Chicago has the Cubs. Chicago has the Lakefront. Chicago has the Sears Tower. And Chicago has step dancing, called, appropriately enough, Chicago Steppin’.
When JoJo Newsom moved to Baton Rouge more than 20 years ago, she missed her native Chicago. She knew she couldn’t bring her hometown here, she couldn’t make Baton Rouge a city of skyscrapers with a lake and a professional baseball team. But she had an idea she could transplant one Chicago tradition here: step dancing.
“It’s an eight-count beat. The description of stepping is an eight-count beat. Because I’m from Chicago and we didn’t do this dance here, that’s another reason four years ago (for) my compassion to start something,” Newsom said. The notion of step dancing wasn’t so foreign to most folks here, after all, the two-step is a Cajun staple. Newsom incorporated that tradition into her newly formed dance contest four years ago.
“Because I’m in Louisiana, and because I wanted to embrace some of the other dances, that’s why the competition has three categories: steppin, two-step and swing or swing-out. We have Texas next door. They do the two-step. That’s how Louisiana got involved,” Newsom said. By broadening the competition’s categories beyond just Chicago Steppin’, Newsom hoped to generate more interest.
“That’s why the categories and prizes are the way they are. I was trying to attract some people from outside (Baton Rouge). We’ve had people from Maryland - Baltimore, Maryland - from the State of Washington, all throughout the State of Texas, people from Chicago come here every year,” Newsom said.
Newsom also works as a judicial assistant for Juvenile Court Judge Pamela Taylor Johnson. “I’ve been with her for 13 years.”
“It’s just been an experience in seeing Division B develop and grow for the good cause of the children of the parish,” Newsom said. She pairs her cause with her recreation by holding a silent auction during the contest, with a nonprofit agency benefiting.
“Either with the health community or with a cause for children - basically that’s the guidelines. We’ve had sickle cell, we’ve had lupus. Now we have YWCA and Unity Project 6. Their cause is children, the wellness of children and the mentoring of children,” she said. All proceeds from the sale of the auction items goes to the designated nonprofits, she said.
“We have some wonderful items. We have a signature Steppin in the Bayou shoe or pump, in addition to that, the toothpick man, Michael Smith, is going to do a bayou scene because our upper level in the Lyceum, we’re calling it the Bayou Level. So there’s going to be a tour of the swamp.
“His signature pump shoe, probably made out of toothpicks, is going to be one of the auction items.
“The Cartoon Man is going to do a big poster of most of the dancers in Baton Rouge that deal with stepping and two-stepping.
“The Cartoon Man - Keith ?Cartoon Man’ Douglas - he draws caricatures. That’s what he does for a living.
“He has been just an activist in the community, giving back and being involved in particular projects. He’s done a poster board (to be auctioned).”
Although the contest itself is limited to nine couples, the event always draws a big crowd. Newsom estimates some 400 people attended last year’s event. One of the reasons for that is that the competition is sandwiched between other events that invite crowd participation.
“The doors open at 8. The show starts at 9. We introduce members of Steppin’ in the Bayou. We say a prayer for the food.”
“The competition starts about 10 p.m., ends about 1 a.m. We give them time to dance and to eat, and we have spotlight dances. We show people different types of dances. We show them three genres of dances they’re going to see in competition. Competitors have three minutes to do their thing. We have five judges,” Newsom said.
First prize is $1,000; second prize is $500; and third prize is $300.
D’Jon’s Restaurant provides light fare for attendees, and there is a cash bar, she said.
But that’s not all. Prior to the event, there are dance classes offered at BREC’s Independence Park beginning at noon on Saturday, Aug. 6.
“The workshops are $20 a person,” Newsom said. “Line dance workshop is from noon to 2. Steppin’ workshop is 2 to 4.” Kathy Myles of the LJet Dancers of Houston is instructor for the line dance workshop, and Bruce A. Dyer of The Steppers Alliance, Chicago, is the steppin’ teacher.
Then, “everybody goes home to relax for a minute or two, then gets dressed and heads out to have a wonderful time,” Newsom said.
“We do line dances, we do zydeco, we do the other genres that we present, steppin’, two-step and swing. The DJ mixes this up in a very enjoyable continuous music.”
There will be continuous music at the event. Newsom will act as emcee for the event, and the DJ is JT of 106.5.
“It’s R&B, neo-soul; we play Southern soul blues and jazz,” Newsom said. “All of those components of music, you can find a steppin’ tune from those genres.”
So if you plan to go, wear your dancing shoes and night-out attire.
“It’s not black tie, but it’s dress to impress and be comfortable,” Newsom said. “It’s part of the persona to come out dressed head-to-toe.”
Newsom said corporate sponsors help pay for the event.
“Blue Cross and Blue Shield are my biggest sponsor. They have opened up their arms and embraced this project whole-heartedly. I just don’t know what I’d do without them. They provide services and financial support. I do have the attorneys - since I work in the courts system - who have been my supporters as well from the inception of this Steppin in the Bayou Company: Decuir, Clark and Adams; Holt Law Firm, Morgan Law Firm and The Chicken Shack. Joe Delpit has been wonderful and Henry Baptiste in supporting me financially and trying to secure this dream. And Citadel Broadcasting, of course, whom I work for.”
Judges for the competition are: Kathy Miles, LJet of Houston; Bruce A. Dyer, The Steppers Alliance of Chicago; Senetra Wilson-Houston, 2-Step Dancers of Baton Rouge; Larry Munson, Swing Dancers of Baton Rouge; and Joe Lee Lott, Swing-Out judge from Baton Rouge.