Audio: Who Dat Steppers keep urban beat going strong
Editor's Note: In conjunction with the upcoming "Up Together Cultural & Economic Empowerment Forum," NolaVie talks with coordinator and dance instructor, Oswald Cooper. "Up Together" will be held on Saturday, February 18, at the Days Inn, New Orleans International Airport, (1021 Airline Drive, NOLA) from 12:30 p.m. until 3:45 p.m. Oswald Cooper, better known as Oz, is out to correct the disconnect that the digital world can often cause. Oz leads the Who Dat Steppers of New Orleans. Stepping is a type of swing dance rooted in African-American history, and it’s making a comeback across the county.
Tell us a little bit about stepping; what is it?
Well, stepping is just a name for a partner dance. It’s a partner dance that is rooted in the Lindy Hop. Basically, it’s like when you did that little exercise where you tell a story on one side of the room, and by the time it gets to the next side of the room it’s changed; that’s how the swing dance was.
How did you get interested in this?
I’ve always danced. I grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s era, and disco was popular then, but my peers and I did all kinds of freestyle. Sort of like what they did on Soul Train. And it’s interesting, you can watch the evolution of dance, because if you look at Soul Train when it first started, the guys and girls used to dance together, but as it got into the ‘80s and ‘90s, you start seeing them come down individual. Everybody started doing their own thing, which is part of what you see a lot of now. It became more of a performance than two people engaged in a dance.
When my friend’s son first asked me if I wanted to go step, I thought he was talking about fraternity step. And I’m like, 'Man, get out of here; I’m too old for that, I’m not doing that.' What helped me was when R. Kelly came out with Step In the Name of Love. He came out with that and I said, 'Okay cool.'
That song -- I mean, people hate it, but it put stepping on the map. And then people became more aware of it. And it started out with stepping, and as stepping became more popular, other partner swing dances became more popular. And we call them urban swing dance; swing doesn’t belong to any community, but the African American community, these dances are really identified by where they come from, so you have Chicago stepping, Detroit ballroom, Houston two step, Kansas City two step, Dallas Fort Worth swing. So these are all urban communities, so that’s the only distinction; anybody is welcome to come and dance and join, but it’s just really relative to the urban community.
When did you start Who Dat Steppers of New Orleans?
I started Who Dat Steppers of New Orleans in 2009. I joined my two passions: I love to dance and I love the Saints; I’ve been a Saints fan all of my life and it kind of flowed for me, Who Dat Steppers.
When I moved here and I was looking for dance instruction, you saw everything, and I’m talking about African American schools teaching ballet, teaching hip hop, teaching modern dance, teaching spiritual dance. Everything but swing dance. And that was amazing to me--that it’s not valued by the culture. So that’s part one for me: to get us to value this and appreciate this because this is important.
This is an economy that we’re missing out on. A lot of clubs, they mostly cater to hip hop and rap, which is no problem. But people come here all the time -- I get at least two calls a month, hey, I am in town, where is the stepping joint at?
What kind of music is best for this kind of dancing?
Old school, old school soul, R&B, they used to have some neo-soul that you can dance to. Now Lindy Hop, you’ve got to remember that Lindy Hop was the teenagers of their day, and that’s when that big band was out and it was popping. It was fast. They’d dance about 120 or 130 beats a minute. Well, as those people aged, the dance beat got a little slower, so like stepping you probably don’t want to go any more than between 90 and 110 beats per minute. So it really varies depending on the dance.
What does one wear on the step dance floor?
It’s like a family reunion, because we’re all family. Friday night you’ll have a meet and greet--everybody is just getting in, we’re coming together and have a little hors d'oeuvres, because everything, the whole thing is about dancing. Steppers are unique in the fact that that’s what they do; that’s their thing; that’s what they are there for.
So Friday night is meet and greet, and that means you wear a jersey or something, some jeans or something like that, or whatever your favorite T shirt is. Usually Saturday night is the main event. It’s eloquent and classy. I don’t know if you saw the movie Malcom X, when they had their zoot suits on; it’s like that.
For the Saturday night event, the big event, is there a competition?
Sometimes, but mostly it’s just open dancing. There is a huge event in Chicago called the World’s Largest that they have every year and it’s a competition--a Chicago Stepping competition, where people come and compete.
Do you choreograph your steps?
That’s the difference between swing dance, partner dancing and line dance. Nothing is choreographed.
What do you think urban social dancing does for us in this very hectic and hurried society that maybe other things don’t?
First of all, it makes you listen. That’s the biggest part--you’ve got to listen when you dance, you’ve got to listen to the beats of the music. Everybody can dance, and everybody has rhythm; they just don’t know how to apply it. It’s all scientific and that’s another aspect of it, education. Dance is based on math; it’s just simple math.
There was a study by the Journal of Medicine that states that swing dancing, or partner dancing, makes you smart, because as we get older, the brain is a muscle, so just like every other muscle you’ve got to use it. So when you swing dance, the difference between swing dance and line dancing is that you always have to be constantly making decisions. The follower has to get the signal and execute and then the leader has to think okay, has she finished that? It’s really non-verbal communication. What they are saying in that Journal of Medicine is that all of that decision making helps build those neurons or those new memory cells in your brain. This helps prevent dementia, because you’re building these new neuropaths in your brain all the time, so that’s another upside of the many upsides of doing partner dance.
It sounds like stepping is a form of communication in its most basic sense.
That’s what dance is. Dance is a form of expression. Music is a form of expression. Have you ever looked at a movie without the music? Have you ever been to a church and they don’t play the music? I don’t know what denomination you may be, but in the African American church, as the preacher gets up that music moves you. It is scientifically proven that it taps into all of those chemicals in your body and psychology.
if people want to get involved in the Stepping community in New Orleans, how do they go about that?
I have two classes that I teach at the Broadmoor Arts and Wellness Center. My Chicago Step class is on Tuesday from 7:00 p.m. until 8:00 p.m. and on Wednesday from 7:00-8:00 p.m. I teach Detroit ballroom. I have an app you can download called Mind Body. You can go to Mind Body Online, input my business name, Who Dat Steppers, and you can get the App.
Who Dat Steppers will host an All-Star Steppin' Weekend on Feb 17 and 18 at the Days Inn Airport. For more information visit the Who Dat Steppers Facebook page here.
Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.