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steppin’ up: A&T’s Alphas on a quest for step domination

by Amy Kingsley

“Brrrr ‘…. It’s cold in here! There must be some Alphas in the atmosphere.”

Josh Green rolls his r’s like a marching snare. He’s almost squatting, keeping a steady beat with his feet, theatrically shivering and rubbing his arms.

“I say, Brrr ‘… It’s cold in here. There must be some Alphas in the atmosphere. It goes: Ice, Ice Baby, too cold too cold! Ice, Ice Baby, the black and gold!”

The entire team is chanting now, twelve voices shouting in unison. Their voices resonate off the drywall in the multipurpose room of the Aggie Fitness Center, but the carpet underfoot muffles the sound of stomping.

They started trickling in to the practice space about an hour ago, the members of the Alpha Phi Alpha step team at NC A&T University. The team is comprised of 12 individuals: Stepmaster Demar Rankin, Josh Green, Keith Carlton, Kentae Morris, Curtis Nash, Bobby Teachey, Tarik Webb, J White, Ian Wilson, Lawrence Wills, Connell Smallwood and Hercules Conway.

In the minutes just preceding the official start of practice, each member did his own thing. Morris meditated in the corner, sometimes lying back against blue gym mats rolled up in the corner. Rankin and White, two of several natural showmen on the team, slipped in and out of character, strutting and hamming it up. In the background, the other brothers talked animatedly and burst into laughter. Nash and Wilson, two of the newer members of the step team, practiced moves on the open floor.

“In the fraternity you have a bunch of different personalities, attitudes, you know, people from a lot of different backgrounds, raised differently,” Rankin, the fraternity advisor, says. “So, there’s gonna be conflicts, there gonna be things, but we’re still all a brotherhood. At the end of the day it’s still all good.”

The Alphas are, at the very least, a collection of very strong personalities. But for the occasion, they must syncopate, march, step and move in unison.

That occasion is Stompin’ on the Yard’s Super Stomp, a national competition of step teams from around the nation and if they win, the Alphas will bring home more than just a trophy. They will earn $10,000 toward any number of fraternity activities.

Last year the Alphas traveled to Gainesville, Fla. to compete in Super Stomp. They placed second. This year they’ve got their collective eye on the top prize.

Stepping originated on the campuses of historically black colleges ages ago, mostly as part of the thriving Greek scene. Since then, the activity has spread from colleges to high schools, middle schools and churches.

It’s about many things: respect, showmanship, pride and unity.

In the Alphas’ case, it is also a little about the men themselves. Some teams adopt the Ford model of stepping, molding and sanding each component into precision uniformity. Rankin and his Alphas are a more like the product of a mad inventor, a quirky contraption that – when it comes together – can almost defy the laws of nature.

This year feels like their year. The team from A&T is the only group of Alphas in the competition. It’s a big year for the brotherhood, the centennial of the fraternity’s founding on the campus of Cornell University.

Most historians of such things agree that Alpha Phi Alpha was the first Greek letter organization founded for and by black men. The fraternity boasts a hallowed list of brothers, including W.E.B. DuBois and Martin Luther King, Jr.

“We opened a lot of doors for other fraternities,” Wilson says.

And the Alphas of A&T are used to being first, historically and even in name, which for their brotherhood starts with the first letter of the Greek alphabet. The step team has won loads of district and regional competitions; they are in high demand on campuses around the state.

In short, folks know they put on a great show. But will it be good enough to win on Friday?

“So you want to see the precision of an Alpha man,” Wilson says.

Wilson crossed just last spring, against the wishes of his mother who wanted him to pledge Kappa or Omega. He stepped in the freshman show earlier this year, but this will be his first Super Stomp.

“This is called a blade,” he says, extending his left arm at a slight angle above his shoulder and holding the right crooked close to his body, completing the line. The asp is the next move, where he holds one hand pointed like the head of a snake ready to strike.

“The train is the signature Alpha move,” he says.

In that one, Wilson balls his fists and holds them just under the chin. Formation of the train is a whole body movement; it starts with a swivel in the hips and resolves with a shoulder roll.

