Step rally

Dancers collide before the 20th annual World's Largest Steppers Contest.

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A new rule had to be added to this year’s World’s Largest Steppers Contest (WLSC): Female dancers not wearing proper underwear will be disqualified. It’s all because of Panty-gate ’09; audience members and fellow contestants, seated below the elevated dance floor at the Tinley Park Convention Center, were scandalized when a stepper with a particularly short hemline wasn’t wearing underwear. Some contestants alleged the skin flashing was an attempt to get extra attention from the judges.

 

A new rule had to be added to this year’s World’s Largest Steppers Contest (WLSC): Female dancers not wearing proper underwear will be disqualified. It’s all because of Panty-gate ’09; audience members and fellow contestants, seated below the elevated dance floor at the Tinley Park Convention Center, were scandalized when a stepper with a particularly short hemline wasn’t wearing underwear. Some contestants alleged the skin flashing was an attempt to get extra attention from the judges.

“If you got a little ballerina dress that flows up, you need to wear proper undergarments,” says WLSC organizer Pete Frazier, 54, who has been to every WLSC—as an ace contestant for the first eight years and a promoter for the last 11. Tall and dressed in a dark, dapper suit, Frazier’s handing out WLSC rules sheets to Chicago contestants at Willa’s Fifty Yard Line on a Monday evening, a week and a half before the prestigious contest. Often called “the Super Bowl of steppin,’” WLSC turns 20 on Saturday 25.

Not everyone is pleased with the strict panty protocol. “Are the judges aware of spankies?” asks one concerned woman, referring to the spandex undergarment worn under cheerleading outfits.

“That’s fine,” says Frazier, who’s a CPA for the city’s Department of Transportation. “I’m talking about walking out there and having on a thong or nothing at all.”

Most nights, the Fifty Yard Line, a sports bar within earshot of the Dan Ryan on 75th Street, is packed with immaculately dressed African-American couples in their thirties, forties and fifties, gliding across the dance floor to midtempo R&B. They’re steppers, practitioners of the impossibly smooth Chicago-born swing derivative that’s been big in South and West Side communities since the 1950s.

On this particular night, there’s no steppin’. The Chicago contestants have shown up to turn in CDs—songs from artists like Rick James, Smokey Robinson and Gerald Levert—for their routines to the WLSC’s DJ, Mellow Khris. But mostly they’ve come to bicker about contest rules, from “Is it legal for a woman to lead?” to “If steppin’ is a man-woman dance, can a transsexual enter the contest?”

Any steppin’ scenester will tell you the WLSC has changed in the 20 years since the inaugural event at the Westin Hotel on Michigan Avenue. As a younger crowd caught on to the dance over the last decade—due in part to Chicagoan R. Kelly’s scene-promoting hit “Step in the Name of Love”—the orthodox “Old School” category spawned a “New School” bracket, which allows moves like lifts and excessive twirls—popular with audiences, frowned upon by traditionalists.

What has remained a constant, though, is the contest’s cut-throat competition. Contestants battling in front of 2,000 people for a purse of $20,000 and glory in the tight-knit scene are notorious sticklers for the rules, and that leads to drama, much of which happens off the parquet. “There’s never been a fistfight,” Frazier says, “but there are a lot of sore-loser-type situations, people looking for any reason to say, ‘Why didn’t I win?’?”

At the Fifty Yard Line, steppers rehash another of last year’s heated disputes: A man in a wheelchair and his partner took first place in the “Original Old School” category. “The rules state you have to have one foot on the floor at all times!” says stepper Nikee, who’s competing in the “Original New School” category. “He can dance, but c’mon, Pete, he should not have won!”

This year, Frazier hopes the pre-dance meeting keeps day-of-contest flare-ups to a minimum. “You always have controversy, always,” he says. “These couples might be the best of friends, but you put them out on that floor and they might not be when the contest is over.”

The World’s Largest Steppers Contest happens Saturday 25 at the Tinley Park Convention Center (18501 S Harlem Ave, Tinley Park), $30. For more info, call 773-339-7880 or go to wlscontest.com.

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