(April 30, 2023). It was exactly 40 years ago on April 30, 1983, that Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” ascended to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming his fifth solo chart-topper (of 13 total).
Earlier this month, a chapter of the historically Black Greek organization Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc., also affectionately known by their nickname “The Ques,” honored Jackson in a step show competition on Virginia Tech’s campus by incorporating elements of the “Beat It” music video as well as several of the King of Pop’s other huge hits. Scroll down further to see a video of the full performance.
It all happened during Va. Tech’s annual Overton R. Johnson Memorial Scholarship step competition, the show held during the university’s Black Alumni Reunion weekend (April 14-16) and named for the school’s first Black faculty member who was also an avid supporter of Black causes and an advocate for equal access to higher education.
Now for those readers who may not know, “stepping” is a dance tradition in Black fraternity and sorority culture where one’s full body is used to produce syncopated movements that include hard, audible foot-stomps, rhythmic hand-claps, signature arm gestures and facial expressions, rigid stances, well-choreographed dances, and chants that demonstrate pride in the organization doing the stepping.
At the annual Overton step show, held this year on Friday, April 14 in the Commonwealth Ball Room at Tech’s Squires Student Center, each of the “Divine Nine” Black Greek organizations that make up the National Pan-Hellenic Council have an opportunity to compete by bringing their best, most creative moves while incorporating themes designed to meet the competition’s strict judging criteria.
While not all nine fraternities and sororities were available for this year’s competition, other dance troupes graced the stage with their own routines (which were also on-point, I might add).
This year’s competition criteria centered on the theme “cinema,” which meant that all of the stepping organizations had to incorporate some form of—or reference to—movies or films in their routines.
Among other things, such as precision (uniformity in their steps), level of difficulty, originality, intensity, creativity, and even “transitions,” the fraternities and sororities would be judged on how well they adhered to the year’s theme.
In the case of The Ques, or specifically Tech’s Eta Lambda undergraduate chapter, seven young brothers (Chapter Basileus Yosef Woods, plus Bros. Michael Roberts, Isaac Donkor, Quentin Holmes, Anthony Sanmiego, Beniah Lee and Peter Nwachukwu) put on a show for the ages, incorporating both the fraternity’s traditional steps plus elements of iconic dance sequences contained in the late King of Pop’s legendary music videos. Their adherence to the cinematic theme was based on the premise that MJ’s videos were indeed mini-movies, an assumption that was cleared with judges beforehand.
Now before I continue, there are some disclosures I need to make. First, I’m a Va. Tech alumnus. Second, I’m a huge Michael Jackson fan (with “Beat It” being among my all-time favorite songs).
Third, and perhaps most importantly, I’m also a brother of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc., having pledged this same Eta Lambda chapter in 1987. It is tradition in our chapter to maintain connections between younger and older brothers, particularly at Va. Tech—a predominately white university where we all share a unique bonding experience.
By virtue of those connections, I made it a point to attend this year’s Black Alumni Reunion, or BAR as it is known, and the Overton Step Show, both of which had been affected in recent years by the recently cancelled pandemic.
This year’s step show was to be hosted by none other than one of our own Eta Lambda chapter brothers and Tech alumnus, Duston Scarborough, whose natural ability to work the crowd would be on full display that evening.
What I didn’t expect to see when I got there was this thriller (yes, pun intended) of a show these young brothers put on in front of hundreds of appreciative fellow students and alumni (and their families) who cheered them on as the men in purple and gold (our frat’s colors) alternated between traditional “Que” steps and MJ’s highly choreographed sequences, not only for “Beat It,” but for other classics like “Thriller,” “Bad” and “You Rock My World” as well.
Truth be told, while MJ was the biggest pop star on the planet during the years I attended Tech, and his Bad album was all over the radio during my first full year as a member of the fraternity in 1987-88, it wasn’t exactly considered cool to be the King of Pop’s “biggest fan” and a Que at the same time.
This was especially true as Michael was unaffectionately being called “Wacko Jacko” for the various, shall we say, eccentricities he increasingly displayed (or was unfairly accused of) as the 1980s wore on.
So you can understand when I say that, upon seeing my Gen-Z frat brothers hopping to “Bad,” “Thriller” and, of course, “Beat It,” I thought I had died and gone to some Que/Michael Jackson heaven, or at least a parallel universe where it was actually now considered cool to be like this Mike (and to do it openly in a Que step show).
It was a sentiment I expressed to some of my generation’s frat brothers after sending them a video of the younger brothers’ performance, when I rhetorically asked, “where were THESE Ques when I was coming up?” (I’ll spare you some of the fork-tongued answers I received in response.)
Speaking of this month’s performance, it had a traditional kickoff, with five of the seven current chapter brothers doing “Sh-boom-boom,” a well-known Que step that includes spins, arm waves, head swivels, kicks, shouts and yelps…you know, the kind of stuff that MJ also did (all Michael might have been missing were the dog barks, another well known Que tradition).
Then two of the brothers—the chapter’s basileus (a/k/a president) Yosef Woods and one of his neophytes, Beniah Lee—launched into a skit of one of MJ’s last videos for the 2001 song “You Rock My World.” The two brothers recreated the video’s opening dialogue (“I betcha I can get that girl”) between MJ and actor/comedian Chris Tucker—all of this while a very tall and, umm, well-dressed female entices them as she struts sexily across the stage.
The two brothers then launched into an impressive dance routine akin to what MJ did in “You Rock My World,” the only MJ song whose video these young brothers may have been alive to see upon its first release (in 2001).
After being joined by four more brothers onstage, they immediately transitioned from “You Rock My World” to a reenactment of MJ’s “Bad” video, where MJ famously had a beef with the character played by actor Wesley Snipes.
