How have music and dance affected the Omaha community?
Stepping on Up... Drill and Step in Omaha
African American music and dance have been powerful and significant forces in the musical history of the United States. Drill and step has roots in West African social and spiritual customs, resistance during slavery in the United States, and cultural participation and innovations such as military service, community and school-based teams, and Black Greek Letter Organizations. Drill and step in Omaha dates back to the early 20th century and continues to be part of community celebrations such as Native Omaha Days and the Juneteenth parade.
Our students relied on both scholarly research and interviews they conducted themselves to uncover the history of drill and step in Omaha. Our students had the opportunity to interview five members of the Omaha community: Vickie Young, president of the Omaha chapter of the NAACP; Wendy Jones, drill and dance instructor with A Step Above the Rest; Phyllis Hicks, founder of the Salem Stepping Saints; James “Miguel” Mason III, former member of a collegiate stepping team; and Derantay Stephens, a drill instructor. These invaluable interviews enabled our students to put together a documentary about the history of drill and step as an important part of African American musical history and the history of Omaha.
Video: 9 minute video with 2017 interviews with Vickie Young, president of the Omaha chapter of the NAACP; Wendy Jones, drill and dance instructor with A Step Above the Rest; Phyllis Hicks, founder of the Salem Stepping Saints; James “Miguel” Mason III, former member of a collegiate stepping team; and Derantay Stephens, a drill instructor.
Salem Stepping Saints
Members of the Salem Stepping Saints drill team dressed up in beautiful purple and red uniforms for a performance. The Salem Stepping Saints of Omaha, Nebraska celebrated their 50th anniversary in 2017. The group was founded by Phyllis Hicks and Jackie Bowles in 1967 as an outreach for the Salem Baptist Church. The Stepping Saints is made up of students aged 12 to 20 who practice multiple times a week. They are best known for their performances in parades like the Native Omaha Days parade. The Saints also have had many opportunities to travel nationally to competitions and performances. The Salem Stepping Saints are part of a long history both in Omaha and throughout the United States of drill and step teams rooted in the music and dance history of African Americans. (Photograph courtesy of Salem Stepping Saints).
North Omaha Drill Teams
The Salem Drill team pictured in 1971. The Drill Team was celebrating the completion of Salem's newly-built church by marching from the old church at 2741 Decatur St. to the new one located at 3336 Lake St. People of all ages gather up on the curb to see the performance. Drill teams were important to North Omaha because they helped the community mark important occasions. They brought joy and inspiration to the community. Salem's church moved again in 2000 to a larger church located at 3131 Lake St. (Photograph courtesy of Great Plains Black History Museum).
Members of the Elks march and play music for the Juneteenth Parade celebrating the freedom that slaves in Texas gained on June 19, 1865. While in 2017 Juneteenth is not yet an official U.S. holiday, it holds significance to the African American community in Omaha. In 2017, the parade is organized by Vickie Young and the Omaha branch of the NAACP. Even though Juneteenth's popularity has faded over the years, drill teams and community organizations, like the Elks, still parade down North 30th Street every June 19.
Step Teams and Black Letter Organizations
This photo shows one of the Black Letter Organizations (BLOs) step teams and the significance of staying together as a group moving and working as one. It is important for BLOs to stay together because, throughout the 20th century, Black people needed social organizations at predominately all-white colleges and at Black colleges for support and mentoring. BLOs can help people that are trying to turn their life around or trying to find some kind of organization to get involved in. (Photograph courtesy of Barry Thomas.)
Omega Psi Phi
The circa 2009 photograph of James Mason III catches him mid-step at a performance in Kansas City at the 8th district meeting of the historically black fraternity, Omega Psi Phi. Mason is a member of the Beta Upsilon Chapter, which is the Omaha branch of Omega Psi Phi. James Mason III’s father helped begin the Omaha chapter. Notice the stylish and sparkling golden boots, a tradition of the fraternity. The origin of this tradition is a secret. (Photograph courtesy of James Mason III).
Stone Soul Picnic
Tamara Jones looks at a cultural display of photographs of Black women at the Stone Soul Picnic, which was a celebration similar to Native Omaha Days. Both events brought the African American community together to be proud of their cultural heritage (c. 1970).