Of course, the upper body movements are just one part of stepping. Each performance is a series of steps separated by skits. The steps themselves are a cross between marching, drill team and dancing.

Steppers use every surface of their body as percussion, and sometimes they pound the floor or their other team members. Wilson displays his hands. They are studded with white calluses.

“You can always tell a stepper by their hands,” he says.

The steps themselves are about rhythm and synchronicity. The skits in between are where the showmanship comes through, and the Alphas love a good sight gag.

Rankin, the step master and advisor, possesses one of those faces blessed with an incredible facility for expression. Like Jim Carrey, it seems to manifest those qualities best in the comedy skits where he bugs his eyes and furrows his brow in stage-ready exaggerations of emotion.

Rankin is a 30-year-old nutrition major earning his second degree from A&T in nutrition. He is married with three kids, two boys and a girl, and in addition to his schoolwork and responsibilities with the fraternity he manages the fitness center. He crossed when he was 24, the oldest member of his pledge line, inspired to join a fraternity by Spike Lee’s movie School Daze.

His duties as step master are many. The step team practices every night from about 9 p.m. until midnight or later.

“This is work,” Wilson says, “this is the work we do for the fraternity.”

Their season lasts from the beginning of August until April. The money the team earns goes toward several Alpha projects, chief among them the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington. Other projects include voter registration drives, work with Big Brothers, Big Sisters and the annual Black and Gold pageant.

The official fraternity colors are black and old gold, actually. Several of the brothers wear black and gold shoes in honor of the brotherhood.

One of them, Teachey, is also wearing an Army T-shirt, which suits the film crew from Stompin’ on the Yard just fine. The event is sponsored by the Army, and the film crew interviews Teachey about his experiences in Iraq, where he served in 2004-2005.

Later, off camera, when he’s asked about why he joined the Army Reserves, he responds candidly.

“You want the textbook answer or do you want my answer?” he says.

His answer is succinct.

“For the school money,” he says.

His service in the Reserves, which he is counting down until the end of his hitch in 2009, is allowing him to pursue a civil engineering degree at A&T. But in exchange for the school money, Teachey put his life on the line, serving a year of transportation duty in Iraq where he drove the big supply trucks so often targeted by insurgents. Later on, he clarifies why he’s wearing the Army shirt.

“This is only on by coincidence,” he says. “This is laundry week.”

Stepping isn’t as rigorous as marching, Teachey says, but emotions can run high when the team members mess up.

Rankin spikes his water bottle on the floor when he hears someone on the right flank out of step.

“I’m sorry but it’s ten thousand dollars,” he says. “This is get-tight day. It’s get hype day.”

Ranking clears the four steppers from the center and brings the two lines closer together. This time they get the steps, reform and run through the routine again.

Thursday night is the dress rehearsal. Scattered on the stack of mats are plastic-wrapped costumes from the Ritz. Tomorrow’s show will be loosely themed around the seventies, and each stepper has selected something appropriately gaudy.

Webb, a wiry fellow with close-cropped hair, has buried himself in purple and zebra felt. To top it off, he has selected a frosty, corkscrew afro.

Rankin is wearing a purple dashiki with an afro, and a couple of brothers have selected similar fringed leather vests. The outfits look fly, now the only question is whether the steppers can dance in them. Rankin wonders aloud whether there is any money in the Alpha budget for tighty whities. Wilson is pondering how women put up with such tight pants.

Practice can’t start until Green arrives, so the team members won’t sweat through their costumes. In the meantime, Rankin just got word that one of the Super Stomp organizers did not pick up a CD of the Alpha’s music left at the Coliseum for him earlier that day. One of the brothers has to leave to meet the organizer to make sure he gets the music tonight.

During the interim, the show is starting to take shape under the flickering fluorescents.

“Our theme is hot,” Rankin says. “Our steps are enthusiastic. From start to finish we hit the crowd really hard.”

Stepping, Rankin says, is about representing your fraternity to the best of your ability. It follows the Alpha creed to excel instead of being equal. But beyond the slogan that declares Alpha Phi Alpha devoted to “scholarship, manly deeds and the spirit of brotherhood,” it’s difficult to put your finger on what sets them apart from other fraternities.

