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Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2008 03:53 pm

Springfield is stepping up

Dance contests bring old school and new school together

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In Detroit, it’s called the social. In Dallas, it’s called the swing. But in the Land of Lincoln, it’s called stepping. From 9 p.m.-3 a.m. on Nov. 22 at the American Legion #809, 1800 E. Capitol Ave., couples will compete for a $200 prize and bragging rights.

Stepping is a dance that builds off of six- or eight-count steps. Couples step to the front, back and side to side gliding around the dance floor to the soulful sounds of R&B music. The dance has its roots in northern African-American communities in cities like Chicago, considered the stepping capital, because that is where the dance originated in the 1950s. Now, with the help of R&B singer and Chicago native R. Kelly and his song “Step in the Name of Love,” the dance has gained popularity and spread to smaller cities like Springfield. As a result, serious local steppers come out of the woodwork to show off their smooth moves and win money at the American Legion #809 stepping contests.

Clarence Stowe Jr., an old-school stepper and adjutant of the American Legion #809, held the first stepping contest in 2004 after two members insisted he needed to encourage people to start stepping. He didn’t think he would get a big turnout that night, but he was in for a surprise.

“Everyone kept asking me, ‘What is stepping?’ so I had a feeling people would come out,” he said. “I left the Legion that night and no one was here. Well, I got a call at 8 p.m. from someone telling me I needed to come back because the place was packed.”

Stowe puts on four stepping contests each year. They attract hundreds of people, some from Chicago, Peoria and Decatur who come to watch and judge the contests. Stowe said the Legion usually has standing room only, filled with 200-300 people who want to enjoy a night of skillful dancing. The contests are mainly old-school stepper sets, steppers 45 years of age or older, but new-school steppers, younger than 45, also come to watch.

“It’s popular with everybody,” he said. “There are a lot of elderly people who don’t come to the Legion all month, but they come for the contests.”

Stowe tries to have at least one contest judge from Chicago. He attributes the popularity of the dance to the large number of people in Springfield who have migrated from Chicago.

Hugh Taylor, an old-school stepper and member of American Legion #809, has judged and competed in several of the contests. He is considered to be one of the best steppers in town. Taylor is a former resident of Chicago and is well-versed in the different styles of the dance. Taylor considers himself to be a South Side Chicago stepper as opposed to a West Side Chicago stepper, which means he uses more footwork and a lot of turns when he performs. Taylor described his style as being more fluid.

“Both partners have to be in sync for it to look good,” he said. “If you can glide across the floor and your feet are moving, but you can’t really tell, that’s stepping.”

People take stepping very seriously and like to dance with someone who can move and move well.

“In Chicago, if a dude asks you to dance and you can’t step he will dance you right back to your chair,” Taylor said. “Men put on the show, but if the woman can follow it gives her credit.”

Couples are judged on creativity, chemistry, style, technique and dress. They can receive a maximum of 10 points in each category and have a chance at taking home the first prize of $200, the second prize of $125, or the third-place prize of $75. There is also a best dressed contest with a $50 prize for both men and women. Barbara Miller, an old-school stepper and first-place winner in the contest held Aug. 4, said she thinks her team won because of the style and creativity that went into their performance.

“Creativity is where your show style comes in and you do an extra twist or spin,” she said. “We did one move where I took his hat and put it on top of my head.”

Miller’s parents taught her how to step when she was just a little girl. She has been stepping for more than 30 years and spends a lot of her time watching stepping contests online and practicing at home. She judged contests at the American Legion #809 and believes you can tell a seasoned stepper by their appearance. “Real steppers lay it out,” she said. “Part of being a good stepper is look and appearance.”

When steppers step they want to do it with style. Men wear Zoot suits with matching hats and colorful wingtip leather shoes. Ladies usually wear heels with dresses or flared skirts, so when they turn or dip to the floor the skirt creates a dramatic whirling effect. Caroline J. Townsend, another old-school stepper, auxiliary member and bartender at the Legion, said the contest attracts so many people because it gives them a chance to show off their fashion sense.

“You get a chance to dress up, look good, and watch the grace of the dance,” Townsend said. “That’s what attracts people — they love to dress.” Though Townsend loves to dress, she is also attracted to the elegance of the step. In her opinion, stepping stands out from other dances in the African-American community because a man and woman do it together.

Miller compares stepping to ballroom dancing because of the grace that goes into performances. She likes that the stepping contests are open to anyone who thinks they can step. She believes the dance is popular in the African -American community because it crosses generations, bringing together the old school and new school.

“Stepping is a whole different culture. To me it’s an art form, especially in the African-American community,” Miller said. “You don’t see many people doing ballroom dances like the fox trot, but you say stepping and they know what it is.”

Contact Patrice Worthy at pworthy@illinoistimes.com.

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