I can vaguely remember fraternity step routines from my LSU dorm days. Mostly what I remember is that one group used to rehearse in the Horseshoe, the small field outside our dorms, at some unbelievably early hour of the morning. At first my roomie and I thought we were hearing military marches, but then learned about the highly rehearsed, rigidly choreographed chants and moves that make up a step show. Although I heard a lot of step numbers while half-asleep, until I saw Stomp the Yard this week, I've never had a good long look at step teams in performance.
Stomp the Yard is a much better movie than its trailers would indicate, and better than many of its predecessors in the teen-dance genre. In fact, this movie reminded me less of dance films like Step Up and more of sports films. Odd as it may sound, the storyline most recalled Bring it On, but instead of high-school cheerleader girls, the characters are stepping fraternity brothers.
The movie focuses on DJ (Columbus Short), a teen who leads a group of top-notch Los Angeles "battle" dancers -- gangs of street dancers competing in underground nightspots for money. But these are hardly the dancing gangs out of West Side Story; here, the losing gang attacks DJ's team, bricks and guns are used in the fight, and DJ's beloved brother is killed. DJ is persuaded by his relatives to leave LA and attend Truth University, a historically black college in Atlanta, and his entire world changes. At first he ridicules the step routines performed by fraternities on campus, and they're less than impressed with him until they see him dancing in a local nightclub. Suddenly DJ's being courted by rival fraternities: The arrogant guys who always win the national step competition, whose second-in-command is dating the woman DJ has fallen for, and who promise him good business connections; and the underdogs, who desperately want to win the step championship, and who promise him brotherhood. No points for guessing what DJ decides. The storyline has absolutely no surprises, and there are a few weak spots that you don't want to dwell on, but the dance and step numbers help carry the movie.
The step routines in Stomp the Yard are great to watch -- full of energy. As in the other typical dance films, part of the storyline is the combination of traditional dance (or in this case, step) with a new, contemporary style (street dancing). It's more subtle than, say, mixing ballet and hip-hop, and the performers all seem to carry off all their moves with ease, and without over-obvious use of doubles. (Can you tell I just watched Save the Last Dance?) I liked the rehearsal scenes in an empty pool, although DJ's solo dance in the pool was a little too music-video-ish. On the other hand, I disliked the way in which the opening battle-dance sequence was shot, in which the camera moved around so much it was almost nausea-inducing. Fortunately, that technique was used only in the opening scene.
The acting is not as strong as the dancing -- it's probably easier to teach dancers to act than vice versa. In addition, the script doesn't give the actors a lot to work with in terms of characterization. Columbus Short (who currently has a recurring role on Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip) doesn't have much emotional range as DJ, but he doesn't have to, since he expresses many of his emotions in dance numbers. Musician Ne-Yo provides a little comic relief as DJ's roommate Rich. Meagan Good (Brick, D.E.B.S.) plays the non-dancing love interest and manages to make the character strong and lively in a movie dominated by male characters. Darrin Henson does his best as April's boyfriend Grant, but the character is too broadly the "bad guy" of the film; a more complex role would have added some interest. It often seemed that characters acted a certain way not because it was part of their personality, but because they had to keep the plot moving in a particular (and usually predictable) direction.
What impressed me about Stomp the Yard was the obvious attempt by the filmmakers, including director Sylvain White, to tell a story set in a primarily African-American community without relying on negative racial stereotyping. In other dance and sports movies, the teens' problems often are laid at the door of parents who are prostitutes, alcoholics, or abusive in some way. The adults we see in Stomp the Yard are responsible professionals -- DJ's uncle works for the university and his aunt sells real estate, and they live in a suburban house that I would covet. April's dad, Dr. Palmer, is the university provost. We don't see DJ's home situation in LA; he has one phone conversation with his unseen mom, who wants him to stay in Atlanta and get a college education. Once DJ arrives in Atlanta, he encounters ambitious, hard-working students (although mostly what we see them working hard to do is to step). Before the big step competition, the students take a moment to pray, but not in an overly sanctimonious way. The movie is trying to promote black pride, particularly in young men, by wrapping its moral messages in a fun atmosphere of dance. It can't be coincidence that Stomp the Yard is opening on the weekend before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day -- the film even ends with a quote from King.
I saw Stomp the Yard in a full theater with an especially lively audience. The women loved the numerous scenes in which the dancers went shirtless -- one might wonder if those scenes were a little gratuitous, but I certainly didn't object. The audience applauded the step routines and dance numbers and booed the film's villains. Fortunately, you don't need to hear every word of dialogue, or even follow every formulaic plot element, in order to enjoy the movie. I don't think I would have liked Stomp the Yard half so much in an empty theater or on DVD; it's definitely a film to catch on a weekend night with a big crowd.