emales Incorporating Sisterhood Through Step, better known as F.I.S.T.S., takes its name to heart. The all-female step team, formed in 1999 alongside Sexual Chocolate, serves as a tight-knit community for women at Boston College, especially women of color.
Djanan Kernizan, current captain of F.I.S.T.S. and MCAS ’19, didn’t intend to join the group before she arrived at BC. She didn’t even know what step was. But when a friend insisted she accompany her to tryouts, she came along, although she was sure she wouldn’t make it onto the team.
“As women, we’re taught that if we’re not good at something, it’s the end of the world, and I felt that,” Kernizan said.
But both Kernizan and her friend ended up making the cut, and Kernizan quickly grew to love both step and her fellow members, although step was initially unfamiliar to her.
“It’s something that no one’s good at, unless you’ve stepped before, but no one’s really stepped before,” Kernizan said.
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ecause most incoming members don’t have experience stepping, the first semester of each season is spent teaching them the basics. For choreography, F.I.S.T.S. draws inspiration from previous performances. Older members and alumni incorporate moves that they remember learning.
Although F.I.S.T.S. is less known on campus than its brother team, or even sometimes referred to as “the female Sexual Chocolate,” the two groups are distinct from each other, partly because of societal expectations of how women should behave.
While Sexual Chocolate is known for its risqué routines, it would be out of the question for F.I.S.T.S. to follow suit. Because the team is all-female, Kernizan said, provocative dances would be perceived in a more critical light.
“We’re not allowed to do a lot of things that they can do,” Kernizan said. “I definitely think that our images are very different just because as a female team, if we did do the same thing, it wouldn’t be applied or received in the same way.”
Nevertheless, there’s no doubt that F.I.S.T.S. can keep up with Sexual Chocolate in terms of skill.
Just this year, for instance, F.I.S.T.S. won first place at Tufts’ Break the Stage step competition, which featured teams from colleges throughout New England. It was the cherry on top for Kernizan, who was a freshman when F.I.S.T.S. won the same competition three years ago.
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ow more than ever, Kernizan says, people understand that F.I.S.T.S. takes a different approach than Sexual Chocolate. The two groups have their own styles and audiences. But they continue to maintain close ties. For example, F.I.S.T.S. and Sexual Chocolate participate in the annual Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walk. The event provides an opportunity for the groups to bond and get involved in the local community.
“We definitely want to always foster that relationship,” Kernizan said. “It’s something that we’ve always had since we were founded.”
As an organization dedicated to female empowerment, F.I.S.T.S. works with Strong Women Strong Girls to teach young girls in underserved communities to step. It’s a way to introduce girls of color to an important facet of black culture, as well as an activity that Kernizan says promotes confidence and assertiveness. As a Women’s and Gender Studies minor, she noted how women are socialized to take up less space from a young age.
In contrast, step requires dancers to move with confidence and unapologetically take up space. Kernizan can personally attest to the positive impact that practicing step can have on women’s self esteem.
“I was a completely different person when I joined F.I.S.T.S.,” Kernizan said. “I wouldn’t take up space or I would feel really small. I remember the first thing my captain told me when I was a freshman, she was like ‘Djanan you’re going to have to take up space, you have to be big!’”
In addition to stepping, F.I.S.T.S. performs small skits at their performances, so members have to be comfortable being loud and dramatic.
“You don’t realize it’s happening until you’re literally a senior and you’re like ‘oh wow, it’s easy to just do these things now and I’m going to bring that into my life and I’m gonna be heard and I’m gonna be seen.’ The confidence that you have to have to perform in front of thousands of people really transfers over.”
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ike many of BC’s dance groups, the members of F.I.S.T.S. come from a broad spectrum of backgrounds. Although F.I.S.T.S. is designed to be a community for women of color in particular, Kernizan takes pride in the diversity of the group. One of F.I.S.T.S.’ members is an international student from China. Another is a transfer student. There are black, white, and Asian members. Yet they’re all united through step, and the group serves as a platform to have serious discussions, whether they’re about being a woman at BC, romantic relationships, or racism on campus.
“Because these teams aren’t just dancing, they become organizations that you’re able to have these conversations in and have people that support you, and not just look like you … but people who accept you and have your best intentions in mind.”
F.I.S.T.S. makes sure to check in with its members in the wake of racist incidents. Because of the alarming regularity of these events, older members become disappointed that they have to continually facilitate this kind of dialogue. But, Kernizan says, it’s important to support younger members who haven’t encountered these kinds of incidents before.
Last year, after a Black Lives Matter sign was defaced in Roncalli Hall, Kernizan said she took a simple but effective route in response:
“Alright guys, let’s go in a circle and tell me how you feel,” Kernizan recalls saying to the group.
Following Kernizan’s invitation to express themselves, the group had an honest, emotional discussion that she considers one of her most significant experiences as a member of F.I.S.T.S.
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s an organization committed to combating racism and promoting diversity, F.I.S.T.S. maintains strong relationships with other AHANA+ groups on campus. Many of its members are involved with other cultural communities, like the Haitian Association and the Thea Bowman AHANA and Intercultural Center, and this year, the group was invited to perform at the Black History Month Opening Ceremony.
For 20 years, F.I.S.T.S. has been showcasing step to BC, and in the process, maintaining a sisterhood of women who can speak honestly and support each other through thick and thin.
“You instantly have a community that loves and cares about you,” Kernizan said. “That’s the most important thing, but also knowing that at the end of the day we’re stepping and we’re gonna be strong and we have an outside appearance. Having step as the piece that connects us is just beautiful.”
Featured Image by Kaylie Ramirez / Heights Editor