Dating back to the mid-1900s, step dancing — or stepping — and strolling have become an integral part of Black fraternities and sororities across the United States. This is no exception in the Iota Beta chapter of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc., the members of which see the unique art form as a way to bond and assert their identity within their community.
Stepping is a highly-energetic form of dance that uses the body as an instrument to produce percussive, syncopated beats through chanting, stomping and clapping. Members similarly partake in the practice of strolling, in which individuals line up one after another and move forward in the same dance motion. Strolling distinguishes itself from stepping by focusing more on the visual representation of the unifying bond that ties members together.
According to Ian Yeaton, stroll master of Iota Beta and fourth-year College student, these two forms of artistic expression serve as an outward assertion of the Alphas’ identity, pride and presence on Grounds.
“I think it's just one of the purest forms of self expression and joy in what we do and who we are,” Yeaton said.
While Yeaton said he was initially drawn to the organization due to its commitment to community service, one of the Alphas’ many values, stepping and strolling quickly became ways for him to relieve stress and connect with his brothers.
“When I first crossed into the fraternity, I was a terrible stroller,” Yeaton said. “Really, really bad. You can ask pretty much anybody. But I remember because I was so happy to be in the organization, I would do it anyways. I'd be right there with all of my other brothers.”
Yeaton has since grown into one of the organization’s most well-versed strollers, taking on the role of stroll master this past spring. His responsibilities as stroll master include choreographing strolls, facilitating rehearsals and fostering an encouraging environment for members who decide to take up the art.
“Strolling to me is pure joy, " Yeaton said. “I really enjoy making strolls. I find a lot of fun in it, and it’s a positive way to express myself.”
An interesting aspect of strolling and stepping is that across the nation, each fraternity and sorority have their own signature moves that members of Black greek-letter organizations can immediately identify. According to Isaac Henderson, step master of Iota Beta and fourth-year Education student, the Alphas incorporate movements in their performances intended to resemble that of an ape or cobra by bending their arms and knees into different poses that mimic the animals.
In recent semesters, the Alphas have worked to expand their repertoire and bring back moves from the past, such as the “ape walk,” a move originating in the Alpha south. Yeaton encourages strollers to add their own flair.
Henderson also conveyed the importance of individuality in the practice and making each move your own.
“It’s cool to embrace new ways of stepping and put my own creative spin on it when I'm making steps,” Henderson said.
While the dance is significant in performance settings, Henderson said the Alphas find themselves stepping and strolling at social gatherings as well.
“When a stroll song comes on, people move out of the way and make space for the Alphas to stroll,” Henderson said.
Songs can vary anywhere from mainstream rap music to simple beats that carry a strong rhythm. According to Phillip Bonsu, second-year College student and member of Iota Beta, the practice also serves as a great bonding tool for brothers within the chapter, bringing them closer together.
“When you're hanging around your brothers so much, and you understand how everyone moves and how everyone thinks, you're able to [switch moves] literally instantly,” Bonsu said. “Everyone kind of feels each other out.”
The Iota beta chapter will be hosting their first ever Stroll Like An Alpha competition Dec. 2 in McLeod Hall, the details of which will be posted on the organization’s Instagram page.
Stroll Like An Alpha was first introduced by the fraternity in the early 2000s and gives women interested in the practice the opportunity to — as the title intuitively suggests — stroll like an Alpha.
This contest will have three teams of women who compete for the winning title, all led by Alpha coaches. Each group has their own surprise theme and are given approximately ten minutes to impress the audience with their moves. Iota Beta hopes to make this an annual event, attracting greater volumes of interested participants in years to come.
“It will be a unique experience that I think anybody at U.Va should come to,” Yeaton said.
Expression comes in many different forms, and for the Alphas at the University stepping and strolling is the perfect way to celebrate their culture and make themselves visible to our greater community.