University of Oregon’s Black student population is underrepresented in the classroom, in the faculty and in administrative funding. But the annual Divine Nine Step Show provides Black students with a place to gather, dance and enjoy their culture — a culture that is struggling to find representation on a predominately white campus.
For generations, members of Black Greek organizations have practiced stepping as a way to celebrate and teach their history. Step dancing, or “stepping,” is a form of highly-choreographed dance routines that are performed in teams of four or five members. The dances feature a theme or message that the group convey to the audience. Instead of dancing to music, performers will slap, stomp and shout to create the beat of the dance using their bodies.
This Saturday, UO’s Black Student Union is hosting the 15th annual Divine Nine Step Show. The show will conclude this year’s Black Arts Festival. The BSU organized the festival to showcase Black culture, and the step show, like many events this week, offers a space for the community to find a home.
The show is also a great opportunity for the rest of the university to experience an aspect of Black culture, explained Kendaris Hill, former BSU President and current graduate student at UO. He also clarified that the show is for Black people to celebrate their community.
“Well this is us,” Hill said. “I think we have to find space where we can just be ourselves and we can just embrace who we are without having to worry about everyone else and having to connect with everyone on some sort of level.”
This year’s event will feature six teams from colleges across the West Coast, each with its own traditions and dances. The show will begin with each team dancing onto the stage with their organization’s stroll — a form of exclusive dance that is unique to each fraternity or sorority. Students from Sheldon and South Eugene high schools will be the shows openers with a step performance of their own. The competition will begin shortly after.
Each team will have 15 minutes to perform its choreographed step routines. Judges from Greek alumni chapters will grade each performance based on creativity, costume design and staying within the 15-minute time limit. The winner will be announced at the end of the show and will be awarded a trophy and prize money.
Each of the groups will represent some aspect of the word culture to go along with this year’s theme, “For the Culture,” according to BSU co-director Ashley Campbell.
“We wanted to keep it kind of broad so that people could be like ‘For the Black Greek culture,’ ‘For the African-American culture,’ ‘For the college culture,’” Campbell said.
In the past, the show was held at smaller venues such as the Lane Events Center and the EMU Ballroom. This year, the show will take place in Matthew Knight Arena, which is the third largest indoor sporting venue in Oregon.
“I think having it in Matthew Knight pretty much says that we’re here and we’re trying to make sure that you know we’re here,” said Hill. “Acknowledge us. See us. Can we get some kind of love over here on this side?”
Although the BSU doesn’t plan on selling all 12,364 seats in the arena, they do hope to see 1,000 people attend this year’s events, which would be the highest turnout in the history of the step show. Campbell, BSU co-director, added that having the step show at a prominent location will help establish the show’s significance and recognize the importance of the Black community.
The event coincides with the demands set forth by the Black Student Task force in 2015 that aimed to provide a more inclusive environment for the Black community on campus. One of the demands included offering official recognition of Black Greek Life.
To accommodate the demand, FSL attempted to make it easier for Black Greek Life to come to campus by eliminating the minimum member requirement for multicultural and historically Black fraternities and sororities to become official Greek organizations.
The BSU requested permanent funds for the step show, to travel to a national conference and other expenses in 2015. Their requests have not yet been fulfilled.
“That funding was never provided, essentially,” said Director of Fraternity and Sorority Life Justin Shukas, who recently announced his resignation. He was unsure why.
This year, FSL provided funding for flyers that advertised the step show with budget surplus funds, but made no guarantee to provide these funds annually. FSL will also be donating to the philanthropy of the fraternity and sorority with the most attendees.
“There certainly could be more,” Hill said. “I think if you expect students in those organizations to thrive, there’s a certain level of support that you have to give and I don’t think that support can end at 5 o’clock.”
Campbell, who will be performing at the show with Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Incorporated, said that she feels support is growing from administration, ASUO, Greek life and other organizations on campus. Part of that support is recognizing why this event is important.
FSL Director Shukas says the importance of the event is “to go and experience another Greek organization’s tradition and really see the community as one Greek community. There are different traditions and roles and purposes, but everyone is really connected.”
Shukas added the importance of raising awareness about historically Black fraternities and sororities.
But for Hill and other students, the step show is more than just community building or raising awareness.
“It’s a reminder of the efforts we put in to make sure our voices are heard and that our culture is continued,” Hill said. “It’s a really deeply rooted culture, and especially in a place like Oregon where you don’t find a lot of Black people; it’s a place where you kind of get to breathe in a safe space.”
The step show will begin at 7 p.m. on Saturday at Matthew Knight Arena. Tickets are available at the ticket office and at Matthew Knight Arena for $13 for the public, $11 for non-UO students/youth, $10 for UO students/children under 3 years old.