Remo System Inc. DBA Art of Stepping: Our Interpretation of the History of Traditional Stepping

Stepping, a dance tradition made popular by African-American fraternities and sororities, is a complex performance. The dance art form of stepping – one that was historically used as a form of communication – uses the body as an instrument to produce rhythms and sounds through hand claps, spoken word and footsteps. It can be performed as an individual, but it is mostly known as a group effort fostering the importance of working as a team. It can be traced to the peoples and cultural dance traditions of Africa, specifically, the “Gumboot Dance”.

The history of Gumboot dancing is Proudly South African: Born in the gold mines of South Africa, which opened in the 1880s. It was a way to survive the isolation workers felt under the weight of the migrant labor system and the oppressive laws. Working in the mines was long, hard, and repetitive toil while talking was forbidden. White foremen beat and kicked black workers. Hundreds of workers were (and continued to be) killed every year in accidents. The floors of the mines often flooded due to poor or non-existent drainage. Hours of standing in the fetid water caused skin problems and ulcers which resulted in lost time. The white bosses, rather than spend the money needed to properly drain the shafts, issued rubber gumboots to the workers. “Thus the `miners’ uniform’ was born”, the Rishile Dancers explain. “Heavy black Wellington boots to protect the feet … jeans [or overalls], bare chests [temperatures underground can reach above 40° C], and bandannas to absorb eye-stinging sweat [and hard hats].”

In the dank, dark shafts, workers learned to send messages to each other by slapping on their boots.

Back on the surface and in their overcrowded living quarters, the bosses refused to allow the workers to wear their traditional dress while they were not working. The bosses made all workers of the same ethnic or tribal background live together, in order to perpetuate divisions between different groups of African workers. Faced with this repressive regime, workers adapted traditional dances and rhythms to the only instruments available — their boots and bodies. The songs that were sung to go with the frenetic movements dealt with working-class life — drinking, love, family, low wages and mean bosses. Some “enlightened” employers eventually allowed the best dancers to form troupes to represent the company, to entertain visitors and for PR. It was not unusual for these performers’ songs to openly mock their bosses and criticize wages and conditions, while the bosses were blissfully ignorant of the content, sung in Xhosa, Sothu or Zulu.

The gumboot dance is an South African dance that is performed by dancers wearing wellington boots. In South Africa these are more commonly called gumboots.

With a focus on precise foot movements and hand-clapping, gumboots used dance as a means to communicate. Stepping in the U.S. can be traced as far back as the 1920’s during fraternity pledges at Howard University. As stepping evolved into the 1940’s and 50’s, various elements of military drill formations became prevalent; partially due to the fact that many military men joined fraternities upon returning from WW II. As a result of this evolution, step shows became the format of choice to display pride in ones group.

World of Step & it’s influences….

In the World of Step, our goal was to celebrate all avenues of step that are included in various dances, cultures and rituals outside of the traditional form of step that it is known. In our research we have learned of some notable dances/events/components that have a connection to step which we have listed below:

1452-  This is the year, Leonardo DaVinci was born. This is the artist that created the painting The Vitruvian Man, a drawing based on the correlations of ideal human body proportions with geometry described by the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius in Book III of his treatise De architectura. Vitruvius described the human figure as being the principal source of proportion among the classical orders of architecture. The painting is the reference point of how Art of Stepping began to create the Remo System, which is a copyrighted language to art form of step that uses basic grammar and mathematics to  documents the body movement.

1400’s – Taino Dance & Rituals – The Taíno were an indigenous people of the Caribbean. At the time of European contact in the late fifteenth century, they were the principal inhabitants of most of Cuba, Hispaniola (the Dominican Republic and Haiti), Jamaica, Puerto Rico, The Bahamas and the northern Lesser Antilles. The Taíno were the first New World peoples to be encountered by Christopher Columbus during his 1492 voyage. The areíto or areyto was a Taíno language word adopted by the Spanish colonizers to describe a type of religious song and dance performed by the Taíno people of the Caribbean. The areíto was a ceremonial act that was believed to narrate and honor the heroic deeds of Taíno ancestors, chiefs, gods, and cemis. Areítos involved lyrics, stomping, hand movements and choreography and were often accompanied by varied instrumentation. They were performed in the central plazas of the villages and were attended by the local community members as well as members of neighboring communities. You can see elements that of step inside with movements of synchronization and story telling.

