| Anne Renaut |
WASHINGTON (AFP) – Feet and hands pounding in a rhythmic whirl – stepping traces its roots deep within African American history and over the past year has taken the fashion world by storm.
One of the stars of step, LeeAnet Noble, collaborated with US designer Rick Owens in last September’s Paris Fashion Week, and this week, she and her dancers are performing at a fashion and dance exhibit during New York’s shows.
In the Washington studio where she rehearses with her company, the 30-year-old sometimes plays the drums. But just as often, there’s no music at all: the rhythms of the hands and feet the only accompaniment necessary.
Stepping was born in the United States at the start of the 20th century as a sort of rally cry for African American fraternities to “express their unity, to express the spirit of their organizations,” said Virginia Tech professor Elizabeth Fine, who has written a book on the dance.
Its roots, however, reach back further, to the slave era, when white owners forbid slaves to use drums.
“When the drums were taken away, it allowed you to come with creative ways to bring those rhythms back into your life. And it came to clapping and stepping and moving your feet,” said Noble.
Today, said Fine, step dancing is “a way to celebrate black identity in America and black community.”
The high-octane dance form – with its quick tempo and sharp movements – is not explicitly political.
Black “fraternities and sororities were hugely involved in the civil rights movements,” said C Brian Williams, founder of the Step Afrika dance company.
“Stepping, however, was not at the centre,” he said.
At rehearsal, the girls go through their moves as Lauretta Malloy, Noble’s mother and co-choreographer, reminds them to stay “all together.”
“There was a movement through the movement. It stood for empowerment and showing dignity and pride,” said Noble, who learned to dance from family in Cleveland, and whose grandparents were fraternity members.
Stepping first became known beyond college campuses through the 1988 Spike Lee film “School Daze,” which took inspiration from Lee’s own student days.
Over the last year, the dance has found a new stage: in the world of high fashion.
During Owens’ 2013 show in Paris, 40 dancers of all sizes and skin tones sported the designer’s custom leather creations.
Eyes serious, jaws locked, the women danced on the catwalk with a near military-style cadence – an allusion to many black students who serve in the US army.
The unorthodox show was received with raves, said Noble. “They were crying,” she said of the audience, adding she has since received a slew of requests.
Noble will collaborate next with stylist Joshua Liebman, and, on Friday, she and a crew of her dancers will perform at the opening of a “Dance and Fashion” exhibit at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology.
Last year’s appearance at Owens’ show also struck a chord, because it came amid a firestorm over lack of diversity in the fashion world sparked by black model Bethann Hardson’s list of designers who fail to hire women of colour to showcase their work.
“It helps to change what’s happening on the runway,” Noble said.