This edition of Funky Expeditions is choreographed! I focused on the area of Chicago, Illinois, specifically the music and culture of the phenomenon known as Chicago Stepping, also known just as Steppin’.
The music of stepping does not always fall into one particular genre; steppers can groove to the music to rock, rap, soul, and many other categories. The unique thing about the music used for stepping is that it occurs on a steady recognizable “downbeat”. The downbeat can be described as the first impulse in the beginning of a bar of music. The emphasis of these songs is on the first and third notes, which is different than most R&B songs, which emphasize the 2nd note in the measure. Thus, the focus shifts from the one-two-three-four backbeat to the one-two-three-four count, changing the mood of the music. Because the dance utilized the “off” beat, it was also described as “Offtime” (Wikipedia). It has been said that James Brown popularized the downbeat starting with songs like “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” (Wikipedia), and most of his music is all done with a downbeat focus. Brown jammed out “on the one”, and I suspect this is where Theo from The Cosby Show got his phrase about “jammin’ on the one” (It was the Stevie Wonder episode, check it, it’s epic!)
The dance of stepping itself is an African-American art form that was originally based on the Jitterbug in the 30s and 40s, the Offtime in the 50s, and the Walk and the Chicago Bop in the 60s and 70s. It also has roots in the dance known as the Cakewalk. Chicago Stepping is similar to other dances in other geographical areas, for example, Bopping in Detroit, Pittsburg, and Cleveland, Swingout in Texas, and Hand Dancing in the DMV areas (http://www.steppershistory.org/). The dance is a partner-based with a salsa feel, and is usually based on a quick 8-count or 6-count. Like the waltz, partners boogie with their hands touching, but not their bodies. The dance is infused with flavorful moves like foot shuffles, twists and turns, dips, and spins. Check out this stepping video for an idea of how it goes down.
Stepping didn’t really catch in Chicago until the 70’s. Chicago station WBMX (102.7FM) started playing two cuts, Jeffree’s “Love’s Gonna Last”, and “Mr. Fix-It”, and these songs matched well with the moves of the Chicago Step (check out Jeffree in the playlist). Neither song was a major Billboard R&B chart hit (“Mr. Fix-It” made it to #53, “Love’s Gonna Last” didn’t chart), but in Chicago, they were requested with fervor. These two songs are now both considered quintessential songs in the world of stepping, as they were the first tunes in the craze of the modern step. Two of the first DJs spinning the “songs to step to” back then were DJ Herb Kent (pictured) and DJ Markie B. Stepping got a lot of exposure due to R. Kelly’s “Step in the Name of Love” in 2002 and Gerald Levert’s “Didn’t We”, and the style of dance was featured in the June 2003 issue of VIBE magazine. More music seems to be popping up in response to the dance; the movement is dictating the style of the music being produced in the Chicago area. There are clubs in Chicago specifically geared to steppers like at Chicago’s Savoy, The Club Delisa, The Time Square, The Checkerboard, (www.steppersexpress.com) and the regular weekly parties for the dance are known as “Steppers Sets”. There are numerous websites dedicated to the stepping parties (like (www.steppersexpress.com, www.nsaab.org, http://www.learn2step.com/, www.truepassionsteppers.com, www.steppershistory.com, and www.sunshine-steppers.com) and there are even contests for steppers who want to show off their talents. There is even an entire magazine, called Inside Steppin’, dedicated to the art.
Although stepping seems incredibly fun, and the music associated with the activity is soulful and cheerful, it unfortunately seems to only be popular with the “more mature” demographic in Chicago. This is painfully apparent upon viewing the steppin’ websites, which all seem to be designed in the 90’s with what must have been one of the first HTML writing programs invented. In today’s internet-savvy world, it is hard for consumers to connect with something and consider it “cool” unless it is aesthetically pleasing online and has strong web presence. I think stepping would be appreciated more by a younger set if the websites were updated and if more young artists made songs specifically geared towards steppers. If the public can get behind a song like “Stanky Leg”, they can surely enjoy a song about stepping – as long as this song has a video available on Youtube! Chicago (and the world) is waiting for a modern stepping song Common! Get on the ball, Kanye!
“In Chicago, as a child you learn how to crawl, walk, then ‘step’!” – Ronneal Mohommad (“Moe”) from www.learn2step.com
Check out our playlist (click to download) of songs that are popular with steppers!
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