ATLANTA Visit any of the nation’s more than 100 historically black colleges or universities and you’ll see clusters of men and women engaged in the rhythmic clapping and foot stomping routines known in black Greek circles as “stepping.”
Now a white Arkansas team’s win in an Atlanta step competition has started a fiery debate over the African-inspired tradition and whether the integration of a once-ethnically exclusive activity constitutes a form of cultural theft.
“What has happened is black youth culture, what people would call hip hop, sort of made black culture accessible and appealing to all kinds of people,” said Walter Kimbrough, president of historically black Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Ark., and an expert on black Greek life. “It really now has become an American experience.”
The uproar began when the all-white Zeta Tau Alpha team from the University of Arkansas beat out five other sorority teams to win last weekend’s national final in the Sprite Step Off competition. A YouTube video of their performance, inspired by the movie “The Matrix,” generated hundreds of comments.
Posters questioned everything from whether a white group should have been allowed to compete to whether judges wowed by the unlikely competitors inflated their scores to let them win.
“Good Job but let the Black folks have their own thing for once!!!” wrote one commenter posting under the name “titetowers” who said the Zeta Tau Alpha team did well but should not have won.
On Thursday, sponsor Coca-Cola announced “scoring discrepancies” and said the runner-up — the Alpha Kappa Alpha team from Indiana University, whose members are black — would share first place and receive the same $100,000 in scholarships that the Zeta Tau Alphas won.
It was unclear what the discrepancies were and Coca-Cola would not elaborate. The tournament began in September with a series of regional qualifying rounds around the country.
While scholars have debated the origin of stepping, the phenomenon is generally believed to have originated with black Greeks around 1969. Some link it to a form of African “gumboot” dancing, which involves performers rhythmically slapping and stamping their feet. It’s a form of dance made popular by workers in South African mines.
Pulling from things like military cadences and dance routines, stepping usually involves stomping out rhythms in heavy boots or loud shoes, with emphasis on precision and flair. Step crews often travel from coast to coast to earn cash, trophies and bragging rights for the most precise or clever routine.
In the early 1990s the fierce competition began to gain attention off black campuses, with large sponsors hosting events, Kimbrough said. Before then, competitions were mostly organized by fraternity and sorority chapters.
As the phenomenon expanded, other Greek groups began participating. Now, it’s not uncommon for white or Latino Greek groups to participate.
Lawrence Ross, author of “The Divine Nine: The History of African American Fraternities and Sororities, said the increased interest in stepping is a natural evolution, much like other urban staples such as rap music that went from an underground phenomenon to mainstream.
“Others are always going to be attracted to what you’re doing and are going to want to participate,” said Ross, a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, a historically black fraternity.
He said the nation is integrating more than ever and blacks who embrace President Barack Obama making inroads into previously all-white bastions can’t have a double standard.
“If (black Olympian) Shani Davis was prevented from speed skating simply because traditionally, no African-Americans were in the field, we African-Americans would be up in arms,” he said.
Zeta Tau Alpha national spokeswoman Christy Barber said the University of Arkansas chapter started stepping 16 years ago and participants were originally mentored by the school’s Alpha Kappa Alpha chapter.
Arkansas senior Alexandra Kosmitis said she and her teammates had worked hard and were very excited when they heard they had won Saturday. They didn’t feel their title was diminished when Coca-Cola told them they’d have to share it.
“We feel truly blessed to have been part of the competition and to have gotten scholarship money to further our educations,” the 21-year-old Pine Bluff, Ark., native said. “The AKA chapter from Indiana University were really nice girls throughout the competition, and we’re glad they are also getting scholarship money too.”
Kosmitis has been on the step team since she joined the sorority and said it gives her a chance to do an activity she’s come to love while bonding with her sorority sisters.
Melody McDowell, a spokeswoman for Alpha Kappa Alpha’s national office, attended the competition in Atlanta and said her sorority’s members were “very talented and deserved to win, so we’re delighted with the outcome.”
“We’re happy that whatever problem occurred with the judging has been resolved,” she said, adding that both teams were “very deserving winners.”
McDowell and Barber declined to comment on the Internet controversy, but both said they were disappointed that talented young women who were doing what they love got swept up in an ugly online controversy.