Courtesy of Aicha Diaby '23

April 13, 2023

Phenomenon Step Team to Compete in National Collegiate Championship

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Phenomenon step team will be among the collegiate teams hoping to dance their way to victory at New York’s Apollo Theater in the College Step Championships on April 22. 

Phenomenon was founded in 1997 as the only step team at Cornell not affiliated with Greek life. Stepping is a form of dance involving rhythms produced through footsteps, claps and chants, and is a tradition in African-American culture and particularly in Black Greek organizations nationwide. In the early 1900s, the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity at Cornell became one of the pioneers in Black Greek life and step dance.

Phenomenon currently has 10 members who practice twice a week, creating routines for the championships and for performances around campus. The team currently performs five or six times a semester, at events such as Relay for Life and the African Dance Repertoire’s showcase. 

Aicha Diaby ’23, Phenomenon president, said that the team fosters close connections among the members due to its small size. 

“We really support one another. Because it’s a small team, we have the ability to get to know each other on a personal level,” Diaby said. “I’ve gotten to learn a lot about my team members and be there to guide them.”

A small squad of four members will be traveling to the championships. These include Diaby, Vice President Bintou Sow ’23, Keenbelynn Bellande ’26 and Marie Cajoux ’26. In addition to the championship, on April 20 the team will perform live on WENY-TV, Ithaca’s local ABC affiliate.

The championship is being hosted by UpStaged Entertainment Group, an organization dedicated to creating competitive championships for performing arts at the collegiate level. The competition, where eight college teams selected from video submissions will compete against each other, features $13,000 in prize money. 

“The concept of UpStaged is to give student performers the chance to compete like athletes, to get the media attention, the prize money and the chance to compete on a real stage,” Lizzie Seedhouse, the UpStaged marketing chief, said in an interview with The Sun. 

According to Seedhouse, teams will face off against each other in an elimination bracket until a winner is crowned. Each team will also be paired with a charity — Phenomenon is paired with the Boys & Girls Club of Harlem — that will receive a portion of any prize money earned by the team. The Boys & Girls Club of Harlem provides safe spaces for children in the local community. 

Though Sow has practiced stepping since elementary school, she has never performed competitively and described a mix of emotions towards performing on TV and in the championships. 

“I’m very nervous. But I’m also excited because being at a collegiate step competition where there are other really solid teams is just surreal,” Sow said. “I’m very grateful that we can step with each other and get that kind of sportsmanship as well.”

Diaby emphasized that, rather than focusing on winning, the team is concentrating on learning from the opportunity. 

“It’s the first time this team is actually going to a step competition,” Diaby said. “So it’s more like, okay, this is our first time being in a space like this. Let’s learn what we can, make the most of it and have as much fun as we can.”

Diaby said that when she joined as a freshman, the team was much larger. She attributed the loss in members to a combination of graduating students and the pandemic. The group also struggled to find enough members to bring to the championship, as a minimum of four students per team were required to compete, and many team members were unable to attend due to academic conflicts. However, members hope that through the championships and tabling on campus, interest in Phenomenon will grow. 

“I’m looking for it to get back to [the size] it was when I joined the team,” Diaby said. “I want Phenomenon to live on.”

Though Sow and Diaby are graduating this May, they are hoping to leave behind a legacy of opening the team up to new members and new experiences. According to Sow, the team now performs much more frequently than it did in the past when the team would rarely make appearances at campus events, and may start to compete against other collegiate teams more regularly.

“Step is something anyone could do. It’s bringing a community together and teaching and having fun,” Sow said. “At the end of the day, it’s just a really rewarding experience.”