It happened on February 20, 2010. After a hard-fought national battle, funded by one of the world’s biggest advertisers, a unique tournament entered its finale with only 12 teams out of 92 left standing. It was the national championships for “step,” a dance art form practiced almost exclusively by African-Americans. One team, literally formed in the spirit of racial unity, was the underdog entering the finals. “A lot of people don’t want us to be there, and they definitely don’t want us to succeed,” said one member of the long-shot squad. But to the astonishment of many, as the underdogs started their final dance, the crowd erupted in unambiguous approval. As Randy Jackson would say, this team was in it to win it. By the end of their performance, little could be heard through the chaotic cheers in the crowd. “Whoa! Wow,” said the event moderator. “Close your mouth. Close your mouth,” he called out to the front-row onlookers, making fun of their astonishment.
The crowd quieted by the time the judges’ results were ready. But as the third-place team, the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, was announced, the air of excitement was quickly replaced by the sound of unease. The theater became eerily quiet as the second-place team was about to be read — so much so that you could hear one errant woman yell in the hushed sea of anxious anticipation, “Come on with it.” As the celebrity host announced the second-place winner, the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority of Indiana University, it became apparent who was going to win — the underdogs! The room that was, just a short while ago, filled with screams of adoration was now saturated with boos. Audience members began making their way to the exits before the first-place team was even announced.
“Let me reiterate that this is from the judges’ scores. They tallied the judges’ scores up. They double-checked the judges’ scores,” said the celebrity host to the loud outcry of disapproval. “So you need to understand that the first-place winner, $100,000 in scholarships, goes to…the Zetas,” proclaimed rapper Ludacris to the almost-entirely African-American audience. The Zeta Tau Alpha sorority, the only white team in the competition, had just won the 2010 Sprite Step Off. “They gave us a standing ovation and then turned around and booed us. So, I didn’t really understand,” said Jessica Simmons, a Zeta team member. The winners were understandably confused.
With their win, the Zeta Tau Alpha sorority from the University of Arkansas had ignited a furious debate within the black community — with many questioning whether the white sorority team should have even been in the competition. Some complained of cultural theft. “How are you going to take something that’s ours, and give it away,” said one critic. Others claimed that the novelty of the color of their skin won them the top prize. The tournament, that was to be aired on MTV2, was accused of being “rigged” to boost the ratings of the broadcast. When someone from the crowd posted the Zetas’ winning performance on YouTube, the video went viral — with views entering the hundreds of thousands. Comments came shortly after, with an overwhelming majority being negative in nature. A radio show in Atlanta, where the finals were held, heated up with angry phone calls — prompting a judge, Chilli of the female rap group T.L.C., to call in and side with the callers. “The AKAs from Indiana, hands down in my opinion, should have won.”
A few days of complaints should have been the end of the controversy — but it wasn’t. Five days after the finale, Sprite made an astonishing announcement on their event Facebook page. “After the National Finals Competition this past weekend in Atlanta wrapped, we got together to do our post-competition review and found a scoring discrepancy in the sorority results. After looking at it and looking at it AGAIN, we determined there isn’t a definitive resolution.” Sprite decided to name the Zetas of the University of Arkansas and the AKAs of Indiana University “co-first place winners of the Sprite Step Off,” each receiving $100,000 towards their education. The sponsor had apparently caved in to the black community’s outcry.
Step, a form of dance made popular by the black Greek community in the 70s, is a blend of cheerleading, military marching, and dance choreography, with signature hand slaps and foot stomps that, when witnessed, make for a fun dance to watch. It is unequivocally a visually exciting art form — and without a doubt a black-rooted tradition. To organize the competition, Sprite turned to the National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC), a community of nine historically black sororities and fraternities, some formed over 100 years ago, and affectionately referred to as the “Divine Nine.”
The NPHC appeared to play a role in the “co-first place” decision. In an interview with The Washington Post at the time, Warren Lee, chairman of the council of presidents of the NPHC, was asked about the initial results of the competition. Lee responded, “We were not so much unhappy as we were confused. We were not sure if the rules had been applied as we understood them. So there was some review, and it’s my understanding that one person made an honest mistake in the scoring.” When juxtaposed with Ludacris’ on-stage admission that the judges “double-checked” the results before announcing the Zetas the winners, the reason for the “co-first place” announcement seemed obvious to many — someone wanted to quiet the public firestorm.
