At the turn of the 20th century, the first of the “Divine Nine” African-American college fraternities and sororities was established to cultivate leadership and academic excellence. From alumni including the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and Michael Jordan came a legacy of notable feats in politics, civil rights and athletics.

A step team performs at Western Kentucky University. (Courtesy of Alyssa Orr)

These organizations still have an enduring presence on college campuses. Among the most visible elements of today’s black fraternities and sororities today is a dance form known as stepping.

“It’s the thing that people recognize a lot about us,” said Lawrence Ross, author of The Divine Nine: The History of African American Fraternities and Sororities. “It’s the cream on top of who and what we are.”

Stepping combines synchronized movements with verbal play. Initially it drew on slave and tribal dance traditions. But new decades brought new styles. After World War II, black veterans introduced military drill moves. Later Motown and breakdancing became part of step routines.

“It first developed out of a pledge ritual,” said Elizabeth Fine, author of Soulstepping: African American Step Shows. “[New members] had to demonstrate their unity and loyalty to the fraternity or sorority by wearing the same thing and marching out on campus.”

An artistic rendition of step movements (Courtesy of Dalyn Montgomery)

While accounts of stepping date to the 1920s, the art form spread beyond black fraternity and sorority culture in the 1960s when black students enrolled in historically white schools. In the 1980s it exploded into mainstream America, appearing in Hollywood films and the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Summer Olympics.

Today, stepping has entered the worldwide consciousness. Step shows are performed from South Korea to South Africa. During a recent Paris fashion show, models performed a step routine down the runway.

Stepping links black fraternities and sororities to their original identity and opens doors for members to do youth mentorship and community service, the ideals that most define the Divine Nine.

“Members organize step shows to raise money for scholarships or other good causes,” Fine said. “It’s used to uplift the surrounding community, which is a major tenet of African-American fraternities and sororities.”