At the UpStaged Black Performing Arts Celebration this past February, Ed Nelson, a professional step performer, gave an insightful and passionate speech about the history of the step.
Nelson is an accomplished stepper— he’s performed with Alicia Keys, Beyoncé, and Usher, and he founded the Player’s Club Steppers, a step group that’s performed on America’s Got Talent, World of Dance, and at NBA All-Star Weekend. Today, he travels the country as a performer, step teacher, and motivational speaker.
Nelson’s impactful speech about the history of step was a highlight of the Black Performing Arts Celebration in February— an event that honored and celebrated African American performers.
“Hello ladies and gentlemen— good afternoon! Happy Black History Month! So I am what you call a stepmaster, I am not a Greek, okay. I’m not a Greek, so I’m gonna start by that, not a Greek. I’m a non-greek, but I’m a step Master.
Like he said, we will get into my accolades later, but right now what I’m going to do is tell y’all a brief history of the art form that I do that I love that changed my life which is called Step. Now if you heard a step let me here you say yeah! Nah that’s not loud enough. If you heard of step let me hear you say yeah!
So, a lot of people wonder why when you do see step, why do we make certain faces? Why do we yell? Why do we scream? For those who’ve seen step, usually when we make a stage we ah!!! (screams) Why do we do that? Now, to the people that’s not of the community, you kind of know. The people that’s not of the community kind of go, y’all look crazy. But there’s a reason— there’s a deep, deep-rooted reason why we yell, why we scream, why we chant, why we stroll.
If you don’t know, where does stepping start? Where do you think stepping start my brother? Don’t say Brooklyn, it didn’t start there. No, it didn’t start in the Bronx. It started further and far away from there. Thank you, say it again, say it again. Say it with pride! Where does step start? (Africa) Where does step start? (Africa)
Step started in Africa, and it did not start as a celebration, I tell you that. Step was a form of communication that the slaves used to talk to each other. When you was a slave, if I said something to another slave in any language whether it’s English African anything. The slave masters, remember they didn’t want us, they didn’t want the slaves to be as smart as them or smarter than them. So the slaves had to find a way to communicate.
So, eventually in the coal mines in Africa, the way they communicated, they would (slaps chest) and the other slave would answer back (stomps feet). If he wanted to talk to him (slaps knee then chest) and he would answer back (stomps feet). Eventually, the slave masters caught on to this form of communication. And what did they do? They did what we call today battles. So, a slave master would take one house of slaves to another house and they would step against each other.
Now, you wonder why we yell, why we scream, the losing slaves would either be taken by the other slave master or even killed. So if you tell me this performance, your life depends on it, am I going to step like this (softly stomps the ground) or am I going to be (screams loudly). I want to live. This stomp, this clap, will either kill me or help me survive. So when you see the Greeks call in response, that is a respect to the ancestors that died before us. To show them we respect and love the path that they put in front of us.
Then, in 1906, the first black African-American fraternity was born. The brothers of Alpha Phi Alpha for short, they call A Phi A. And have you seen them? They go: (sings) “Ice Ice Baby, too cold too cold, Ice Ice Baby, the black and gold.” Their colors are the colors of the Egyptian kings and queens, black and gold. Why? Because throughout history we forgot we were kings and queens. We always felt that we were less than and when we step we remember our ancestry that we were Kings and we were Queens. So when I step (yells) I’m waking up my ancestors.
Now, some of you may not care, it may not mean nothing to you but it means something to millions and millions of Greek, non-Greek, High School, non-high school, elementary steppers and step masters. So if you heard the movie Stomp the Yard, I choreographed for that movie. And we taught a lot of dancers who weren’t steppers, who thought they couldn’t step because they weren’t Greek, but we like stepping is not just for the Greeks.
Those days are long gone stepping is for all races, all colors, and all creeds because step unites the same way a choir unites when they sing. Step unites all under one banner, the banner of unity, love, and accomplishment. That’s where step came from and now you see what step is now. Now, we have Hispanic fraternities and sororities, Caucasian fraternities and sororities—that’s step and stroll— Asian fraternities and sororities— that’s step and stroll— because they’ve seen the unity of when it came from slavery to where it is now. So that, ladies and gentlemen, is the history of Step.”
Want to learn more about step dancing? Check out this blog post!