It’s understandable that Sprite would want to end the controversy and appease the naysayers. The entire reason for sponsoring an event of this nature is to connect with the African-American community so that their product is viewed in a positive light. I’ve sponsored events at colleges and universities with historically black student bodies, so I’m somewhat aware of the cultural significance of the event. In the noble effort of sponsoring a worthy art form, Sprite found itself in an impossible position. But the act of naming two first-place winners after one seemingly won fairly did much to increase the feeling of a double standard in matters of race — and a few prominent writers from the black community spoke up in reaction to their decision.
Newsone, a media outlet “for black America,” wrote, “We can’t demand genuine respect for our music, our traditions, and our colleges and then expect people merely to worship from afar.” Lawrence C. Ross Jr., author of The Divine Nine: The History of African American Fraternities and Sororities, wrote an impassioned article to his community. “Can we at least keep stepping to ourselves,” asked Ross in his headline. “Nope,” he answered. “We’ve got to share our traditions.” ESPN even entered the discussion. “Injustice: Coca-Cola changes step show results so African-Americans share title,” blazed Jemele Hill’s headline.
Ironically, the white Zeta Tau Alpha sorority was first introduced to the dance form 17 years ago by a black sorority as part of a “unity night” — where white and black Greek organizations exchange traditions. Their team even devised its routine with the local Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA) chapter, an African-American sorority, as a part of these same unity nights — a fact that stung many when the Zetas outlasted their teachers.
This year Sprite decided to continue the competition, with the finals coming to the Show Place Arena in Washington, D.C. this Saturday. But this time the Zetas did not enter the tournament.
When I contacted a representative of Zeta Tau Alpha, it was easy to tell that the sting of the previous year’s decision was still present. “I was fascinated by the story of the Zetas winning, I mean co-winning,” I started the interview, but was quickly interrupted. “No, you were right the first time,” said Christy Barber, Director of Communications for the national Zeta Tau Alpha organization. When asked if they entered the competition this year, Barber responded, “Most of that team was seniors. They performed their last time in front of 800 of their sorority sisters.” When asked if Sprite had contacted their sorority for this year’s competition, she responded, “I don’t believe Sprite reached out to our girls. I don’t think they reached outside of the [Divine Nine] sororities or fraternities. They are trying to reach a specific audience, and it’s their right to do that.” Sprite claims that they invited all organizations that participated in last year’s competition.
“Did the decision of not entering have anything to do with last year’s controversy,” I asked. Barber responded, “No.”
But in a Facebook exchange with the co-captain from last year’s team, Mary Katherine Bentley, I received a markedly different response to the same question. “It had everything to do with the controversy…we decided it wasn’t worth the scrutiny.”
I can relate to the Zeta girls to some extent. Having grown up in a neighborhood where I was the only white boy, I’ve encountered both extremes of the same approval spectrum. Confusion is the only way to describe the feeling of first experiencing that pendulum swing in reaction. Having been involved in and around hip-hop culture since the late 70s, I have also witnessed first-hand how an urban tradition, first created by the black and Latino communities, was embraced, adopted, and in some ways leveraged by the white community — and the resentment associated with that evolution. My family has even been on the receiving end of the brutal reality of racism, but brushed it off as the actions of the few. Nonetheless, I can understand to some degree how bad experiences can cloud typically fair-minded people.
But what could have been a unique opportunity for racial unity, a theme that was literally embedded in the Zeta team’s existence, was instead turned into an ugly moment of division. “We’re hypocrites,” said an insightful student to Howard University’s The Hill Top newspaper. “The crowd gave them a standing ovation when they stepped, and booed when they won.” I think those that joined the outcry against the Zetas will be on the wrong side of history — and the decision makers that made the awkward decision of changing the results will look back on this episode with regret. As the finale moderator said to the cheering crowd at the end of the Zetas’ winning performance — “Steppin’ is for everybody.” After these girls’ experience, I think they would still agree, but at the same time take issue with that sentiment.
Patrick Courrielche gained prominence from a series of articles that highlighted a White House effort to use a federal arts agency to push controversial legislation. He has been published by wsj.com, reason.com, Breitbart’s BIG sites, and appeared on Fox News, Fox Business CNN, NPR, BBC, and various nationally syndicated radio shows. He is a communications specialist, former aerospace engineer, writer, and can be followed at Courrielche.com and twitter.com/courrielche.