CEDAR RAPIDS — Diamond and Dynasty Roundtree grew up listening to their father Dedric Roundtree tell stories about his college days, where he learned to step dance as a member of a campus black fraternity.
Stepping, in which performers use their body as an instrument with percussive stomps and claps, has a long history in African American culture and is popular in historically black fraternities and sororities.
For the Roundtree sisters, learning the dance themselves this year as part of the Washington High School Warriors’ Steppers club has been a way to connect to that legacy.
“We heard stories of our dad stepping in college,” Diamond Roundtree, 17, a junior, said. “I think he likes seeing me and my sister doing it. I tell him he inspired me.”
Special education teacher Sarah Swayze and special education engagement specialist Chris Wright started the club last year. The school had a stepping club in the past, but it petered out. The new incarnation of the club started after Washington Principal John Cline proposed starting a Black History Month assembly for the school.
Wright, a Washington High School alumni who graduated in 1989, performed stepping with the drill team as a student. Bringing the dance back to the school was important, she said, because it gives black students something positive to connect to and a chance to learn and share part of their culture and history. In Cedar Rapids, students of color often don’t see themselves reflected in the world around them, she said.
“I was born and raised in Iowa. It’s hard to see yourself doing something and being something, because you don’t see role models who look like you,” she said. “I think it’s important for people to feel connected to something.”
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That rings true for sophomore Mylonna Douglas, 16, who said she was inspired when she saw the step performance at the Black History Month assembly. Joining the club has felt like a way to embrace her identity.
“Step, to me, means family. It’s just something I’ve never really had. I grew up in mostly white schools. ‘The black/white girl’ is what people called me,” she said. “Here, I feel like I’m part of the black community. I’m learning the history.”
Some of the club members are learning the dance for the first time; others previously participated in a stepping club as part of the Boys & Girls Club. To join the Warriors’ Steppers, they had to audition. To stay members they must keep their grades up, something the students said they take seriously. They see themselves as ambassadors, aiming to share their performances not just with their fellow students but also the broader community.
They will be featured at upcoming Juneteenth celebrations at Viola Gibson Park on the corner of 12th Avenue SE and 10th Street SE. The celebration, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. June 15, commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. Other organizations who to invite them to perform, including over the summer, can email Swayze at SSwayze@cr.k12.ia.us.
“(Washington High School) has a lot of culture, a lot of diversity. We wanted to do something as African American students to show our culture, to represent our history,” Diamond Roundtree said.
Students emphasized that the club is not just for black students; they welcome any student into the group.
“Just because it’s part of our history doesn’t mean we can’t share our history with others,” Roundtree said.
Club members learn the dance moves and history of the dance.
“In stepping, you have to be firm, you have to be sharp,” Swayze said. “It’s an art.”
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Members coordinate their own routines, drawing inspiration from YouTube and watching other dancers. They combine new and old dance moves and try to find their own style.
“Step itself has always intrigued me. It’s making a beat,” Diamond Roundtree said. “It makes you feel amazing.”
Her sister agreed. “It makes you feel special,” said sophomore Dynasty, 15. “I think of unity. You have to have a sense of togetherness. You have to be on the same page.”
At the start of the year, the club had a large membership that has since whittled down to six dedicated, tight-knit members. They said the club has been more than an extracurricular activity to them.
“It’s a sisterhood, it’s a brotherhood, it’s a family. We come together, come and share things with each other,” Diamond Rountree said. “Step to me means love, because I feel like there’s so much love in this group. There’s so much love with the teachers. There’s so much history, so much love for who we are.”
She said she sees dance as a way to tell a story — about who she is and about the history of those who came before her. Dance, she said, can interpret hardships and joy alike.
“We have to think of ourselves with a deeper meaning. We have to express ourselves,” she said. “We do carry the pain and the scars of our ancestors, but we take that and bring the light to it, bring positivity to it.”
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