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July 9, 2001

Step by Step

By Eric Rangus


For Kharen Fulton, dancing represents a lot of things.

It’s a lifelong hobby (she has danced for more than 35 years and has no plans to quit anytime soon). It’s a form of exercise (“I don’t understand how people can jog all these miles and go nowhere!” she exclaimed). And it’s a way to pick up a little extra cash, not to mention a bit of glory.

“I never even knew you danced,” upstairs officemate Mary Ann Lindskog said upon seeing the foot-and-a-half-tall violet and gold trophy Fulton brought into her office in the Administration Building June 18, one day after she won it at “All That Dancing,” a national dance competition held in Atlanta, June 15–17.

Fulton, director of graduate admissions, and partner Tony Craig won first prize in the advanced stepping category, beating out more than a dozen other couples from around the country. Stepping is a form of dance, performed primarily by African Americans, derived from swing. It features intricate foot movements and, on the surface, is similar to ballroom dancing, but its music is more jazz- and R&B-based.

Since its introduction in the 1930s, stepping has gone by several names—the scag, bopping, be bop (which is what Fulton’s parents called it)—depending on thet part of the country in which its practitioners lived.

All That Dancing featured not only stepping but several of its cousins: hand dancing, for instance, another swing derivative that incorporates sweeping arm movements. The weekend included competition in several dance disciplines, offered dance classes and provided retailers an opportunity to showcase hard-to-find dance accessories like clothes, shoes and music.

The championship lasted until 4 a.m. on Sunday, June 17. Fulton and Craig reported at 1:30 Saturday afternoon for the prelims and were told they had a bye into the finals (“I didn’t question it,” Fulton said). The judges had spent several weeks in the area scouting talent and had seen the pair dance at Ellery’s, a club in southwest Atlanta that hosts weekly stepping.

Fulton and Craig squared off against five other couples in the finals. They were up third and danced to the instrumental “Callie” by local artist Joyce Cooling. Fulton wore a clingy, knit red dress with a hem cut low in the back and high in the front. One arm was adorned with a long red glove. Craig wore a red jacket with black slacks, a collarless white shirt and red snakeskin shoes, the color of a fine Bordeaux.

“People said judging would not be based on attire, but as far as I’m concerned, it has a lot to do with how a judge is looking at me,” Fulton said. “I was definitely not going out there in pants.”

After they were done, they watched the other couples. And waited. Around 3 a.m., they were called to participate in the competition’s final dance, where they would take on winners in the other disciplines. Only they hadn’t been told how they finished in the stepping contest. A few minutes later, though, someone came along and told them they had won.

Fulton’s reaction? Not elation, exactly.

“Look, we can’t get all excited,” she told Craig. “It’s 3 a.m., I’m tired. I don’t know if I can put anything else out.”

She did, though, and while the couple didn’t win the $5,000 grand prize, the experience gave her quite a bit of perspective—not that she was really lacking it in the first place.

“The people who produced this realize that unless we continue to promote these different types of dancing, they will be lost,” Fulton said. “It’s a very strong socialization process. It’s a courting process. If a guy didn’t know how to introduce himself to a girl, it was a way for him to meet one.

“Now,” she continued, gesturing with her arms, “guys are over here, girls over here. It’s not the same.”

Next year’s competition is slated for Greensboro, N.C., and Fulton will be back to defend her title.

“I’ve already planned what I’m going to wear,” she said. “The color, at least.” She and Craig also are in the process of selecting music. They want to start early so the moves in their routine will become instinct.

“We want songs where we know we can be creative,” she said. “When you’re doing the prelims, [the judges] are looking to see if you can [simply] do the dance. It’s not the time to throw in all your little tricks. But when you get to the final, it’s time to pull out all the stops.”

Fulton began dancing at the age of 13 when her 17-year-old uncle Roger would escort her to teen clubs in Chicago; she grew up in Pembroke, Ill., some 60 miles south. Roger built on some of the steps Fulton’s mother had taught her, a dance called the “be bop,” which she had known since she was Kharen’s age.

Fulton danced with Roger for a year until he died at age 18 of leukemia. “He was the best dancer,” Fulton recalled. “He was so limber.”

Roger’s friends took young Kharen under their wings. They took her out, watched out for her and continued her dance instruction.

“I learned to dance through the older guys and never stopped doing it,” she said.

Fulton’s interest in dance continued through college at Northern Illinois University, through marriage, through the birth of sons Jamaal and Kharlos, through divorce, and through a move to Atlanta in 1978.

Shortly after moving to Georgia, Fulton met Craig—a fellow Chicago transplant—at a dance club.He approached her and correctly guessed her hometown by recognizing her distinctive dance style. They became partners, a coupling that remains strong today.

“For 20-something years, he and I have always danced together when we’re out,” Fulton said. “He even left for 10 years, got married, then came back. We got in touch, and it was like we hadn’t been apart. We just clicked.”

But don’t get the idea that Fulton’s life is play. Far from it—as director of graduate admissions for the graduate school, Fulton travels throughout the country visiting recruiting fairs and counseling students interested in graduate education, and promoting Emory along the way.

Next month Fulton will celebrate her 20th anniversary at the University. She’s seen several changes in the educational system since she entered it, and one of them stands out.

“What has changed is the interest of students of color in going into research,” Fulton said. “Because probably no one else in their family went to graduate school or they stopped after college, it was not a goal. So one of the things I tell students, particularly when I do minority workshops, is if you want to see somebody who looks like you teaching your children, then you may want to consider going into research yourself.

“There are a lot of doors left to be unlocked. We still have so to learn and contribute to the human race.”


Back to Emory Report July 9, 2001