MUSIC Drill and Step
 
  How have music and dance affected the Omaha community?
 
     


Stepping on Up... Drill and Step in Omaha

Research compiled by Aliyah C., Jimeace R., Diamond M., Rose D., Alexandria S., and Angeer K.

 

African American music and dance have been powerful and significant forces in the musical history of the United States. Drill and step has roots in West African social and spiritual customs, resistance during slavery in the United States, and cultural participation and innovations such as military service, community and school-based teams, and Black Greek Letter Organizations. Drill and step in Omaha dates back to the early twentieth century and continues to be part of community celebrations such as Native Omaha Days and the Juneteenth parade.

Our students relied on both scholarly research and interviews they conducted themselves to uncover the history of drill and step in Omaha. Our students had the opportunity to interview five members of the Omaha community: Vickie Young (President of the Omaha chapter of the NAACP), Wendy Jones (Drill and dance instructor with A Step Above the Rest), Phyllis Hicks (Founder of the Salem Stepping Saints), James “Miguel” Mason III (Former member of collegiate stepping team), and Derantay Stephens (Drill Instructor). These invaluable interviews enabled our students to put together a documentary about the history of Drill and Step as an important part of African American musical history and the history of Omaha.

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Published on August 5, 2017

Students created this documentary as part of the Omaha Public Schools Making Invisible Histories Visible initiative.

Salem Stepping Saints

The Salem Stepping Saints of Omaha, Nebraska just celebrated their 50th anniversary. Best known locally for their performance in the Native Omaha Days parade, the Stepping Saints are a group of students age twelve to twenty that practice multiple times a week and perform in parades and public events around the country. The Salem Stepping Saints are part of a long history both in Omaha and throughout the United States of drill and step teams rooted in the music and dance history of African Americans.

A group of African-American girls wearing red and purple dance outfits

North Omaha Drill Teams

This photo (c.1950) shows an unnamed drill team marching down 33rd street. Drill teams were important to north Omaha because they brought joy and inspiration to the community. Their inspirational influences come from the music, drums, and steppers and continues to affect people to this day. People of all ages gather up on the curb to see the outstanding performances.

Black and white photo of a drill team in three lines wearing the same outfit in a parade

Juneteenth Celebration

Celebrating an unofficial holiday, The Elks are marching and playing music for the Juneteenth celebration held on June 19th for the freedom that slaves gained on June 19, 1865. After a few years of begging the Texas legislatures, they named it an unofficial holiday of significance. Even though over the years Juneteenth has faded out, The Elks still remember why it was so important and still walk down Grant street every June 19th.
A parade lead by a marching band

Step Teams and Black Letter Organizations

This photo shows one of the Black Letter Organizations (BLOs) step teams and the significance of staying together as a group moving and working as one. It is important for BLOs to stay together because throughout the twentieth century black people needed social organizations at predominately all white colleges and as well in black colleges. BLOs can help people that are trying to turn their life around or trying to find some kind of organization to get involved in.

7 African-American young men dance on a stage in military camouflage patterned outfits

Omega Psi Phi

Below is a photograph (c. 2009) of James Mason the III caught mid-step at a performance in Kansas City at the 8th district meeting the of the historically black fraternity, Omega Psi Phi. James Mason is a member of the Beta Upsilon Chapter which is the Omaha branch of Omega Psi Phi. James Mason III’s father helped begin the Omaha chapter. Notice the stylish and sparkling golden boots, a tradition of the fraternity. The origin of this tradition is a secret.
African-American man dancing in a white suit and golden shoes

Stone Soul Picnic

Tamara Jones looks at a cultural display of photographs of black women at the Stone Soul Picnic, which was a celebration similar to Native Omaha Days. Both events brought the African American community together to be proud of their cultural heritage (c. 1970).

A young African-American girl looks at artwork on display in a park

Additional Information

Drill and step were part of a larger musical scene in Omaha throughout the twentieth century, especially the 1920s through the postwar era. A variety of black-owned and operated businesses and musical clubs surrounding 24th and Lake St. hosted community events and big name musicians including the likes of Duke Ellington.

