Dance, a culturally understood series of movements that unifies people regardless of where they come from. Many cultures around the world use dance to represent their people, share their history and bring their community together.
With every step, stomp and sway, Latin dance not only represents an art form and self-expression, but keeps traditions alive and familial community connected. Keren Treviño and Kalani Porto, both native to Puerto Rico, found solace in the fluid hip-swinging dance, Bachata, when faced with times of adversity in the past. The Bachata, and their general love for Latin dance brought the pair together.
A pillar of their community, PowWow dances have been an integral part to Native American culture for centuries. Tribes come together throughout the year to showcase the individual dances and regalias significant to them. Dancing is Native Americans’ way of bridging together their communities, connecting to their ancestors, honoring the land and remaining true to their roots.
Rooted deep within African culture, step dancing can be seen practiced and performed by the National Pan-Hellenic Council sororities and fraternities, also called the Divine Nine. Step, also referred to as strolling is a modern adaptation of traditional dance passed down from African generations. Utilizing chants, claps and stomps, these organizations honor the suffering their ancestors endured with each movement.
At a local senior center in Chattanooga, Tennessee the senior members who attend have the appearance of being old but their spirits and lifestyles say otherwise. A line dancing class offered three days a week helps keep these seniors physically active and offers each of them community through dance. Age is only a number and the senior citizens at this center are proving retirement stereotypes wrong with their line dancing steps.
This piece covers the history and traditions of dance throughout many different cultures. Each style expresses the importance of dance in cultivating that culture.
Through a series of four short films the story of the cultural significance of dance is told. In each story, whether Step told through the divine nine, Bachata and the Latin American community, Pow Wow and the Native American community, or line dancing in the senior citizen community, the steps in each story correlates to a history of dance. The history of dance whether for protest, joy, or celebration is ultimately connecting all people to a community and giving people a place to belong.
Podcast: One Step Overview
Humbled by the Step
Yancy Freeman Jr. stands on Chamberlain field at the center of the University of
Tennessee at Chattanooga’s campus. Freeman screams out, “A Phi,” as his brothers
respond with, “O six.” The chants that ring out over UTC’s campus are a battle cry for
the history of the step dancing demanding to be heard. As the chants echo they signify
that step dancing holds incredible power and significance within not only the African
American community but the Greek community as well.
Step dancing originated through African roots dating back to the Gumboot dance.
The Gumboot dance was a dance of protest birthed from oppression in the heart of
South Africa due to injustices in the mining industry. The dancers wear boots with bells
on them and during the dance they clap, stomp, and chant, creating a sound of rebellion
against oppression being released. Today, ‘step’ or sometimes referred to as ‘strolling’,
is a modern day adaptation of a tradition passed down from African ancestors.
The Divine Nine
The Divine Nine are traditionally African American Sororities and Fraternities that
make up the National Pan-Hellenic Council.
– Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity
– Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority
– Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity
– Omega Psi Phi Fraternity
– Delta Sigma Theta Sorority
– Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity
– Zeta Phi Beta Sorority
– Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority
– Iota Phi Theta Fraternity
The history of Step on UTC’s campus was once one of controversy due to issues
surrounding whether or not other organizations had the right to Step along with the
divine nine. However, now in 2019, these organizations have celebrated their past by
returning to campus after these issues revolving around cultural appropriation and the
history and respect for tradition has been implemented by events where these greek
organizations can properly educate participants on the history of step.
Step today is traditionally practiced by sororities and fraternities that were
created to give the African American community a place in Greek life. Similar to the
Gumboot dance, Step is meant to empower and to protest the oppression and
segregation that was deeply rooted in American history.
When asked why step was important to him, Freeman, the President of Eta Phi
Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity at The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga,
Freeman replied stating that, “It is a way to keep ties throughout history and the most
beautiful part of stepping or strolling is the fact that you get to express yourself through
whatever you’re doing.” Step or strolling is a way that these organizations can express
history, empowerment, and ultimately by doing so they reclaimed the culture of the
Chants, claps, and the movements that make up Step dancing is a celebration of
culture and honoring the brothers and sisters that suffered in Africa and in the United
States under racial injustices. With each stomp the energy released is a statement or
stance of no more injustice and the beauty of the chants like, “Who you with?” by Alpha
Phi Alpha, manifests into a masterpiece of brotherhood or sisterhood that thrived out of
adversity. This dance is a celebration combining the culture of Africa to the present
culture in America using dance as a connection to cultural roots. Freeman wants the
next generation of step to, “make sure they put their all into it and look forward to it and
make sure that they aren’t doing it for no reason.”
