
“Why y’all celebrating?” coach and teacher Jamesha Rhodes asked them. “That was way too fast, so nobody did it 100 percent right.”
It’s the value of collective success that Rhodes and Nannie are trying to impart. Next, they had the girls gather in small groups, to learn from each other.
Sixth grader Amari Purvis circled up with Gatewood and another student along the side of the stage. Purvis had nearly mastered this section, so she took the lead and helped the other two break it down, at first slowly, and then faster.
Some girls said they enjoy these small groups because they’re a way to make new friends.
Another sixth grader, Abigail Seow, said that’s been difficult during the pandemic. Like most students in Jefferson County Public Schools, Seow has spent the majority of the past two years of school online, in nontraditional instruction, or NTI.
“In elementary school I had a hard time making friends … especially with being on NTI,” she said. “And I think step really has helped me with that, just kind of connecting with other people through step.”
The team is also exploring the history of step along with the school’s Black Student Union.
Step team member Scarlet White said the roots of step go back hundreds of years, to Africans who were enslaved and taken to the Americas.
“The slaves created it after the slaveowners wouldn’t let them use drums to make music, so they started making it out of their body,” White explained.
Over the last month, students learned that step goes back to the banning of the djembe, a West African drum. Shashray McCormack is Grace James’ Black Student Union Sponsor and Cultural Humility Coach—a position focused on forming the school’s unique Afrocentric curriculum. McCormack said enslaved Africans recreated djembes with what they could when they got to the Americas. They used the drum as a form of expression and to talk to each other across distances—until slaveholders realized the djembe’s significance.
“And when they realized that the drums were being used as a way of communication, they took those away,” she said.
So enslaved people used what they had: their bodies and the ground. McCormack said lots of American music goes back to this moment.
“There’s a timeline from banning the djembe drum, to field hollers, to negro spirituals, to blues to jazz to hip hop—all of that traces back really to Africa,” she said.
On the day of the performance, the Gems were ready. They gathered on stage in a triangle formation in black t-shirts, purple camo pants and combat boots.
The BSU kicked off the event with a presentation on the history of step.
Grace James seventh grader and BSU member Kimani Bussey participated in the historical research. Bussey said the history of step says a lot about what it means to be Black in America.
“It shows a lot of cultural importance and how you can come from a struggle and still make something beautiful, too,” she said.
McCormack said that’s the most important takeaway she wanted students to have.
“There is joy,” she said. “It’s about joy in the resistance.”
Support for this story was provided in part by the Jewish Heritage Fund.