R. Kelly And The Fall Of Steppin In Chicago

  Top Chicago Instructors, L. C. Henderson and Donnie Davis

A lot of people seem somewhat surprised about Chicago’s lack of competitiveness in the World’s Largest Steppers Contest in the last 4 to 5 years.  Meanwhile, Detroit is in a Golden Age of Steppin right now, and champions have emerged from all over including Milwaukee, Alabama, Atlanta and beyond.  Interestingly absent from the picture however, is Chicago.

I hear in casual conversation people asking, “How is it that the birth place of the dance, and unquestionably the largest population of Steppers on the planet is producing so little talent?”  Some people say, “These Out-of-Towners are hungrier for the dance.  They’re working harder.”  And while that could very well be true, I’d like to pose a different theory. 

In a previous article I discussed the “Post R. Kelly Era” as the time period extending from 2004 on.  To be clear, the “Step In The Name of Love” video filming took place around the end of summer in 2003 and was followed by performances on the Vibe Awards and Billboard awards, all of which caused a national Steppin craze and a demand from cities all of the nation to learn how to Step.  It was an exciting time for Steppers that included television appearances, news demonstrations, radio appearances, college exhibitions, and legitimate talks of movie deals.  People really thought this was going to be their big break … a chance to even possibly strike it rich simply doing a dance that they loved. 

Prior to the R. Kelly movement, Steppin was pretty much a local dance.  There were small groups of Steppers in Detroit, Milwaukee, and Atlanta but the national community really wasn’t involved.  Chicago Steppin instruction was compartmentalized with good talent coming from MAK 3, Dre and Company, L. C. Henderson, Donnie Davis, and a few others.  Classes were pretty big with numbers ranging from 40 to 100 on any given day.  Steppers didn’t usually bounce from class to class.  The only time this really happened is when a Stepper was unhappy with the instruction they were getting.

The different instructional classes created friendly rivalries in the competitions, but often times students from different classes were partnered together for the contest.  Just about all of the top instructors had jobs, so Steppin was something they did on the side because they loved it and because it put a few extra dollars in their pockets.  Classes were a bit different as well.  There were live DJ’s, food served, birthdays celebrated, staff members checking you in, and so on.  To be frank, you could have so much fun in the class you wouldn’t even need to go out afterwards, although it was generally encouraged.

Much of this would begin to change after the R. Kelly era however.  Out-of-towners were hungry to learn Steppin and they were reaching out from all over the nation.  Not only were they reaching out, but they had money, and where willing to pay top dollar for instruction and privates.  The money was flowing in, untaxed, and it surpassed what Steppers were willing to pay in Chicago where the dance was abundant and prices of $10 to $15 dollars a class were pretty much the standard.

The demand was so high that a number of Steppers (a la Andre Blackwell, L. C. Henderson, Steppin B, Bruce Dyer) left their jobs to be become disciples of the dance and teach Steppin for a living.  There were other instructors who traveled and kept their jobs, but most of those that could travel to meet the demand did.  For a long time they were able to travel and keep large classes as well.  Over a period of time however, the classes would start to dwindle. 

When the top instructors made Steppin their main business, a lot of the things the students used to get for free, as you might imagine, would have to be charged for.  In my case, I paid for classes for over 2 years with Dre, but I never knew what a private was.  Looking back on it, I got privates from Dre all the time, even when I was a paying student, I just didn’t pay for them because Dre worked with all of students on the side.  During contest time, Dre would group all of his contestants together and give them “private” instruction for free.  I guess that would be considered a “Contest Workshop” today.

What I’m trying to say is, when Steppin became people’s bread and butter, they had to focus on the money, and when you focus on the money, you have to pay attention to the people who had the most of it to spend, and that was the Out-of-towners.  You can’t give the knowledge away freely like it was done in the Pre R. Kelly Era, because knowledge was the only commodity the instructors had to sell.  So when you wonder why Chicago has fallen off over the past 10 years, and Out-of-Towners are doing so well, it’s because all of our best instructors have been dedicating their talents to teaching them for the last 10 years, while Chicago talent stopped being nurtured at the same level it was in the past.

The interesting portion of the conundrum, that has basically put top instructors like Dre out of business, is that now the Out-of-Towners can teach themselves.  The Out-of-Towners don’t need our top instructors to come out regularly anymore.  They have contest champions and incredible dancers in their own cities that they can lean on for knowledge and instruction now.  Sure, they’ll welcome a workshop from a Heavy Hitter here and there, but it’s not regular.  So a lot of these instructors came back home only to find that most of what they had established has deteriorated over the last 10 years.  The talent pool is bare, and the desire is gone.  There are instructors with two left feet teaching for free just to be popular, and the best instructors are either forced to try to compete by lowering their prices or deciding to sit on the sidelines. 

Let me say this in closing … I know this article is going to be controversial.  It’s a theory I’ve formed to try and explain where the talent in Chicago has gone.  But I’ll offer this … It used to be easy to identity the talent coming out of the each organization (L. C.: Steppin B, Cliff, Maisha, Tameka, Felicia); Dave Maxx: Tee Tee Nash, D Wills); Dre (Sha, Stefan, Rello, Me and so many others) Steppers like Shareda, Nikki, and Lady Margaret who spent time with Donnie Davis.  Now to be fair, Donnie Davis is one of the few instructors that never really left the Chicago seen, and he’s been consistently teaching his class in the same place for years.  Even so, my question to all of the top Chicago instructors is … where is the new talent? 

Detroit is producing hit after hit after hit … while it seems Chicago has left the studio.