You’ve probably seen old video footage from after World War II of couples whirling across the dance floor to old-school R&B tunes, doing dances called Lindy Hop, Jitterbug, or Boppin’. By the 1970’s a new variation of the same rhythm-driven couples dancing had evolved in Chicago; it was called Steppin’ and was famously celebrated a generation later in singer R. Kelly’s hit song “Step in the Name of Love."
Steppin’ is about creating a constant flow between dance partners. Less gymnastic and more mellow than the Lindy Hop, it has become a thriving outlet of personal creativity for people around the country. Steppin’ is especially popular in cities with large African-American communities, where with a little soul and hip-hop sprinkled in, it’s winning over dancers from ages 20 to 70.
“Steppin’ feels like dancing on a bed of cotton that’s floating on the surface of the floor…it soothes your soul,” says Ron Brown, principal instructor and co-founder of Just Steppin', the Bay Area’s first Chicago-style Steppin’ dance class company. Brown says Steppin’ culture has grown so much over the last several years that he travels with fellow devout steppers to workshops across the country. “Every month there is another three-day healing,” he says.
Brown, who like many of his students grew up Steppin’ at family parties, started teaching formally in the Berkeley and Oakland area in 2003. Over the years, as soaring housing costs and other factors have pushed many members of the African-American community into surrounding cities, Brown has become a traveling dance instructor. Besides his regular lessons in Oakland, Emeryville and San Francisco, he travels weekly to Sacramento, Elk Grove, Vallejo, Fairfield and Antioch to teach classes and host dance parties.
For Chicago native Shirley Slaughter, finding a local Steppin’ community in her new hometown of Antioch was just the creative sanctuary she had been seeking. “[Steppin’] is a stress reliever,” she says. “The weight of the world just falls from my shoulders and falls at my feet.”