1739 – Drum Folk – The Stono Rebellion (sometimes called Cato’s Conspiracy or Cato’s Rebellion) was a slave rebellion that began on 9 September 1739, in the colony of South Carolina. It was the largest slave uprising in the British mainland colonies, with 25 colonists and 35 to 50 Africans killed. The uprising was led by native Africans who were likely from the Central African Kingdom of Kongo, as some of the rebels spoke Portuguese. Their leader, Jemmy, was a literate slave. In some reports, however, he is referred to as “Cato”, and likely was held by the Cato, or Cater, family who lived near the Ashley River and north of the Stono River. He led 20 other enslaved Kongolese, who may have been former soldiers, in an armed march south from the Stono River (for which the rebellion is named). They were bound for Spanish Florida.  This was due to a Spanish effort to destabilize British rule, where the Spanish had promised freedom and land at St. Augustine to slaves who escaped from the British colonies. Jemmy and his group recruited nearly 60 other slaves and killed more than 20 whites before being intercepted and defeated by the South Carolina militia near the Edisto River. A group of slaves escaped and traveled another 30 miles (50 km) before battling a week later with the militia. Most of the captured slaves were executed; the surviving few were sold to markets in the West Indies. In response to the rebellion, the South Carolina legislature passed the Negro Act of 1740, which restricted slave assembly, education, and movement. It also enacted a 10-year moratorium against importing African slaves, because they were considered more rebellious, and established penalties against slaveholders’ harsh treatment of slaves. It required legislative approval for each act of manumission, which slaveholders had previously been able to arrange privately. This sharply reduced the rate of manumissions in the state. When Africans lost the right to use their drums, the beats found their way into the body of the people — the Drumfolk. New percussive art forms took root and made way for tap, beatboxing and the African American tradition of stepping.

1869 –  Ghost Dance – The first Ghost Dance developed in 1869 around the dreamer Wodziwob (d. c. 1872) and in 1871–73 spread to California and Oregon tribes; it soon died out or was transformed into other cults. The second derived from Wovoka (c. 1856–1932), whose father, Tavibo, had assisted Wodziwob.  Dance Ghost consist of chants marching, stomp, dancing in a circular pattern continuously, a spiritual dance that came about when conditions were bad on Indian reservations and Native Americans needed something to give them hope.

1880’s- Gumboot –  In Soweto, South Africa, the First Gold Mines was opened and staffed with African Slaves. These slaves had very bad working conditions and were not able to communicate with each other. They figured out a way to send messages to each other through simple hand claps and pats on their Wellington Boots that was provided to them. This is where Gumboot dancing was originated.

1888 – Haka Dance –  is a ceremonial dance or challenge in Māori culture which originated from Eastern Polynesian where customs, cultural practices, and beliefs of the indigenous Māori people of New Zealand. It is a posture dance performed by a group, with vigorous movements and stomping of the feet, definition of hand movements with rhythmically shouted accompaniment. Although commonly associated with the traditional battle preparations of male warriors, haka have long been performed by both men and women, and several varieties of the dance fulfill social functions and are becoming very common in schools.

1900’s  – Juba Dance – The Juba dance or hambone, originally known as Pattin’ Juba (Giouba, Haiti: Djouba), is an African American style of dance that involves stomping as well as slapping and patting the arms, legs, chest, and cheeks (clapping). “Pattin’ Juba” would be used to keep time for other dances during a walkaround. A Juba Dance performance could include: counter-clockwise turning, often with one leg raised, stomping and slapping and steps such as “the Jubal Jew,” “Yaller Cat,” “Pigeon Wing” and “Blow That Candle Out.” The dance traditionally ends with a step called “the Long Dog Scratch”. Modern variations on the dance include Bo Diddley’s “Bo Diddley Beat” and the step-shows of African American Greek organizations. The Juba dance was originally brought by Kongo slaves to Charleston, South Carolina. It became an African-American plantation dance that was performed by slaves during their gatherings when no rhythm instruments were allowed due to fear of secret codes hidden in the drumming. The sounds were also used just as Yoruba and Haitian talking drums were used to communicate. The dance was performed in Dutch Guiana, the Caribbean, and the southern United States. Later in the mid-19th century, music and lyrics were added, and there were public performances of the dance. Its popularization may have indirectly influenced the development of modern tap dance. The most famous Juba dancer was William Henry Lane, or Master Juba, one of the first black performers in the United States. It was often danced in minstrel shows, and is mentioned in songs such as “Christy’s New Song” and “Juba”, the latter by Nathaniel Dett. Hambone was famously adopted and adapted in the 1950s by the legendary Rhythm & Blues singer Bo Diddley, in creating the distinctive “Bo Diddley beat”, which was copied by a host of top rock singers.