“It’s hard to see without seeing [the fraternities] next to each other,” Wilson says.

Green, dressed in shades of yellow and green, is peering into a full-length mirror and preparing for his last step show.

“I’ve been stepping since high school,” he says. “I’m a senior now and I’m trying to focus on my life after school.”

The end for him will come sooner than the brothers expected. Alpha Phi Alpha is the first step team on the program. Seven others will follow them. In total, four fraternities and four sororities will be represented. Stage managers have alerted Alpha to be ready to go onstage by 8:15.

The Greensboro Coliseum is the Alphas’ home turf. They performed there just last year for homecoming and they always get the nice dressing room. Steppers dance, primp and put the finishing touches on their outfits. Rankin is trying to fit a faux-gold cap over one of his front teeth.

“These are stunner shades,” Green says. “They call them that because it’s what you wear when you’re trying to be extravagant.”

The female dancers, a trio on loan from the Blue Reign dance troupe, have a different assessment of Rankin, with his afro and violet dashiki.

“Demar, you look like you own a car wash,” says Kortni Yarborough.

“That’s right!” Rankin says, adopting the gravelly voice of his onstage character. “And when you come through, it’s all on me!”

It’s nearly time for the Alphas to perform, so Rankin gathers them in a circle for a prayer.

“Lord, you’ve got our hearts, our hands, our arms and our legs,” he says.

The circle disbands and the steppers return to their pre-show rituals. Green is massaging a sore leg, Rankin settles for a moment inside one of the wood-paneled lockers. Yarborough, Zalika Young and Camille Thelemaque adjust the padding on their asses for their brief cameo.

“Bruhs,” Teachey says. “This is October’s rent. This is my October rent. If we don’t win this, I’m staying at somebody’s house. So step for me.”

It’s 8:30 when Green turns down the television and the room gets quiet. Minutes later, the stage manager sweeps inside the door and tells them it will be a little while before the show starts.The false alarm gives Rankin one more opportunity to coach the step team.

“Listen everybody,” he says. “Everything should just flow. Let it slide.”

“If I lose my shoe, I’ll keep stepping,” Green says. “If I lose my foot, I’ll keep stepping. If I lose my glasses,” he points to his stunner shades, “I’m stopping.”

As 9 o’clock draws nearer, the steppers get up and in small groups coalesce into the step routine between the locker room benches. The sound of the crowd and the Aggie marching band comes over the television and through the walls.

The stage manager comes in again, and this time it’s for real, until, at the end of the long hallway leading to the Coliseum floor, she tells them to wait once more for performances by the MC’s and Army step team. The team collapses onto a couch backstage.

Onstage, the US Army step team is preparing for its performance. Their outfits look like those designed for the staff at a horror movie fast food chain: black short-sleeve button-downs with yellow piping, matching hats and combat boots.

They’re all business – with fireworks – put through their paces by a pockmarked drill sergeant. Offstage, the very un-uniformed Alphas assemble in their crazy quilt of wigs and seventies threads.

In the staging area, the announcers’ voices are as incoherent as the teacher in Charlie Brown. Soon after the Army team finishes, the Alphas fly up the steps to the stage.

Musical tidbits from Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall” grease the transitions between skits and steps. As a collection of parts, the team becomes a living, breathing Optimus Prime, locking into a precision routine one minute, then relaxing into smooth operators the next.

BOOM. Boom. Boom. Boom. BOOM. Unlike the Army team, the Alphas aren’t wearing any special gear on their feet, just the vintage seventies kicks completing their get-ups. They are shaking the stage with the power of twelve muscular legs, swung from their hips like sledge hammers. SHHHhhh. Slap. Slap. slap. slap. The team brings it down to a softshoe.

The rows pirouette into a line that breaks and swings into a cross. Then, a musical break, and the women flounce onto the stage near the end of the routine to knock down some of the brothers with their enormous falsie asses.

Jackson’s “Working Day and Night” serenades the team off the stage as they pratfall into each other’s arms and down the stairs. They mug for the cameras then turn toward the dressing room.

“I think we did good but not great,” Carlton says.