Drill and step were part of a larger musical scene in Omaha throughout the 20th century, especially from the 1920s through the postwar era. A variety of Black-owned and operated businesses and musical clubs surrounding 24th and Lake Street hosted community events and big-name musicians, including the likes of Duke Ellington.
Drill and step teams date back to the early decades of the 20th century but the roots of the music and dancing go much deeper. Scholars have traced many characteristics to West African cultural practices and through historical experiences of African Americans in the United States, including slavery, resistance, military service, and social dancing.
Scholars have identified many West African roots – such as call and response, polyrhythm, use of percussion, improvisation, and the incorporation of pageantry as both ceremonially significant and for humor and ridicule. Many of these elements survived the Middle Passage and were incorporated into rituals and dances performed by slaves. Indeed, the bodily percussion so integral to many step performances has been related to “patting juba,” a dance developed in response to restricted use of drums and other instruments. Furthermore, dances such as the “cakewalk” drew on traditions of pageantry and subversive humor to ridicule slave owners.
Moving through the 20th century, a strong legacy of military service among African Americans influenced the formation of drill and step dances, in addition to evolving musical trends such as jazz and hip hop. While drill and step share many characteristics, these two distinct styles are developed and performed in different social settings. Drill teams often perform in parades or public events with accompaniment by live percussion. Step teams often perform in formal competitions and rely on bodily percussion produced by the group members as part of the choreography, supplemented by recorded music often utilizing rap and hip hop. Black Greek Letter Organizations were integral to the development of step teams and collegiate competitions as Black students formed networks and clubs of their own in response to formal segregation and social exclusion.
Drill and step teams continue to this day, ranging from informal community gatherings to high-budget, formal collegiate competitions. The history of drill and step can be traced through the experiences of African Americans in the United States as well as to West African social and spiritual customs. The practice and performance of drill and step mirrors the history of African American music in the way that it has both deep historical roots and is ever-evolving in the present.
Written by Ashley Dorn, University of Iowa.
2017 MIHV Project
"I learned that you have to take a lot of time to study and be on top of what you are doing to make it the best it can be. I learned a lot about the North Omaha community that I didn’t even know and my family lives right in the middle of it."
- Jimeace R.
"I’ve changed by being more aware of my surroundings and knowing there is a history behind it."
- Angeer K.
"The best thing about being in MIHV was that we got to feel the connection of dance and music with people."
- Rose D.
"Being in MIHV has been a good experience and a chance to learn about my community. It is also a chance to get to know new people."
- Diamond M.
"We would all benefit from learning about the history of our country which does definitely include major African American cultural and intellectual contributions."
- Alexandria S.
"The best part of the experience is meeting people who have been there when the history was happening. I’ve changed a lot by knowing more about my culture."
- Aliyah C.
Alamdari, Natalia. “Native Omaha Days Are Extra Special for Salem Stepping Saints as Drill Team Marks 50th Anniversary.” Omaha.com. Accessed August 10, 2017.
Fine, Elizabeth. “Stepping, Saluting, Cracking, and Freaking: The Cultural Politics of African-American Step Shows.” The Drama Review: TDR 35, no. 2 (1991): 39.
Fine, Elizabeth C. Soulstepping: African American Step Shows. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003.
Howard, Ashley M. “Then the Burning Began: Omaha, Riots, and the Growth of Black Radicalism, 1966-1969.” M.A., University of Nebraska at Omaha, 2006.
Kimbrough, Walter M. Black Greek 101: The Culture, Customs, and Challenges of Black Fraternities and Sororities. Teaneck NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2003.
Malone, Jacqui. Steppin’ on the Blues: The Visible Rhythms of African American Dance. Folklore and Society. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996.
Stearns, Marshall Winslow. Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance. New York: Schirmer Books, 1979.
Tamara L., Brown, Gregory S. Parks, and Clarenda M. Phillips, eds. African American Fraternities and Sororities: The Legacy and the Vision. Second edition. Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 2012.
Research compiled by Aliyah C., Jimeace R., Diamond M., Rose D., Alexandria S., and Angeer K.
The students who worked on the drill and step project will attend high school at South High, North High and Central High.