1920- On Howard University Campus Phi Beta Sigma was the first African American Fraternity to step. Stepping was still rooted in it’s original state of Gumboot Dance and very fluid.

1940’s- 1950’s- Stepping began to become much more militant and organized. Many African American Men returned from World War II and added the traditions that they learned in the war into how they performed Step. This is the era where Gumboot Dance started to transform into the Americanized form of stepping.

1989 – Step by Step – The 1st professional step company was founded by Vernon Jackson aka Doc Genesis and Jimmy Hamilton aka Step Master J inside their college dorm room. Once this came to fruition their credits included: House Party 2, NAACP Awards, Coca Cola Commercial, Fresh Price of Bel-Air and STOMP, the 1st ever step show aired on television.

1994 Step Afrika! was founded in 1994 by C.Brian Williams as the first professional company dedicated to the tradition of stepping. It now ranks as one of the top ten African American dance companies in the United States.  The Company blends percussive dance styles practiced by historically African American fraternities and sororities, African traditional dance and influences from a variety of other dance and art forms. Performances are much more than dance shows; they integrate songs, storytelling, humor, and audience participation. The blend of technique, agility, and pure energy makes each performance unique and leaves the audience with their hearts pounding. Step Afrika! promotes stepping as an educational tool for young people, focusing on teamwork, academic achievement and cross-cultural understanding. It reaches tens of thousands of Americans each year through a 50-city tour of colleges and theatres and performs globally as a cultural ambassador. Step Afrika! holds workshops, residency programs and a variety of arts education activities for K-12 and college students in its home of Washington, DC and in cities around the world.

1999 –   Art of Stepping was trademarked/copyrighted by Jessica ‘REMO’ Saul creating the core fundamentals to the art form called: REMO SYSTEM. The system was built on the understanding that every beat and movement that creates a sound can be documented to ensure accuracy and precision. If you look closely at our trademarked logo, you might see some resemblance to a piece of artwork. Like “The Vitruvian Man” drawing, the AOS logo and program bring together the ideas of Human Anatomy, Mathematics, Technology and the Arts in ONE distinct image & learning program.  AOS programs assign counts, movements and beats to all twenty-six (26) letters of the English Alphabet. The AOS logo and our approach has allowed AOS to give Stepping/Dance choreography its FIRST EVER written & verbal language via mathematical connotation which we call aosCHAT. Presently, choreography throughout the entire industry has only been learned by visual presentation. We now supplement this visual art with the ability to learn through our aosCHAT!

2007 – Sole Stepping: African American Step Shows  by Elizabeth C. Fine. Stepping is a complex performance that melds folk traditions with popular culture and involves synchronized percussive movement, singing, speaking, chanting, and drama. Elizabeth C. Fine’s stunningly elaborate and vibrant portrayal of the cultural politics of stepping draws on interviews with individuals on college campuses and steppers and stepping coaches from high schools, community groups, churches, and dance organizations. Soulstepping is the first book to document the history of stepping, its roots in African and African American culture, and its transformation by churches, schools, and social groups into a powerful tool for instilling group identity and community involvement.

2018 – Launch of the 1st Stepping Mobile App Game: The Art of Stepping available on Itunes and Play Store

2020 – WOS Virtual Competition launched as the 1st ever international step competition and convention week dedicated to step. Teams competed from Thailand, Venezuela, West Africa, Thailand and the United States.