A Step Apart
Community Drum Line and Step Group Makes Itself Heard
It's near dusk on a Wednesday night in May, and the Parkview Recreation Center in West Baltimore is already aflutter with pompoms, whipped 'round like sparkly blue and gold wigs snatched from the heads of a hundred disco divas. The gym is slowly filling up with members of the Edmondson Village Steppers, a community drum line and step-dancing troupe; a few dozen African-American women and girls and men and boys, ranging from just out of preschool on up to near middle age, cluster into groups of three, four, five, or more under green letters spelling out Eleanor Roosevelt's evergreen maxim--"No one can make you feel inferior without your consent." In the back right corner, portraits of famous African-American strivers, from Mary McLeod Bethune to Jesse Owens, look on in impassively sketched pastels straight out of history textbooks.
The Edmondson Village Steppers begin running through their routines, shaking butts and stomping the gym floor, some a little more vigorously than others. Their excited shouts of "5-6-7-8!" bounce off the yellow and lime-green walls, blending with the endless rustle of the poms, and before you know it the atmosphere approaches full-on cacophony. Then a shrill whistle slices through the hubbub--someone's got a mismatched set of poms. As this minor crisis is attended to, an older woman weaves a broom between the Steppers, vainly attempting to sweep away the sea of loose pom strands slowly covering the floor.
Tonight, the second of the troupe's two weekly practice sessions, is getting into gear a little more slowly than usual; there's been a delay with the drums, held up in transit on their way to the rec center. (One little boy has managed to find a teeny snare drum, however, and attempts to make up for the missing percussionists with all his muscles can muster.) Finally, the drummers arrive, with bass drums wide enough to drive a tricycle through and severe harnesses that look from a distance like they were hammered out of iron. As the drummers strap into their harnesses, slip into their protective padding, and assume the formation, mallets begin pounding, immediately cranking the room's volume level up several notches. The steppers assemble ahead of the drummers, drum major Ernest Scott guiding them through a few practice rum-pa-pum-pums while making sure the bodies are evenly spaced, and they're off.
If the Steppers looked like cliques of friends having a laugh at the start of practice, the arrival of the percussionists has snapped the dancers to full attention. The drums have begun their thunderously loud call-and-response--in full swing, the sound blots out all conversation in the small space--with a front-line cadre of snare drummers trading clockwork licks with the almost melodic multitenor drums in the middle and a back studded with those fearsome bass drums.
The dancers move not with the blandly drilled precision you get from a military marching band, or even your standard big university band out on the gridiron, but with a certain sass. Drum-line stepping is about getting loose while making sure to never break formation, about a tightly choreographed routine where dancers get to put their own funky stamp on things provided they keep in step. The Steppers' routine is synthesized from sources as disparate as cheerleader chants tossed back and forth between dancers and drummers, gospel church hand-clapping and foot-stomping, the high kicks and thrown elbows of 1950s and '60s rock and soul dance crazes, and even a little break dancing, at one point dropping to the floor all at once, in an unexpected twist on the worm.
The Edmondson Village Steppers are just one of a number of Baltimore community drum lines, and tonight, even in street clothes and still working out the routine's kinks, their gleeful energy bubbles over as we sit on the cusp of the hot and steamy season of parades and outdoor festivals where the Steppers ply their trade--at least when not traveling cross-country to battle other teams for nationwide step supremacy.
Hollywood has spent the last decade transforming step dancing and drum lines into flashy pop fictions for audiences that have often had little contact with the world of African-American fraternities and sororities where stepping had incubated. But anyone who's ever crowded into an arena for a full-scale stepping spectacular like the nationwide "Super Stomp" tour knows that these days the real thing can often be as glitzy as Nick Cannon and pals executing Matrix-style flips under zigzagging laser light shows. (A "Super Stomp" stop last year in Philadelphia featured Stormtrooper steppers in a full-on Star Wars homage and another routine capped by a replica helicopter that descended from the rafters.) The biggest (or most well-endowed) college step teams can come off like an athletic club under the direction of Industrial Light and Magic. Steppers have even performed for at least one sitting president (the relatively funky William Jefferson Clinton).
