Sprite Step Off: A SKEErious Matter or Much Ado About Nothing?


Full disclosure: I am proud lady and active member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated.  However, I will try in earnest to not let that color my comments on the recent Sprite-Step Off Challenge Brouhaha. 

If you are unaware, a White sorority–Zeta Tau Alpha– recently won the  competition over second place finishers,  Alpha Kappa Alpha.  After viewing both the AKA’s and Zeta’s performance, I can say that both presentations were creative, well-choreographed, precise, rhythmic, and energetic.  However, the Zeta’s performance–my bias withstanding–lacked two things:  history and soul.

Stepping has its roots in several elements of the African-American story.  Many scholars suggest that the art form emerged from “Boot Dance”.  In her article, Stepping in the United States: A Stomping Craze of Historical Proportions, Sophia Russell describes the origins of boot dancing stating: 

“Boot Dance” developed in the pitch-black coalmines where slaves were forced to work. Work boots were issued to deal with the rocky terrain slaves were expected to work in. Forced to work in the darkness Monday through Saturday from sun up to sun down, the slaves’ only time to see the light of day was on Sunday. On Sunday, they rejoiced, exercised and danced in their work boots. They would draw crowds from admiring people of all races as “boot dancing” gave them an opportunity to echo the African drums of their home lands by stomping and clapping in a percussive manner similar to the boot dancing still seen in parts of South Africa (Russell 2007).

The modern notion of stepping emerged in the mid 1900’s, during competitive singing and dancing rituals on college schoolyards (hence Stomp the Yard).  African-American fraternities and sororities started singing and dancing to mimic the styles of R & B groups like the Temptations and Four Tops.  Overtime stepping evolved to an important—but not necessarily fundamental—part of crossing into and participating in African-American Greek life.   However, far more important than stepping, has been the Divine Nine’s legacy of advancing education, economic development, civil rights, and social justice within and beyond the African-American community. 

The decades and decades of barrier breaking struggle, loss, and victory of the African-American experience are largely embodied within the collective history of the Divine Nine.  Therefore, its member organizations are not simply social clubs.  Instead, they are organic, living, evolving organizations with networks spanning the globe.  They each share and hold a unique culture and narrative—not always perfect or pretty— that is played out with every precision signature step taken on yards across this country and beyond. 

According to the Sprite-Step Off website, it is the largest national step show in history.  The program seeks to utilize the entertainment elements of stepping to underlay a “robust charitable” platform, comprised of two major components: service and scholarships—goals very much aligned to those of the National Pan-Hellenic member organizations.  What is not noted on the website is the obvious advertising and marketing ploy behind this program; Coca-Cola Sprite’s parent company is first and foremost a profit driven organization. A Sprite branded stepping competition is a terrific opportunity to draw millions of black eyes and dollars to Sprite products.    This year, like years past, the competition was serialized in a MTV2 reality TV show—you have to admit having a White sorority win makes for a tasty dramatic story arc, fairness aside.

Nevertheless, I do not believe that the uproar around the Sprite Step Show has anything to do with discrimination, bias, or general hateration. I think the outrage it is more about a long history of white artist appropriating the cultural artifacts of the black experience for financial gain: from Jazz, to Rock-N-Roll, to Hip-Hop and Soul [See Little Richard].

The ladies of AKA were stepping with over 100 years of history behind them, with signature steps that go back decades.  In contrast, Zeta Tau Alpha–while a century old organization-created only faint facsimile  of what they had viewed and absorbed black sororities and fraternities do.  As a result, their steps had no story, no soul.     

In an event post script, supposedly due scoring discrepancy, Sprite named both Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., Tau Chapter and Zeta Tau Alpha, Epsilon Chapter, co-first place winners of the step off.   Accordingly, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., Tau Chapter’s scholarship prize  was raised to $100,000.

So ladies and gentleman is this a good news story? Is the fact that two organizations grounded in academic high achievement, sisterhood, and service among women is now each $100,000 richer the important thing?

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