Only, instead of performing MJ’s dance routine from the video, the brothers incorporated Que steps while the 1987 No. 1 song played behind them (don’t you think I would’ve loved to have done that in my neophyte year while that song was a hit?).
Also, kudos to the brothers for using the “Bad” segment as an opportunity to highlight some of MJ’s trademarks, like his famous phrase “ch’mon” and song titles like “Who Is It?” and “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” in their prerecorded dialogue that soundtracked the step show.
The bruhs also took the opportunity to stage a mock fight between Jackson and fellow ‘80s icon Prince (played by Bro. Quentin Holmes), who brought the “purple thunder” with his guitar (and his crew).
This “Prince,” the real life version of whom famously turned down an opportunity to be Wesley Snipe’s character in the “Bad” video, actually gets in a hard slap across MJ’s face during the Ques’ simulation, which I couldn’t help but wonder if this was inspired by the slap heard around the world at last year’s Academy Awards, or just the result of a repressed Prince fan who wanted his guy to get some shine (Bro. Holmes denied knowing about Prince’s rejection of being MJ’s antagonist in the “Bad” video when he put this part of the show together).
More Que steps and MJ tributes followed the Prince skit, including the frat’s traditional “ripple” sequence, where brothers stand tightly in a line and, with a rippling effect, rapidly mimic the movements of the brother standing directly in front of them in succession until all of them have completed the steps and are once again locked in a tight pose.
The “ripple” was followed by the brothers’ “What Time Is It (Que Time)” step, another fraternity tradition, which is where “Beat It” came in.
In this part of the show, the brothers mixed some of their own steps with the iconic ending dance sequence of the “Beat It” video, which was originally choreographed by the late dancer Michael Peters (who also played one of the knife-wielding gang leaders in the original video).
It was the “Beat It” part of the show that drew the loudest crowd reaction (at least that was my perspective and I’m sticking to it). The precision with which the brothers did every arm wave, every hand shuffle, took me back to the time when that video first hit MTV and how it made the song such a massive hit.
Of course, no MJ tribute—which is essentially what the Ques’ show boiled down to—would be complete without including “Thriller.” And the bruhs didn’t disappoint there either.
This time with a different Michael (Bro. Isaac Donkor) donning the classic red and black leather jacket MJ wore in the video, he led his brothers in a triple-line sequence, with each set of two brothers performing a different step sequence in unison with the others before they all morphed into the iconic “Thriller” dance.
They capped it with “Michael” doing a 45-degree angle “standing lean”—aided by his chapter brothers of course—which the real Michael made famous in his “Smooth Criminal” video five years after “Thriller.”
And then just like that, the show was over. Four MJ classics and a host of traditional Que steps all packed into 15 minutes (the competition’s time limit).
And all I could think of, amid all of the cheering and barking from the crowd, was the one Overton step competition I performed in back in April 1989 where my brothers and I emerged on the stage from dog houses we had erected as props…you know, in keeping with the fraternity’s unofficial “Que Dog” moniker and image.
Now you see why it just wouldn’t have been a good match for us to go from dog houses to the closing dance sequence to “Beat It” in the 1980s.
Speaking of Que Dogs, if you’re wondering where the fraternity’s unofficial theme song, “Atomic Dog” by George Clinton, fit into this year’s show, the brothers did incorporate a very short snippet of it—along with one from MJ’s “Smooth Criminal”—in the buildup to the “Thriller” sequence, just to keep things legit.
Chart trivia fans will note that “Atomic Dog” was No. 1 exactly 40 years ago today on Billboard’s soul singles chart while “Beat It” was crowning the pop list (“Beat It” would also reach No. 1 soul two weeks later).
I had the opportunity to sit down with these young brothers over dinner during a subsequent visit to Tech this past week and talked to them about their inspiration for the show and how they put it together, especially given that none of them were living when “Beat It,” “Atomic Dog” and many of the other songs were first hits (heck, even their parents might have still been in grade school if they were around back then).
Basileus Yosef Woods and neophyte Quentin Holmes mentioned that they were watching MJ videos one night and it just clicked, “this will definitely be in our show,” which they started planning for back in December.
The times have definitely changed. I would have been laughed out of the room 35 years ago had I even hinted at doing an MJ-themed Que step show. But the brothers from my era at least know me well enough to acknowledge that I was the first person they thought of as they were watching the 2023 performance, noting under their breaths and in texts, “DJRob is loving this!”
They were right!
Unfortunately, though, the Ques came in second-place at this year’s competition to Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., which used a Lion King theme for their step show (it’s a Tech thing y’all).
The Alphas did a great job, too (and that’s not just me being diplomatic about a rival fraternity).
But you already know who I think should have won. If not, scroll back to the top of this article and start all over again!
Congrats to my Eta Lambda chapter bruhs for thinking outside the norm and for putting on an amazing show!
Here’s that video link again for those who missed it earlier.
DJRob (he/him/his), multi-hyphenate brother of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc., is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.
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2 thoughts on “On 40th anniversary of one of Michael Jackson’s biggest hits, these ‘Ques’ include his most iconic dance moves in moving step show tribute”
I loved this blog, DJRobb! 🥰 Congratulations to the Eta Lambda Chapter of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Incorporated for a great show.
A fond memory of mine was Eta Lambda entering the stage to ‘Moments in Love’ at my very first Overton R. Johnson Memorial Step Show.
Wish I could have been in Blacksburg this past April to see everyone.
Tickle, Spring 87
Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated
Thanks, Twana! It was a festive weekend and I’m glad I was there. I’m sure you’ve heard your chapter took 32 neos over that week! Unheard of!