Still, big-budget popcorn flicks and fraternities' special-effects budgets aside, stepping began as a community-oriented activity, something that grew out of block parties and playgrounds, and there's no spectacle except flying feet and hands with the Edmondson Village Steppers. It's a homegrown group with a very specific mission: providing a safe, familial space for young Baltimoreans, direction for those who might lack guidance at school or at home, and a creative outlet that's an alternative to corner mischief (or worse)--civic improvement set to body-rocking rhythms that might rumble you right off your bleacher.
The group formed in 1993 under the direction of several women from the Edmondson Village area who wanted an activity where their own children and grandchildren would be out of harm's way, says Erika Brown, the Steppers' president, and who found the city's recreation department lacking such a program. Brown says they have between 60 and 70 members at the moment. The Steppers march year-round, a schedule focused on parades and step-dancing competitions, both in and outside Baltimore, coordinated through their web site. In January, they traveled to Florida; in June, they'll be heading to North Carolina.
Despite a few early, routed attempts to secure funding from the city, the Steppers are entirely self-financed, paying for equipment, uniforms, and travel costs for five or six dozen Steppers with fundraising drives. Everyone pitches in to keep the Steppers going, and the most repeated description of the group among members and organizers alike is perhaps unsurprisingly that it's "like a family." Some members have been dancing or drumming with the group for more than a decade, Brown says, and neighborhood divisions and rivalries quickly fall away once new members find themselves part of a hard-working, cooperative unit. "It helps me to relieve my stress," says Tyesha Tucker, a sprightly 19-year-old Stepper with perma-smile capped by a prominent Monroe piercing. "When you've got stuff going on outside [the group] and then you come here, it just all goes away."
"When [members] can't find a family at home or on the streets because of all the obstacles they're facing, they can be a family here," says Scott, 29. "They can let go, relax, release, and have a bunch of fun. Positive fun. But we're still competitive."
It's Scott who speaks most passionately at the Wednesday night practice session about the constructive aspects of the Steppers. "We're a democratic band," he says. "This band has a voice, and it's not just the one, two, three, or four people who're in charge. It's everybody." And while as a musician the drum major is invested himself in making sure his troupe is tight--during the run-through of the evening's routine, he comes off as a take-no-mess kind of director, a firm hand making sure each balletic flip of a drumstick is executed in unison--he claims the more crucial part of the Edmondson Village Steppers project is still sending its members away from practices and performances with a change in attitude, the organizers acting not only as bandleaders but also as life coaches. "Let's be honest, in this area, some of these kids are not being taught by big momma or whoever you had in the past who'd teach you. [Members] take this home, and sometimes we're the only voices they hear, as far as being positive."
While quick to stress the importance of performing for appreciative hometown crowds, members of the Steppers say the opportunity to travel to places outside of the Beltway is possibly the most exciting part of performing with the group. A 2007 trip to a competition in Minnesota is a frequently cited high point in recent Edmondson Village Steppers history; the drum line took first place despite the snare-drum section being whittled down to a lone percussionist. "I'm fortunate enough that I've been able to travel and see a lot of places outside of the city," Scott says. "These kids haven't. Just a couple months ago we went to Florida--a lot of them hadn't been to Florida. We try to set up sightseeing trips and things outside of just competing, things they'll remember. We might not be able to get them Disney World, but we'll try our best to get them as close as possible."
Listening to Scott's earnest, surrogate guidance counselor intentions for his charges, it might be easy to think of the Edmondson Village Steppers as merely a valuable after-school program for at-risk kids that happens to make good use of music and dance. But he also describes himself as an "entertainer," and the group's entertainment instincts are why you'd do well to hit up a local parade or outdoor festival as the Edmondson Village Steppers stomp through the summer. Find yourself swept up in their polyrhythmic wake and suddenly self-improvement starts to feel like an excellent bonus on top of a killer groove.
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