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Virginia Beach Steppers

By Malcolm Venable, The Virginian-Pilot, © October 31, 2008

Ordinarily, when R&B music plays in nightclubs, the typical response to the music is to groove, shimmy or whatnot more or less by one's self. There is no prescribed movement to follow; with the exception of the time-honored "Electric Slide" or its new-school cousin "The Cupid Shuffle," people tend to just go out there and wing it. Drinks help.

A new movement, as it were, has emerged in recent years, one that satisfies adult sophisticates looking for something more purposeful than freestyling, less boorish than the old bump and grind. It's called steppin' - a cultural export of Chicago .

While some say steppin' has been around since the 1930s, it reached the height of its cultural recognition when celebrated in R. Kelly's hit song and video "Step in the Name of Love" five years ago. It's a phenomenon across the country, and steppin' is gaining popularity here in Tidewater.

"It's just smooth and sexy," said Kimberly White, a 42-year-old who was rehearsing the dance at a class on Langley Air Force Base in Hampton . "It's adult. The waltz is stiff, more high brow. Whereas steppin' is, like, pimpin.' It's like you're in a hole-in-the-wall club at 2 in the morning, a guy has a glass in one hand and his hat tilted to the side. That's how you do it."

Pimpin' - of course - in White's reference has nothing to do with prostitution, but the smooth, laid-back, "player" vibe. Steppers are the fancy-footed opposite of hip-hop's breakdancing b-boys; looking suave is almost as important as the steps.

As Debra Hunt, another stepper who was taking the class at Langley put it, "This is the grown-and-sexy dance."

One rainy night a few weeks ago, two couples were practicing their steppin' at A Time to Dance, a small studio tucked off Virginia Beach Boulevard near Newtown Road in the Beach. The little details about the dancers' appearance - cuff links, stilettos, the cuffs on slacks, a French bun - hinted that they'd just come from someplace that requires professional attire.

Mary J. Blige's "My Life" played on a stereo, followed by Angie Stone.

"If you were in the club, you have to make sure that there's room when you do those spins," instructor Jonathan Green said to the dancers. "You don't want her to twirl into the DJ booth."

They looked determined as they tried to learn structured, mathematical steps to go with music that's casually played on the radio.

"Guys," Green said, "you're not just putting a hand up there and letting her turn. You are literally turning her."

One of the dancers, 25-year-old Fred Mason III of Portsmouth , said steppin' is a good alternative to the typical club scene, which he avoids. "I wanted to learn an adult dance, not like people that put on a jersey and go out."

Likewise, said LaKeitha Morris, 22, "It's grown up, not like the booty-shaking dancing."

At first, steppin' looks like a completely random partner dance with a few dips and turns thrown in for good measure, but in time a pattern emerges. The count is in clusters: 1-2-3, 4-5-6, 7-8. Within the structure, there is lots of room for improvisation.

"I grew up in Chicago ," Green said. "My mom talks about going to the basement parties in the projects with the red light when she was 15. So I know it goes back a few generations." He said the dance evolved from swing and bop, until by the 1960s and '70s steppin' had become a local rage.

"All I know is stepping," he said.

When he moved to the Bay Area of California in 2002, Green noticed it had spread there, and he realized he could share what he knew. But his desire to teach didn't come without sacrifice. Green's father had inherited a dental lab, Serve Dent Ceramics in Virginia Beach , from his own father, Green's grandfather, and so it was assumed that when the youngest Green came of age he'd take over the family business.

"I would have on headphones (in the lab), knowing I needed to do something with dance." So he studied ballroom, the waltz, the cha-cha, salsa and the fox trot. He went to St. Joseph College in Indiana on a music scholarship, then he came to Hampton Roads three years ago and started teaching all types of dance, including steppin'.

The audience is growing; he's taught some 200 to 250 people the dance. He has a group, Virginia Beach Steppers, that includes an e-mail list of 637 people, but that does not account for the unknowns who do the dance in area clubs including Mambo Room, Ultra Lounge and Tropical Delight. There's another local group, too, 7 Cities Steppers. "I wouldn't be surprised if there were 500 or so people in the area," Green said. This summer he'll start teaching steppin' - re-named "urban ballroom dancing" - at Tidewater Community College .

In Hampton , Timothy Wilson was regarded as the master step teacher before his recent transfer to Djibouti . He has served in the Air Force for more than 20 years, taught business at Hampton University and wrote a book, "4 Stars," about decorated black generals, but another of his many passions is steppin.'

"It's a great, passionate urban dance," he said one night at a rehearsal at the base's rec center, where upwards of 15 people turned out. "It's not just the moves, it's the culture: the suit, the hat, the purple gators. It's not the moves at all - it's the people."

Wilson, who moved to Tidewater from Massachusetts in 2006, picked up the dance while serving in Uzbekistan , part of the former Soviet Union . A guy from Chicago was doing it and taught it to him.

"I was like, 'Man, where do I get this dance?' " When he learned the answer, he was flying from Boston to Chicago every weekend to experience steppin' first hand. He concedes that learning steppin' isn't easy - it's a steep learning curve for many because partner dancing has not been in fashion since at least the 1970s - but once you learn it, it can be addictive.

"This is really wonderful," said Renne Holden, who lives in Hampton . "For so long people got away from dressing up and partner dancing. There's no 'sagging,' and there's etiquette - like for example a man must ask a woman for a dance." With this, said Debra Hunt, a 40-something who owns a Virginia Beach real estate company, "There is grace and sophistication. It beats the tedium."

They often travel to Washington, Raleigh and other cities, and their own regional steppin' event drew hundreds to Hampton Roads.

"Because of their age, people are more stable," Hunt said.. "They're mature. They just want an evening out, and it's definitely good exercise."

It's probably a good way to meet eligible singles, too, huh?

"No doubt," she said.

Malcolm Venable, (757) 44