For his SS14 runway show last week, Rick Owens handpicked all-female step teams from Atlanta, DC and New York to create a no-holds-barred show that blurred the line between fashion and blistering, full-throttled ritual performance. We unravel the underground dance that took Paris by storm.
While Owens’ handpicked crew stomped the runway to his signature blend of aggro-electronic music, step is usually soundtracked only by the complex rhythms made by using the hands and feet – props such as canes are occasionally used to accentuate the beat. Crews are lined up in drill lines, pounding the floor and clapping their hands to a base beat while moving in different formation in response to a call or chant from the lead dancers. Think the fiercest marching drill you’ve ever seen, and you’re not far off.
Some believe that step has its early origins in African dances like the gumboot dance (so called because it is performed with gumboots), which were brought over to America as a result of the slave trade. The form took off in the 60s when fraternities and sororities from all-black colleges and universities incorporated the moves into their cheers and songs. Step teams are a common sight at colleges like Howard University, which hosts performances at major events like homecoming, while universities compete against each other in step team competitions. The dancers in Owens’ show were recruited from a variety of national and college step teams, including NYC-based Step With Momentum.
Owens caught wind of step through YouTube (also how he came across Estonian death metal band Winny Puhh). Google ‘step team’ and you can happily descend into the YouTube abyss of amazing, shakily-filmed step routines, filmed by someone’s iPhone at a homecoming rally. But far and away the best appearance of step in the media is Spike Lee’s School Daze, the 1988 film about life on a black college campus, which featured real-life frat Alpha-Phi-Alpha in a step show – the “brr, it’s cold in here” cheer from Bring It On actually pays homage to Alpha-Phi-Alpha’s original routine.
Step hasn’t strayed far from its American roots – its most recent IRL appearances have been cameos on televised US dance competitions like So You Think You Can Dance and America’s Best Dance Crew, which saw an all-male step group make it to the quarter-finals of season three. Owens’ show marks a high point in its international profile, and probably introduced a fair few startled Parisians to its existence.
Step isn’t the first underground dance form to hit the mainstream in a big way. After all, 2013 also marks the year twerking – along with bounce, the New Orleans scene that birthed the move – hit the big time. Just nobody tell Miley.
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