He hangs backstage to watch his girlfriend, a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority step team. They’re performing after Alpha Phi Alpha, and the couple has a little step rivalry riding on the outcome.

“To be first you have to set the whole tone of the show,” he says.

The other teams belie this assessment, to some degree. The sorority appears onstage in matching polka dot outfits, their hair identically curled. It’s the beginning of a trend; all the other teams wear matching costumes. Alpha Kappa Alpha adopt a Barbie theme for their step show.

Up next, the men of Kappa Alpha Psi assemble in white tuxes over black collar shirts. During their James Bond routine they reference other action films such as The Matrix, falling back on each other to recreate the famous scene where Keanu Reeves dodges slow motion bullets. Armed with canes, they rattle the stage – rattatatatattattat – then fire the props at each other.

Before the Deltas, the men of Omega Psi Phi from Michigan and dressed in purple and gold, perform after an intermission show by rapper Rick Ross. The Omegas cap their show with a reenactment of the flag raising at Iwo Jima, pyramiding like cheerleaders to achieve the effect.

Delta Sigma Theta, a sorority from Winston-Salem State University, is up after the Omegas. They’ve donned horizontally striped T-shirts with hoop earrings. Like the two Alpha teams before them, they receive a measure of hometown love from the crowd assembled at the Coliseum.

The crowd, by the way, is hyped to be here. During the breaks between step teams, every break, the floor erupts into a dance party. An ad hoc step team dressed in yellow shirts occupies a section of seats opposite the press area backstage. Whenever the music comes up, they start stepping.

The dance party preceding the Phi Beta Sigmas of Jersey (they bring a cheering section that proudly proclaims their home state) lasts several minutes while stagehands tote a prop tent, chairs and newspapers onto the stage. Intrigue turns to bold curiousity by the time the team opens their performance with a disturbing clip from the movie Fear.com. The step team assembles onstage wearing Hannibal Lecter-style facemasks and straight jackets and breaks out some marvelous footwork. The routine is at once exhilarating and disturbing; the Alphas have some tough competition after all.

It isn’t the end of the competition either. The Zeta Phi Beta team follows the Phi Beta Sigmas with an introduction by their own marching band. The team, accompanied by slides devoted to each of the traditionally black Greek organizations, borrows bits from all the previous routines to concoct their own. One of the members of the Army step Team is overheard saying the following: “Man, those girls can really tear it up!”

As the Zetas exit – again to the strains of their house band – the organizers start assembling a table covered with Stompies, the golden boot statuettes that will go to the top three sorority and fraternity finishers.

But first the sisters of Sigma Gamma Rho perform dressed in superhero spandex. Unfortunately, some team members’ knee-high boots fold over during the step sections of their performance.

After midnight, the table of Stompies is carted onstage and the competing sororities gather around it. Alpha Kappa Alpha takes third and the Sigmas second. The team from Winston-Salem State walks out empty-handed as the flashy Zetas make off with the largest Stompy and a giant check for ten grand.

Backstage Rankin and Keith Carlton are talking to the members of Phi Beta Sigma and congratulating them on a good performance. Then the ladies exit the stage and the fraternities gather onstage.

To their chagrin, the Alphas place second again this year, bested by the horror show Sigma brothers.

But as they’re leaving the stage, Rankin hoists the trophy and offers a game smile.

“Well, I guess second place isn’t so bad after all,” he says.

The statement reveals a measure of humility and good sportsmanship that is part of what makes an Alpha man. The other characteristics of their brotherhood have become clearer by watching them perform. Alphas are fun, confident, smart, dedicated, loath to take themselves too seriously, maybe a bit eccentric and exceedingly tolerant of each other’s foibles.

Although aspiring engineers are overrepresented in their ranks, the Alpha step machine has an entirely organic feel. The way they function is less like Swiss clockwork and more about serendipity, like a microcosmic universe where all the right elements fall into orbit. And, somehow, they always do. It’s the nature of the brotherhood, Wilson says.

“Sometimes when a certain character has moved out of the chapter, somebody else always comes in to take their place,” Wilson says. “When one piece is missing, someone always comes. Everybody here has their own niche.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com.

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