Rabid devotees of the native Chicago dance form look back on the decade their scene went national.
Shortly after nine on a Saturday night, the steppers begin making their grand entrances through the front door of Mr. G’s. It’s a parade of the fabulous and fashionable. Couples in matching floor-length fur coats. Wide-shoulder suits cut from offbeat fabrics—denim, velvet, suede. Candy-apple-red alligator boots. Sequined cocktail dresses twinkling under overhead lights. Shamelessly ostentatious gold jewelry. And hats—lots of hats: homburgs, trilbys, fedoras, floppy berets and flat caps, usually Kangol brand, covering freshly shaved bald heads.
DJ Vell drops the night’s first midtempo groove, a typical steppin’ track—heavy bass beats over silky-smooth instrumentation. Couples delicately clasp hands and begin twirling and gliding weightlessly across the parquet. In the far corner of the room is a soul-food buffet: foil trays of smothered chicken, mac and cheese, sweet potatoes. A pirated copy of Precious flickers on a 13-inch TV resting on a table covered with bootleg mix-CDs for sale—mostly best-of collections by dusty R&B outfits like the Isley Brothers, the Whispers, the O’Jays.
Mr. G’s is a supper club in the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood that is one of the South Side’s hubs for steppin’, the Chicago-based derivative of swing dancing that’s been going strong in certain African-American circles here since the 1950s. It’s a scene that, until several years ago, could be glimpsed only in Chicago. But as the decade comes to a close, Chicago-style stepping, as it’s known outside the city, is also thriving nationwide. Cities like Atlanta and Detroit caught on to the dance in 2003, when Chicago native R. Kelly’s chart-topping single “Step in the Name of Love (remix)” was released and became a stepper’s anthem. “Stepping is not just a dance,” Kelly declares. “It’s a culture. It’s the way we live.?It’s what we eat, think and breathe.”
“Steppin’ is a national phenomenon now,” says Terrance Pratt, 32, who documents the scene on the popular daily blog Chistepper.com. “It’s not just a Chicago thing anymore, but it all started here.” Aside from R. Kelly, Pratt credits the rise of the form to local steppers traveling as far away as California and North Carolina to teach classes early in the decade. Cities as disparate as Las Vegas and Dallas now host steppin’ competitions. Some events rival Chicago’s annual World’s Largest Steppers Contest, which will mark its 20th anniversary on September 18, 2010.
For many steppers, the dance is as much a draw as the social scene around it. “It was how I met my husband,” says Sabrina White, who’s been steppin’ since 1979 and now competes with her hubby, Kirk. Steppin’ is an older singles scene by design; events are often labeled 30-and-over affairs.
After a divorce in 1999, Tollie Carter experienced a social rebirth through the dance. The associate professor of accounting at Chicago State University had grown weary of reading books and watching TV, so he began taking steppin’ lessons in 2001 and hitting spots like Mr. G’s. “It felt so good to get out and meet people again,” Carter says, coolly gliding back onto the crowded parquet to the rhythm of a thumping beat.
Step into the new year at Mr. G’s (1547 W 87th St, 773-445-2020), $50; the DoubleTree Chicago (300 E Ohio St, 312-787-6100), $50; and the Holiday Inn Hotel (18501 S Harlem Ave, Tinley Park, 708-444-1100), $65.