Yancy Freeman, Jr. of Alpha Phi Alpha performed at the National Pan-hellenic Council’s homecoming yard show on Friday, September 27, 2019. This was one of many events for UTC’s Homecoming Week 2019. (Photo by Marielle Echavez)
Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc. performed at the National Pan-hellenic Council’s homecoming yard show on Friday, September 27, 2019. This was one of many events for UTC’s Homecoming Week 2019. (Photo by Marielle Echavez)
Yancy Freeman poses with his fraternity as they represent their organization’s symbols on Monday, November 11, 2019. Their symbols represent the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc. (Photo by Amanda Morgan Fann)
Spirit of Dance
Dance is more than the exploration of different ways to shape up or learning a series of steps to music; it is a way of moving that uses the body as an instrument of expression and communication. Each step, each tap on the grass- they all mean something. Native Americans have been dancing on this country’s soil for hundreds of years. It’s the heartbeat of their community. Dancing is a form of prayer, a way of honoring the fallen, and connecting with people around them. It brings people together, it’s something Native Americans are proud of.
Across the nation, Native Americans come together seasonally for PowWows. PowWows are “community gatherings of different tribes of the region”, according to Adam Wright, a Warrior Dancer. In these gatherings we see tribes dance together, all for different causes and representations. Often meals are shared, demonstrations made and dances performed. Various regions often specialize in a specific kind of dance.
Gaylon Nelson, a former dancer, attends PowWows regularly. He enjoys the cultural togetherness and seeing everyone perform. “It truly is a breathtaking experience.”
Wright states “It gives me a chance to connect with my ancestors, with the elders, with my culture and community,” He has been dancing since he was 9 and has revolved a lot of his life around it. He’s been actively engaged in the PowWow Circuit, competing across the states. He says that dance has always been an important part of his life, and he is learning new things all of the time. The cultural ties to the land and to ancestors is perfectly executed through different forms of dance. Wright has been adding to his regalia his entire life and specializes in Men’s Warrior Dance. “Back in the day warriors used to have extremely long fringes covering their feet, so when they hunted- or were being hunted- their tracks were covered”, Wright explains, while pointing to his long fringes on his shins.
Each individual puts together their attire, which is called a regalia, that they build on throughout their life that represents significant cultural or societal moments to them. Details like feathers are often found on warriors, long fringes on those that hunt and gather, and beaded chest plates from fathers or brothers, all of these are symbolic to individuals that are worn in their regalia while dancing. PowWows in Native communities means more than just movement. All different styles are represented, and each has its own unique story.
“We’re not like what you see in the movies…We’re people, all different and happy to talk to you and share our culture with you… How we want to, not how Hollywood says we do,” Ryan Little Eagle said.
Dance in many ways brings people together…For Native Americans, it is an honorable activity, one that unites and celebrates the lives and land surrounding them. The community comes together to support one another. It’s a way of making a statement, reclaiming identity and honoring the fallen. Dance has been a way for Native Americans to hold claim to their culture, in a society that often tries to take it from them.
A Native American dances to music at the 2019 Blessing of the Buffalo and Fall Festival on Saturday, October 12, 2019. (Photo by Elian Richter)
Native Americans dance in their individual attire at the 2019 Blessing of the Buffalo and Fall Festival on Saturday, October 12, 2019. (Photo by Elian Richter)
A Native American dances in their individual attire at the 2019 Blessing of the Buffalo and Fall Festival on Saturday, October 12, 2019. (Photo by Elian Richter)
The souls of senior citizens come alive as they dance back and forth in unison at The Eastgate Senior Center in Chattanooga, Tennessee. One member describes line dancing with other seniors as “a free atmosphere to socialize, while also learning step at your own pace.” Swift movements and lively faces make it evident that old age will not become a hindrance for these individuals and they will not be bound to stereotypes. Line dancing is an art form for seniors to socialize and come alive physically and mentally. Different musical styles are available and it gives seniors the opportunity to engage in exercise, while also experiencing the beauty of learning new styles of line dancing. Amanda McClure and Dorothea Richardson exude joy as they discuss the impact that senior line dancing has had on them.
McClure, a native Chattanoogan, has attended The Eastgate Senior Center for the past year and a half and has fallen in love with step and its community. She explains that line dancing also helps your mind stay focused on something healthy and active, rather than sitting at home watching TV. McClure looks at dance as an opportunity to get up and give your body and mind the active nourishment that it needs.
