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  • Writer's pictureellencdonker


Building cultural awareness, community, and confidence through an African American art form

Seth Boyden step dancing
Photo credit: Anna Herbst Photograph

Set back from the traffic on Boyden Avenue, between the bustle of Springfield Avenue and a quiet residential neighborhood, sits Seth Boyden Demonstration School. Designated as a magnet school in 2000 to meet the particular needs, both educational and otherwise, of a diverse student population, the school serves children from kindergarten through fifth grade. Utilizing a multiple-intelligence approach to learning, the faculty and PTA often work together to provide interesting instructional opportunities to the approximately 450 students.

One such example is the bountiful garden located behind the school, which provides students with an extraordinary educational opportunity outside the classroom. There they learn about the importance of being stewards of the earth, the rich history of the land they live on, and the beauty of cooperation and teamwork. It’s an experience that works because it is enriching at its core and teaches without the use of smart boards or traditional classrooms.

With that knowledge at hand, plus a faculty that cares deeply for its students, and an active PTA searching for ways to enhance everyone’s experience, in 2019 the then-president, Elizabeth Evangelista and Susanna Einstein, the assemblies coordinator, began exploring options. After investigating various possibilities they landed on the art form known as “stepping.”

Stepping is a form of percussive dance in which one’s entire body is used as an instrument, and through a combination of footsteps, spoken word, claps, and call and response, participants create crisp, clear rhythms and sounds that are literal music to the ears and salve for the soul. According to Maxine Lyle, the founder and co-director of Soul Steps, an arts organization that showcases African American stepping, “Step is an art form with a deep cultural legacy that started in the United States on college campuses one hundred years ago and in all that time it has served as a means of expression for young Black America and diverse communities and continues to be a powerful platform for social and cultural empowerment.”

Seeing both the cultural and instructional benefit of bringing stepping to Seth Boyden, with the assistance of development chair Alison Poe, and the support of Seth Boyden Principal Shannon Glander and Vice Principal Sheila Murphy, the PTA applied for and received a $10,000 Artists in Education Residency Grant Program (AIE) award, underwriting daytime placement of professional artists in the school for 20 days or more in the 2020-21 school year, the goal being enhancement of arts education for students and faculty.

As it turned out, when the stepping program was set to begin for the new school year, students were still learning remotely. Instead of delaying the program, the school and the PTA determined it would continue. They hired Soul Defined, a Washington Metro area arts organization specializing in percussive dance, to teach African American stepping to Seth Boyden third graders online.

And while children always appreciate the opportunity to move, the timing could not have been better. These 8- and 9-year-olds, already reeling from issues caused by the pandemic, were more than ready to stop sitting in front of a computer and move. Rosemary Connell, a third-grade teacher at Seth Boyden, and one of the stewards of the program, explains that “the physical aspect of stepping allows kids with a ton of energy to release it in a school setting. We were also taught interesting ways to incorporate kinesthetic learning of multiplication and writing using the rhythms and beats.”

Step Director
Maxine Lyle, the founder and co-director of Soul Steps, directs Seth Boyden fifth graders as they perform their step routine. Photo credit: Anna Herbst Photography

Given the unequivocal success of the program, the PTA again applied for the grant so another grade level could share in this remarkable opportunity. And once again, they were awarded a grant, this one covering the 2021/2022 school year.

By now school had returned to in-person classes, and Maxine Lyle was asked to implement the grant. Ms. Lyle believes deeply that “step is a fun, dynamic entry point for children to learn about themselves, experience personal growth and expand their worldview.” As a person of color she believes that “it is especially important for young people to see people like me represented in the arts and see us teaching them art. I didn’t see that diversity as a child, and I want to change that for the next generation.”

Working predominantly with Seth Boyden’s fifth graders, Ms. Lyle, with the assistance of the fifth grade teachers, combined sharp and concise percussive movements with hip-hop rhythms, resulting in an uplifting and memorable performance for the school and parent community.

Of course the stepping itself is a sight to behold: over 60 children moving in unison, in perfect rhythm, confident and determined to get every move right. Their collective precision and focus are, as Ms. Poe put it, “nothing short of miraculous.” And while some students may have previously seen a performance of stepping, many may have been unaware of the rich history and African roots of this dance form. Origin stories of stepping are varied, but it is clear that stepping is a central part of African American Greek life, particularly at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and high schools. In fact, Columbia High School’s Infinite Step Team competes in the High School Step Division, and has participated at a national level.

As important as the physicality of stepping is, the deep meaning behind this artistic expression is an aspect teachers think is no less essential. As Ms. Connell explains, “I love the cultural history and connections. Many of our Seth Boyden students have family members that have attended HBCUs and/or belong to the fraternities and sororities, and they are proud to share what they know.” Ms. Lyle agrees, stating that “I have found that being as honest as possible about the racial context that gave way to stepping is important in teaching children about the history of the dance. The history of step is extensive and so I generally focus on two components as entry points: African American fraternities and sororities and their role in creating step in the United States, and step’s relationship to South African Gumboot dance.”

And while practicing stepping, and learning about the cultural aspect of the art, students also benefit from working together towards a common goal. Ms. Lyle tries to always keep them moving. She states, “It’s hard to resist the power of those thuds and stomps and claps when they are all stepping together. In my experience, once students get a taste of what unity sounds like, they usually want more of it!”

Learning to perform as part of a team is a skill set that knows no bounds: It builds connectedness and cooperation with one another and with the teacher. The positive social emotional benefit of being a contributing member of a successful team effort is limitless. Moreover, these skills are transferable to a much wider range of other extracurricular and educational activities.

No surprise, then, that the PTA’s third application to continue teaching stepping has been granted, and with several enhancements in the mix. In the 2022-23 school year, Seth Boyden fourth graders will be the recipients of the first year of a new three-year grant intended to create long term sustainability for the teaching of the chosen art form. Additionally, there will be a mentorship program in which students who have stepping experience will share their knowledge with younger students at recess; an after-school Seth Boyden Stepping Club will be taught by Columbia High School Infinite Step Team members.

While the past couple of years have posed formidable challenges for education, Seth Boyden’s stepping program makes one thing clear: Parents and educators can make magic happen by joining together to ensure that diverse, cultural experiences are part of the educational curriculum. And, if you happen to be strolling down the halls of Seth Boyden, listen carefully for the stomps and claps of little hands and feet, and know that art, in all its forms, not only spurs creativity but inspires learning.

Tami Steckler has a self-acknowledged complete lack of rhythm but can often be found sitting safely on her couch watching dance reality shows. 

The Artists in Education Residency Grant Program is a co-sponsored project of the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and Young Audiences Arts for Learning NJ & Eastern PA. The program is carried out in partnership with regional partners, including Appel Farm Arts & Music Campus, Count Basie Center for the Arts, and Morris Arts.


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