Black Student Union step team celebrates culture and inclusivity through dance

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By: Kerry Ingram, Associate Arts & Life Editor and Jessica Ricks, Staff Writer

Photo by Lacey Wall; photo illustration by Victoria Nicholson/ The Towerlight.

The saying “march to the beat of your own drum” has been heard time and time again, but for Rhythm, Towson’s Black Student Union step team, the cliche has gotten an upgrade. Replacing “marching” with stepping, these TU students use their bodies to create their own music.

Stepping is an African artform in which performers use synchronized stomping, clapping and slapping to create rhythms and sounds. It became a tradition among historically black Greek Life associations in the United States in the early 1900s. Although it was originally associated with fraternities and sororities, step has expanded nationwide to be practiced by groups outside of Greek life. Rhythm is one of those groups.

Steirra Reid, Rhythm’s team captain, said that although Rhythm was founded under the direction of BSU, the group accepts members of all backgrounds.

“We’re welcome to all,” Reid said. “Everybody: boys, girls, blacks, whites, Asians. It doesn’t matter.”

Since Rhythm’s beginning in 2005, the group has brought an intense surge of energy and positivity to Towson, using its clean choreography with a tough edge to present strength and unity among its members.

When Towson was founded as the Maryland State Normal School in 1866, the school exclusively admitted white students. Today, TU’s student population is still majority white, but the University is becoming increasingly diverse with 43 percent of students being non-white.

Reid sees the presence of her minority-led step team as a testament to that mission to create a diverse and inclusive Towson community. Rhythm celebrated its 13th year by opening for University of Maryland’s Got Talent competition Friday.

Rhythym is composed of 15 members, all with their own unique personality and style, according to Reid. Although its current members hold a strong kinship and support for one another, there was a time in which chemistry wasn’t always so easy to formulate.

“Most of us are freshmen,” said Kenya Downey, a first-year member of Rhythm. “There was a lot of drama and unnecessary energy [before us]. So much so that a lot of people quit. The team almost disbanded completely. Steirra kept it going and took whoever wanted to join.”

Reid, who acquired her position as team captain this school year, said she was afraid to join the team her freshman year, but built up the courage to join when she was a sophomore.

After several of her teammates left the group, Reid sought to build a new Rhythm from scratch.  

“I was just moving on faith at that point,” she said.

Reid hosted auditions in the fall of 2017 to recruit new members. Nenette Bah was one of the TU students to attend those auditions and join the team.

“I never stepped before last semester,” Bah said. “I’ve always thought stepping was cool, so I was like ‘I might as well try it.’ I wanted to be more involved when it came to college…and so here I am.”

Bah’s desire to be more involved on campus was a common reason that other students had for trying out for Rhythm, bringing Reid a mixture of excitement about students’ interest in the group and worry toward how long that interest would last.

“I was a little discouraged at first,” Reid said. “I kind of was a little afraid to do everything by myself [as the only team captain]. I didn’t think that it would turn out to be as successful, but I just kept trying. I just really did not want people to quit.”

Reid’s first foray into gaining members went better than she had expected, with each new member, including Bah, remaining on the team after last fall semester. By late February, Reid held a second set of auditions to recruit even more new members.

Roughly 20 students eager to join Rhythm gathered to be introduced to the team, and each were taught new moves before being given their time to shine as they performed what they learned for evaluation.

“I’m auditioning because I want to build my resume, meet new people, and step outside my comfort zone,” said sophomore Shahzaade Bledsoe.

Some auditionees, like Bledsoe, were interested in trying out new things, while others decided to audition out of their existing passion and background experience in the artform.

“I stepped in high school but I did military step, so it was a little bit different,” Downey said. “I wanted to join the step team here just to kind of reminisce on the high school days.”

There wasn’t a set number of people Reid was looking to take; she expressed that the thing she sought after most was a positive attitude and great energy.

This set of requirements allowed her to revamp the team, and she made sure to fight to keep Rhythm alive, despite the challenges thrown her way. In a little over a week, Reid was able to create a united team, which has fun while also working hard to put pride back into stepping.

“There are phases with our goals,” Reid said. “The first phase was getting the team established. The next is definitely exposure and getting the word out. I want to see Rhythm flourish.”

Rhythm has formed a family-like bond in under a year. Their rehearsals, which take place in two-hour sessions twice a week, consist of humorous banter and casual conversation amid repeated run-throughs and tiny tweaks being made to their choreography.

Downey credits Reid with being the driving force in holding the team together and making something great out of it.

“I always mention that she built the team back up,” Downey said. “Everyone else quit, she took us all as freshmen, and we were able to thrive anyway. Just the fact that people are excited about joining is amazing.”

The cultural significance of Rhythm is another reason why Reid has worked so hard to maintain its strength and presence on campus.

“For me, I just feel like I’m representing my culture being black…. To me, that’s just really powerful,” Reid said. “It just really makes a statement, especially being here at a PWI [predominantly white institution]. I’m not going to change who I am. I’m still going to represent myself, my culture, and my blackness to the fullest, and just be black and excellent in this white space.”

While Reid said Rhythm values the black culture that is so closely tied to stepping, she also acknowledged that other people at Towson may not feel the same.

Reid said step has limited capabilities in altering those whose minds are already made up.

“At the end of the day, you’re only going to open yourself up to what you want to open yourself up to,” she said. “You have to want to know about it, and want to see and want to understand it in order to change the climate. Just being here doesn’t force anybody to come see us perform or come learn about it, especially since we mainly stay within our own community.”

While Rhythm may still be working to make larger gains with those outside of the black community, Downey recognized the accomplishments that the group has made so far in such a short amount of time.

“We got a lot of props the first performance we did,” Downey said. “When the first performance came around, we were all really nervous, ‘cause we had to show out, basically. It really worked out and all of the BSU board members were coming up to us. We were getting compliments for weeks after that performance, so it really hyped us up and motivated us to book a lot of performances for this semester.”

This past year could have been the end of Towson’s step team, but instead it served as the rebirthing of a team ready to push forward one step at a time and conquer anything that gets in their way. For Reid, Rhythm truly is a team for everyone.

“You don’t need rhythm to join Rhythm,” Reid shared during a rehearsal, to looks of confusion from her teammates. “We make our own sound, our own noise. It’s a lot like life: feel what you feel, believe in it, and let it be heard. People will eventually listen.”

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