Along with McClure, Richardson, also finds joy in line dancing whenever she gets the opportunity to do so. Smiling, she says, “At this age you tend to self-reflect too much, that’s the reason I do line dancing.” Richardson grew up loving dance; learning how to do the Cha Cha slide at a young age and listening to James Brown as she would dance around the house. Richardson concludes by saying, “Line dance makes you feel like you’re a part of something and not pushed under the carpet because you’ve reached a certain age.”
Line dancing has become an opportunity for her to get exercise, while not feeling overwhelmed. Richardson says, “Dance makes you feel better and it loosens you up. Whenever you are hitting age 64, it does not make you feel like an old person.” It allows her to do something that she genuinely enjoys, while not focusing on the idea that she exercising. This dance community has also become a place for other seniors mourning the loss of a spouse to find purpose and value. Since doing line dance, both McClure and Richardson not only have a place to dance, but a second place to call home within the dance community.
Ladies dance together at the Eastgate Senior Center in Chattanooga on Friday, November 15, 2019. (Photo by Riley Gentry)
Ladies move their feet to the dance instructor at the Eastgate Senior Center in Chattanooga on Friday, November 15, 2019. (Photo by Riley Gentry)
Ladies at the Eastgate Senior Center in Chattanooga gather together and follow the steps to the dances on Friday, November 15, 2019. (Photo by Riley Gentry)
Baile es Todo
The splintered wood of the walking bridge cracks beneath the feet of Keren Treviño and Ivan Kalani Porto-Siurano as they sway like the movement of the lake shore, one side to the other in fluid harmony. “In Puerto Rico, everyone dances,” Porto-Siurano said, “ It’s a part of our culture and who we are.”
Culture is defined as a set of customs, art and other social manifestations that define people and their origin. For the Latino community, dance encapsulates everything about their identity, how they are feeling, their origin, and at times serves as a safe haven.
Treviño is a senior at The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga from Carolina, Puerto Rico. She has been dancing as long as she can remember. “It has just been something that I have always done, whether it was just to let loose and have fun or to relieve stress,” Treviño said. Due to her Puerto Rican descent, Treviño mostly dances to Bachata. Unlike salsa, bachata hits on the off beats. “Compared to rap, it is R&B,” said Porto-Siurano, when contrasting Bachata and Salsa. Bachata is more fluid and smooth.
For Treviño, dance has been a refuge for her due to a constantly changing environment. After living in Puerto Rico for her first 5 years of life, her family moved to Guadalajara, Mexico. “Honestly these years in Mexico were very hard for me because there was a lot of discrimination that took place,” Treviño recalled.
“Due to my African roots, I obviously have darker skin than the rest of the Mexican kids that I went to school with. During my time in Mexico, I was bullied a lot…but dance is always something that helped get me through tough times.”
Treviño describes dance as a “stress reliever” and “something that has a heart and a warmth to it.”
“Dancing, especially to Bachata, is something that you can gravitate towards when you need something to lift you,” Treviño said. Today, Treviño dances a lot in her spare time with her dear friend Ivan Kalani Porto-Siurano.
Porto-Siuran is a student at UTC, who is also an avid dancer from Guanica, Puerto Rico.
Treviño and Porto-Siurano became friends in the summer of 2018 when they both were orientation leaders at school. “At our leader retreat we stayed up late one night discussing our latino heritage and everything Puerto Rican. Thus, we also became dance partners,” Porto-Siurano said. Treviño shared with Porto-Siurano how dancing has been something that has been of aid throughout her childhood. But for Porto-Siurano, dance has been more of something to do when he just wants to let loose.
“I dance because it makes me feel good, honestly, I kinda just shake my ass!” Porto-Siurano laughed.
The two came together by a cultural defining act; dance. For Treviño and Porto-Siurano, dance has been their escape, but for the latino community, “baile es todo”.
Keren Treviño and Ivan Kalani Porto-Siuran dance the Bachata across the Walnut Street Bridge in Chattanooga on Monday, Nov. 18, 2019. Treviño and Porto-Siuran became friends after bonding over their shared Puerto Rican roots and love for dance. (Photo by Amanda Morgan Fann)
Keren Treviño and Ivan Kalani Porto-Siuran mirror each other’s feet work as they step on the typical offbeats of the Bachata, across the Walnut Street Bridge in Chattanooga on Monday, Nov. 18, 2019. Treviño and Porto-Siuran became friends after bonding over their shared Puerto Rican roots and love for dance. (Photo by Amanda Morgan Fann)
Keren Treviño hits a pose as she dances the Bachata on Chattanooga’s Walnut Street Bridge on Monday, November 18, 2019. For Treviño, dance has always been something she can rely on to get through tough times and bring her closer to family. (Photo by Amanda Morgan Fann)