“If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” ~ Audre Lorde
As a young girl, adults often labeled me as “shy.”
It was a title I secretly hated and struggled to shed. There was so much more to me than the “shy” label permitted me to be. Yes, I was soft-spoken, and yes, I chose my words carefully and had a quiet disposition, but those qualities were just a few parts of a very colorful inner me – one that I wanted people to see and celebrate. I was a dreamer, a visionary, and a leader among my peers but people often confused my humility and mild-mannered temperament for being fearful to speak or to be seen. I longed for an outlet that would amplify my inner voice, and then I discovered stepping.
African-American step dance is rooted in the concept of self-empowerment.
Steppers use their entire bodies as drums, coordinating their hands, feet, arms and legs to create intricate rhythms. Step has its earliest roots in the migrant labor culture of South African gold mines in the late 1800s. Black miners, working in oppressive conditions, were beaten or killed if they tried to communicate, and so they created a new language by slapping the sides of their work boots, known as “gumboots,” to create a rhythmic code. There, in the belly of the earth, an alienated and voiceless people found a way to express their inner most selves. Linked to that tradition, in the 1920s, African-American fraternities and sororities on college campuses used rhythm as a mouthpiece to demonstrate brotherhood and sisterhood. College students would gather in the center of campus, or the “yard” as it was referred to, and perform coordinated rhythms and chants. That custom evolved into a huge cultural trend that is practiced today in inner cities, schools, colleges, community centers and churches across the country.
I was seven years old when I fell in love with this rich legacy of rhythmic expression.
I saw step for the first time in my Newark, NJ neighborhood and have been stepping ever since. The other girls in my neighborhood and I would gather to show off our most complicated hand and foot work, filling the block with the sounds of our coordinated stomps and claps. With the backdrop of violence and drugs, step was a safe space for us to express ourselves. Step gave me permission to be an intense Maxine, a powerful Maxine, an undeniably loud Maxine – and in those moments of performance the shy girl stigma was no more. As I grew older step became a fixed part of my life, leading me to create a step team in college, and eventually to found one of the only professional step companies in the world, Soul Steps. Now, through my work with Soul Steps, I have the opportunity to go into schools and encourage young people to unlock their inner voice through rhythm.
As an Educator with Girls Leadership,
I sometimes meet girls in our workshops who remind me of my younger self. We’re in the middle of a high impact game of Whoosh, the energy is flowing, the Whoosh gets to that girl and then – fizzle, fizzle, fizzle. A squeaky, practically inaudible “Whoosh” passes her lips. She has the biggest smile on her face, she’s having a great time, but because her loud doesn’t match everyone else’s loud she seems to have fallen short of her Whoosh duties…slowly her smile fades. Girls Leadership has challenged me to remember seven-year old Maxine in that moment – to remember that beyond the surface there is a budding voice that needs cultivation; that not everyone’s voice sounds the same; that my goal is to help that girl believe that her outside demonstration of self does not define the inner self, nor can anyone else define that inner self for her…
With loads of nervous energy, a parent pulls me to the side, an apologetic look on his or her face (or in some cases a look of complete horror), laughs uncomfortably and politely remarks, “I’m sorry she’s so shy.”
In remembrance of the lives that were sacrificed so that diversity could be celebrated, in honor of all the budding voices in our girls across the country, and with a nod to the little stepper in all of us, I respond with an assuring smile, “It’s okay. Give her time. She’ll step into her own.”
In addition to her role as a Senior Educator for Girls Leadership, Maxine Lyle is Founder and Artistic Director of Soul Steps, a professional step company (as in African-American stepping, not to be confused with Irish step dance).
Watch Soul Steps on Good Day New York, performing in celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day.