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Southland College Prep steppers learn history through Divine Nine sorority performances

About a dozen girls from Southland College Prep Charter High School stood on stage, some wearing performance outfits, individually going through the motions of the step combination and shaking out their arms and legs.

They began their step movements in unison with powerful stomps and claps that vibrated through the Richton Park school’s field house.

They were practicing Tuesday ahead of Wednesday’s performance to honor the Divine Nine, or four sororities and five fraternities created in the early 1900s for Black members, said English teacher and member of Zeta Phi Beta Danielle Epson.

“There were many universities and white organizations that did not allow Black people to be admitted, so we created our own,” Epson said.

The school has teachers who represent the four sororities — Zeta Phi Beta, Delta Sigma Theta, Alpha Kappa Alpha and Sigma Gamma Rho — so Epson said they created teams representing each sorority.

Since October, 31 girls have practiced step routines, Epson said. They also learned the history of stepping and the Divine Nine sororities during Women’s History Month, said special education teacher and Delta Sigma Theta member Meagan Stokes.

The history of stepping is deeply rooted in slavery, Stokes said. To honor that history, each Divine Nine organization has its own chant and sound, she said.

“There were only so many things that people of African American descent could do, so stepping was a form of expression for them to come together to have some type of unity,” Stokes said.

Epson said the girls perform in the order the sororities were founded, so Alpha Kappa Alpha went first, followed by Delta Sigma Theta and Zeta Phi Beta and Sigma Gamma Rho.

Their costumes represent the sorority, they represented. Green and pink colors for Alpha Kappa Alpha or white and royal blue for Zeta Phi Beta, Epson said.

“They have come a long way,” she said. “They have learned a lot.”

Diamond Lee, a senior, said she enjoyed learning about Delta Sigma Theta because her cousin is a sorority sister. Lee said she learned more about the history of slavery through movement and sound.

“I think of it as a way of expressing myself and also have fun with it too,” Lee said. “I am doing this for my ancestors.”

Aliana Gist, a junior, said she enjoyed being a member of the Sigma Gamma Rho group because she’s become close with the other girls while learning how to step.

“We became close quick,” Gist said. “It gives you a feel of what will happen in college.”

Amoria Feaster, a junior, said she really enjoyed learning about the sororities, particularly about her group, Alpha Kappa Alpha.

Feaster said she was comfortable with the step combinations, but also enjoyed learning harder combinations.

“This isn’t for the shy or timid. It makes you step out of your comfort zone,” Feaster said. “It allowed us to be together as one and not individuals.”

When she was a student, Epson said her college held a show the day before Thanksgiving called the Thanksgiving Throw Down. It was her favorite because groups would travel from across the country to compete.

Epson, who has been a teacher for 18 years, said over the years she taught students about Zeta Phi Beta and the Divine Nine, which inspired some of her former students to become sorority sisters.

“It means the world to me. There’s nothing more rewarding than that,” Epson said.

Stokes said she enjoyed performing in step shows in college as well, particularly her first national convention performance. To teach the students the steps and the history has been a powerful experience, she said.

“Having the girls get the experience is just so gratifying,” Stokes said.

akukulka@chicagotribune.com