Drill and Step teams date back to the early decades of the twentieth century but the roots of the music and dancing go much deeper. Scholars have traced many characteristics to West African cultural practices and through historical experiences of African Americans in the United States including slavery, resistance, military service, and social dancing.

Scholars have identified many West African roots – such as call and response, polyrhythm, use of percussion, improvisation, and the incorporation of pageantry as both ceremonially significant and for humor and ridicule. Many of these elements survived the Middle Passage and were incorporated into rituals and dances performed by slaves. Indeed, the bodily percussion so integral to many step performances has been related to “patting juba,” a dance developed in response to restricted use of drums and other instruments. Furthermore, dances such as the “cakewalk” drew on traditions of pageantry and subversive humor to ridicule slave owners.

Moving through the twentieth century, a strong legacy of military service among African Americans influenced the formation of drill and step dances in addition to evolving musical trends such as jazz and hip hop. While Drill and Step share many characteristics, these two distinct styles developed and perform in different social settings. Drill teams often perform in parades or public events with accompaniment by live percussion. Step teams often perform in formal competitions and rely on bodily percussion produced by the group members as part of the choreography supplemented by recorded music – often utilizing rap and hip hop. Black Greek Letter Organizations were integral to the development of step teams and collegiate competitions as black students formed networks and clubs of their own in response to formal segregation and social exclusion.

Drill and step teams continue to this day ranging from informal community gatherings to high-budget, formal collegiate competitions. The history of drill and step can be traced through the experiences of African Americans in the United States as well as to West African social and spiritual customs. The practice and performance of drill and step mirrors the history of African American music in the way that it has both deep historical roots and is ever-evolving in the present.
For more information see:
Alamdari, Natalia. “Native Omaha Days Are Extra Special for Salem Stepping Saints as Drill Team Marks 50th Anniversary.” Omaha.com. Accessed August 10, 2017.

Fine, Elizabeth. “Stepping, Saluting, Cracking, and Freaking: The Cultural Politics of African-American Step Shows.” The Drama Review: TDR 35, no. 2 (1991): 39.

Fine, Elizabeth C. Soulstepping: African American Step Shows. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003.

Howard, Ashley M. “Then the Burning Began: Omaha, Riots, and the Growth of Black Radicalism, 1966-1969.” M.A., University of Nebraska at Omaha, 2006.

Kimbrough, Walter M. Black Greek 101: The Culture, Customs, and Challenges of Black Fraternities and Sororities. Teaneck NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2003.

Malone, Jacqui. Steppin’ on the Blues: The Visible Rhythms of African American Dance. Folklore and Society. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996.

Stearns, Marshall Winslow. Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance. New York: Schirmer Books, 1979.

Tamara L., Brown, Gregory S. Parks, and Clarenda M. Phillips, eds. African American Fraternities and Sororities: The Legacy and the Vision. Second edition. Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 2012.

Authors:

The students who worked on the drill and step project will attend high school at South High, North High and Central High.

Two black teenage girls wearing dresses standing on either side of an older black woman wearing an NAACP polo shirt

Lesson Plan

Students will learn the importance of drill and step in North Omaha and use primary sources to shape their understanding of music history in Omaha.

Download Lesson Plan

Student Reflections

I learned that you have to take a lot of time to study and be on top of what you are doing to make it the best it can be. I learned a lot about the North Omaha community that I didn’t even know and my family lives right in the middle of it.
-Jimeace R.

I’ve changed by being more aware of my surroundings and knowing there is a history behind it.
-Angeer K.

The best thing about being in MIHV was that we got to feel the connection of dance and music with people.
-Rose D.

Being in MIHV has been a good experience and a chance to learn about my community. It is also a chance to get to know new people.
-Diamond M.

We would all benefit from learning about the history of our country which does definitely include major African American cultural and intellectual contributions.
-Alexandria S.

The best part of the experience is meeting people who have been there when the history was happening. I’ve changed a lot by knowing more about my culture.
-Aliyah C.