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Gallery event explores the impact of Chicago Steppin in Atlanta

Anjulet Tucker, chief of operations in the office of the president, is also a cultural sociologist, stepper and Emory alumna. This week, she moderates an evening of dance and conversation exploring Chicago Steppin in Atlanta, part of a series of events supporting the Billops-Hatch exhibit in Woodruff Library's Schatten Gallery.

As chief of operations for the office of the president, Anjulet Tucker understands the strategic choreography required to make things happen.

People. Connections. Dialogue. Action. Individually, each is vital to the life of the university. But working together, they have the power to advance both the university’s mission and President Claire E. Sterk’s vision — the essence of Tucker's job.

On any given day, she may be driving a number of projects and processes that are of interest to President Sterk. It’s a role that affords Tucker what she calls “a helicopter view of campus,” connecting her with people across all units of the university.

This week, however, she will take on the role of an educator, leading a public program entitled: “Let’s Go to Work!: The Spread of Chicago Steppin in Atlanta.”

Hosted by Emory’s Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library, the program is among a series of events being held this semester in support of “Still Raising Hell: The Art, Activism and Archives of Camille Billops and James V. Hatch,” now on view in the Robert W. Woodruff Library’s Schatten Gallery.

An urban dance form that originated in Chicago and continues to evolve, Chicago Steppin is a popular form of social dancing — picture a smooth, soulful swing dance set to a laidback tempo — that Tucker has studied both as a cultural sociologist and an avid enthusiast. It’s not unusual to find her dancing several times a week, she admits.

Emory Report caught up with Tucker ahead of her campus presentation to discuss how Chicago Steppin became both a personal interest and a focus of her scholarship.

Let’s talk about your background. Where are you from and what led you to Emory, first as a student and then as an administrator?

I am originally from Long Island, New York. I came to Emory as an undergraduate in 1996 and fell in love with the campus at first sight. After getting a masters degree at Harvard Divinity School, I returned to Emory to pursue a PhD in religious studies in 2002. I came back because I loved living in Atlanta and because Emory felt like home. 

After leaving Emory, I worked as a tenure track professor, but decided to explore a career in higher education administration. I've always been interested in all aspects of higher education; that deepened when I served as a resident hall director at Emory and a faculty in residence at Boston University.

How were you drawn to your academic pathway?

I wrote my dissertation about an African American woman who founded a junior college in Mississippi in the early 20th century, and the sociopolitical climate that included some traditional religious ideas that thwarted her efforts and contributed to the school's demise. I've always been interested in telling under-explored or underreported stories about underrepresented communities. 

How did Chicago Steppin become a personal interest?

I discovered Chicago Steppin here in Atlanta. Chicago Steppin is a partnered, social, ballroom dance. A good friend invited me out to a restaurant in Atlanta where steppers were hanging out and showing off their moves on a dance floor. I was hooked the first time I saw it.

In particular, I was drawn to the fact that the dance attracts an intergenerational, socio-economically diverse group of primarily African Americans. I was also enamored with the music that flows between classic and neo-soul. I starting attending classes and became a Steppin regular. Eventually, I began traveling to Chicago to take lessons with some of the most nationally renowned instructors. 

A few years ago, I received a small grant to return to Atlanta to study Chicago steppers in Atlanta. At the time, I was interested in learning more about what drew people to the dance. I was fascinated by the ways that steppers talked about their dance communities.

As a sociologist of religion, I was curious about the ways that some steppers in the study talked about the connection between this social dance and their spirituality. I’m working on an article for “Southern Spaces,” which is housed here at Emory, that will discuss the results of this study in more detail. The interactive article will include a short film on Steppin that I helped produce with Clint Fluker, a Laney Graduate School PhD candidate in the Institute of the Liberal Arts, and Steve Bransford at the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship.

Do you engage with Chicago Steppin as a performer?

I wouldn't call myself a performer. Chicago Steppin differs from ballroom dance in that way. It is a social dance that attracts everyday people, some of whom have never danced before. 

Tell us a bit about your upcoming program connected to the Billops-Hatch exhibit.

The idea for designing a program that connects Steppin to the exhibit came from Clint Fluker and Pellom McDaniels [curator at the Rose Library]. I am excited about hosting a program that will help draw attention to this exquisite exhibit. Steppers have created a dance and a subculture, but many of them do not see themselves as part of a larger Black Arts movement. By having the program in the gallery, I hope that some of the steppers will start to see themselves as part of something much larger. I also hope that they will be inspired by the legacy of Camille Billops and James Hatch to start thinking about how they will preserve this subculture. 

Does Emory have its own Steppin community?

I wouldn't say that Emory has its own community. I would say that there are several steppers who work at Emory. Kharen Fulton, who was a long-time director of diversity recruitment for Laney Graduate School, was an avid stepper. She passed away in 2016. Kharen was one of the original members of an Atlanta group called Class Act Steppers, one of the first Steppin clubs that organized in Atlanta. 

If you knew Kharen, you knew that she was the epitome of style and grace. She was a Class Act! There is a fellowship named in her honor, and during the program, I hope to share more information about how people can support it. 

With your professional responsibilities, do you still find time to participate in Steppin?

Steppin is not a dance; it is a lifestyle. One of the reasons I was excited to return to Atlanta was because of the Steppin community here. They are like a second family. I dance at least twice a week, and during special events, I may dance up to four days a week! This weekend, Atlanta's pre-eminent steppers organization, Good Deeds International, will be hosting their annual Heritage Ball. It attracts thousands of Steppers from around the country. So, yes, I will be out dancing all weekend. 

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