Dance like everybody’s watching is the message behind TV One’s new scripted film “Steppin’ Back to Love,” premiering at 7 p.m. Saturday. Starring “Soul Food” star Darrin Henson and “High School Musical” actress Monique Coleman, the film centers around a fictional Chicago couple rooted in dance competitions whose marriage is plagued by financial struggles and infidelity, eventually finding their way back to love through the intimate art of dance.
Timely as it is for Valentine’s Day, there was something more appealing about the script when it was brought to the attention of TV One executive in charge, Karen Peterkin.
“In terms of our programming goals, it’s all about worlds that we don’t see very often, worlds that haven’t been covered,” Peterkin says. “We’ve seen ‘Dirty Dancing,’ we all know ‘Step Up,’ but this new film presents Chicago-style stepping, and it’s a completely untapped topic. We’ve not seen any movies that take place in that world and knew our audience could identify. Some might know or be steppers themselves, and we hope others want to learn about it.”
The partner dance originated in Chicago in the 1970s and evolved from origins in the Jitterbug, Lindy Hop and the Bop, often orchestrated to jazz or R&B music, though the style today continues to evolve. It carries a strong cultural and social background, including high-stakes competitions, which is a main theme in “Steppin’ Back to Love.”
To ensure the film was authentic, TV One execs knew they had to place the setting of the film in Chicago, and staffers and the stars participated in “tons of research” says Peterkin, including consultations with longtime Chicago music retailer George Daniels. Star Darrin Henson (Derrick) calls Daniels a personal friend and is proud to have been part of the stepping community for a number of years prior to making the film.
“For me it was important to brush up and be versed on the fluidity of the actual style,” says Henson, a trained dancer and choreographer who has worked with Michael Jackson, Britney Spears, and NSYNC (notable for orchestrating their “Bye Bye Bye” dance moves), and starred in “Stomp the Yard.” Henson is inspired by stepping’s recent metamorphosis and the younger generation that is starting to incorporate it into other popular dance styles.
“I think it’s important for those people [who] created the dance style to pass it on to the younger generation so it can live. …And I’m very happy that I am in this film and have become a spokesperson for that,” Henson says. “It’s beautiful in 2020 that we get to see stepping told in this way and to have the Chicago community embrace it. I think people will really enjoy this film with the love story being told because you get to see how stepping actually holds families and marriages and relationships together because it is a strong form of communication.”
The kinetic energy behind the dance form is palpable in the movie and strengthened by the on-screen chemistry between Henson and his co-star, Monique Coleman. It’s the first time the two have teamed up together for a project. Coleman is perhaps best known for playing Taylor McKessie in the “High School Musical” franchise and appearing in an early season of “Dancing With the Stars,” though in recent years she’s stepped back from the spotlight to focus on philanthropic and production work, starting her own brand and show “Gimme Mo,” dedicated to empowering young people, and becoming a United Nations Youth Champion. Currently she works with the Chicago-based Allstate Foundation’s youth programs.
Those experiences, Coleman says, have “helped to inform the types of roles I take. I really am more thoughtful about the impact that films I’m in have on society,” she says. “I really want to make sure I’m lending my voice and talent to things that are positive and helping to move humanity forward, or to give us a good laugh or good cry, because there’s so many difficult things we are going through right now.”
Coleman, who graduated from DePaul University’s Theatre School in 2002, was drawn to “Steppin’ Back to Love” for its importance in “portraying strong healthy relationships, especially in black families,” she says, but also for the stepping narrative, calling dancing her “first love.”
“In this film it was so incredible to get to learn Chicago stepping. There’s something so different about going to a club and shaking and grooving and then actually learning a dance that is skill-based and has a very specific timing and a culture behind it,” says Coleman, who watched hours of competition videos to get ready for the part.
“I honestly didn’t know what stepping was and hadn’t heard of it before. On ‘Dancing With the Stars’ I had learned a lot of ballroom styles, but stepping has a complicated time signature, and it was interesting to me that there are certain signals you do to let someone know if you’re in a relationship or not. The fact that a dance can incorporate that level of consciousness and respect for a relationship, I thought was very cool. My sincere hope is that people walk away and are more curious and excited and interested in taking on this dance — especially young people since it can be so empowering.”
Selena Fragassi is a freelance writer.