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By John Lilly

Stepping at WVSU
Omega Psi Phi fraternity members at West Virginia State University homecoming step show in October 2010. Photograph by Tyler Evert.

Stomping, chanting, spinning, singing, waving, joking, and teasing, black fraternity and sorority members across West Virginia and the nation carry on a proud tradition virtually unknown to those outside the Greek letter community. Commonly known as stepping, this dynamic and entertaining dance promotes unity among African American campus organizations as well as friendly, if occasionally intense, competition.

Eric Jackson, a 2005 graduate of West Virginia State University at Institute, a member of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity, and campus advisor for the National Pan-Hellenic Council, explains that stepping plays a key role in college life for black members of Greek letter organizations. According to Eric, stepping is “very, very popular” on the campuses of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s) and other campuses that host black Greek letter organizations. “It’s a necessity,” Eric says. “It’s what separates us from other fraternities and sororities.”

Nationally, there are approximately 5,000 chapters of eight major predominantly black Greek letter organizations, with a total of about a half-million members. The fraternities are: Alpha Phi Alpha, Omega Psi Phi, Phi Beta Sigma, and Kappa Alpha Psi. The black sororities are: Alpha Kappa Alpha, Delta Sigma Theta, Zeta Phi Beta, and Sigma Gamma Rho. Of these, Eric reports that Alpha Kappa Alpha and Omega Psi Phi are currently active on the WVSU campus.

When an individual expresses an interest in joining one of these organizations ― a process called pledging ― he or she undergoes an extensive initiation period. According to Dr. R. Charles Byers, vice president of academic affairs at WVSU, a 1968 West Virginia State graduate, and a graduate member of Omega Psi Phi, the pledging or initiation period can last for up to 16 weeks. He says new members spend this time “learning the history of the organization, learning the members, learning the ways of the organization that were different, that made one organization different from another.”

Newcomers belong to a pledge club – a “line” – and go through the initiation process together. It can be demanding and strenuous at times, but when they complete the process – or “cross” – it is cause for celebration.

According to Dr. Byers, “Stepping started as a celebration. The very last thing after they crossed into the fraternity and became a member – less than an hour or so – they would have a show to let everybody on campus know that they are now members of the organization.”

The origins of stepping are complex.

You can read the rest of this article in this issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.