Learn to Dance, Learn to Teach, or Learn to Compete Back
Sept 24, 2014
By Tracey Bivens
Not exactly my favorite time of the year folks when it comes to steppin. Back in 1997, I started attending the WLSC without fail. I would get my flat shoes, my shoebox of snacks and I would take my No-Doze and sit in my seat for 5-6 hours and watch the granddaddy of all steppin contests in Chicago. I saw the best of the best because not just anybody could get on that raised stage downtown at the McCormick Place. You definitely had to bring it and represent. Now granted …the majority of out of town steppers that attend the Worlds Largest have not seen the best of the best steppers who live in Chicago. You have to go to Mr. G’s, the 50 Year Line and the other local steppin spots to see them but there was a nice representation of those steppers on the stage back in the day. The last one I attended was back in 2003. But I did follow the event year after year. It was kind of hard not to.
Fast forward to 2014 where all you need is a pen and piece of paper to enter and qualify for the WLSC. "Wow!” moves are the norms in routines, out of towners travel to Chicago by the hundreds to witness the contests and people still complain about the same old stuff…year after year. The Worlds Largest is definitely the Energizer Bunny of steppin contests. However, I don’t want to just focus on the contest in this commentary. I want to focus on the teachers and the perspective contestants as it relates to ANY steppin contest.
I used to see humility and respect for this dance by many who wanted to learn it. It took a long time for Chicago steppers to give Detroit steppers their props in expressing THEIR dance…and it’s still not with 100% admiration to this day. However, Chicago steppers never said in order to be a great stepper you have to win a WLSC…many out of towners from all over developed that mentality because that was the only way they felt they could get the respect of the Chicago steppers as a whole and it was and STIL is believed that winning contests will do just that. Today, I see people learning to step and being prodded into competing as beginner students and I see people who believe they are more than what they are in this dance. For example, if the average steppin man was walking down the street, they would be Joe Blow to the rest of the world but on the steppin scene, they could be "The Man” because of contest wins. How do you fall in love with this dance when you are pressured as a student to compete and pressured as a veteran stepper to establish your credibility through contest wins? Oh yeah…I have some very strong opinions about this.
I have a very dear friend that I debate with constantly about the subject of steppin contests because we both love this dance. I always take issue with students who go to classes and are made to think that in order to be validated as a good stepper…that they have to be in the Worlds Largest. My friend believes that people should be in contests and that it doesn’t hurt anything or anybody to be in it. Okay…if that’s your thing…so be it. But I shouldn’t go to a class and have my instructor tell me, "I’m the instructor that producers dance champions in contests so that means I’m producing a good product.” That statement couldn’t be any farther from the truth. The important lessons in steppin should be in understanding the culture of the dance, the science of it, seeing the dance in its original setting (Chicago) and striving to bring your personal creativity and expression to it. How dare somebody put pressure on me to do anything but that!
When promoters look at Pete Frazier and the Majestic Gents and they see 1500 people in a venue that have paid $25-$40 to get in there…they imagine that Pete is taking home a million dollars every year from that contest so promoters all over the country are now spearheading steppin dance contests. No…there’s nothing wrong with having an entrepreneurial spirit…this is America. What I have a problem with is people being exploited and feeling that they are not worthy steppers if they do not obtain a contest win. Sure…I could dismiss it as insecurity within some competitors who have a deep desire to be relevant outside of a world where most people work a nine to five job five days a week. But in the end…I want people to fall in love with a dance that makes them feel validated when they are at the club dancing in four minute intervals having a good time with their partner on the dance floor. There’s nothing like that feeling when you and your partner have that connection on the dance floor.
Therefore, my "ice bucket” challenge to people who go to classes are to first of all ask yourself, "What is MY objective for learning this dance?” "What roadmap must I take to reach those goals in MY objective?” and "Will I be satisfied with MY personal best after 1 put forth my BEST effort?” Notice I said "best effort”…not "I’m just doing this dance just to be doing it and I don’t care if I’m jackin up the basic step or not.” That’s the REAL contest.
There are students who become teachers to make money. There are teachers who compete to win money. There are students who compete to win money for themselves and money for their teachers (via new students paying money to take their classes). Has steppin turned completely in the direction of being a money making enterprise? I don’t hear people talk about steppin the way "Tyk Myn” used to when he talked about how Charnice Simmons used to work with him to help him develop his dance and how appreciative he was because of her time and efforts. That’s passion for the dance. I don’t see many people like Edward Donaldson dripping with sweat answering a question or two about a steppin move and then demonstrating it until that person gets it at a set. That’s passion for the dance. I remember that when I first met Danielle Wordlaw…I couldn’t help staring at her because I had developed so much respect for her reputation in the dance that it was a surreal experience for me. You get my point? Some of the newer steppers who have come around in the last 2-8 years seem to be very arrogant, feel they are accomplished with minimal instruction and have no interest in respecting their predecessors in this dance. As Jeffrey Osborne would sing, "Where did we go wrong?”
I hope that people who have mixed feelings about continuing to embrace this dance go back to the moment and time when they first saw it. Maybe they can ignite that spark again after putting this commentary into perspective.
Until next time, riddle me this. I see plenty of pumping but no passion in the dance. Where did the foreplay go?