Although Zeta Tau Alpha’s motto is “seek the noblest.” The Eta Rho chapter at the University of North Alabama did anything but uphold high moral standards during its 2020 Step Sing performance that plagiarized its theme from a winning dance performed by Auburn’s Phi Mu chapter.
At UNA, student organizations compete to win the campus tradition every year. According to the Step Sing website, “[The students] choreograph their own songs, dance and story.”
“Really the goal is to encourage creative expression and the competitive nature is just a way to do that,” said Dr. Timothy Loughrist, an ethics professor at UNA. “But that goal is to encourage creative expression. If that’s the case, then obviously this is cheating.”
According to the Step Sing rules, judging criteria consists of five categories each weighed at 10 points: entertainment value, musical quality, creativity, choreography and theme.
The routine Zeta Tau Alpha (Zeta) competed with, named “Zeta and the Seven Dwarves,” shared more than a few similarities to the winning performance of Auburn 2018 Greek Sing, “Phi Mu and the Seven Dwarves.”
While both dances used “Snow White” as the general theme, the execution was also the same. A dwarf would be introduced, then songs relating to each dwarf played while the group danced.
Songs Zeta copied include “Bad Case of Loving You (Doctor Doctor)” by Robert Palmer for Doc, “Dum Dee Dum” by Keys N Krates for Dopey, “Don’t Wake Me Up” by Chris Brown for Sleepy, “Rude Dude” by T-Pain for Grumpy and “Heigh Ho [Trap Mix]” by donidozh.
“The music choices being the same seems to support that it was copied,” said Melissa Bullington, a choreographer at All Starz Dance in Florence. “But it wouldn’t surprise me that if you Google songs that match a Snow White theme a list would pop up that both groups could have pulled from. Without speaking to the choreographer, it’s kind of impossible to know how it all came to be.”
The Flor-Ala reached out to Zeta Step Sing co-captain Savannah Jackson, but she declined to comment.
According to Step Sing rules, still available to view on presence.io, “[UPC] expects all participants to compete in a respectful manner; exhibiting pride for their performance as well as their University.”
Although the rules fail to specifically address stealing routines from other performances and thus may not violate the official Step Sing rules, cheating in this manner still violates many of the principles the rules outline.
“They’re finding a way to get the reward without doing the thing that the reward exists to entice you to do,” Loughrist said. “Which is express yourself creatively as best as possible. So yeah, I would call that cheating.”
Both groups wore white shoes, white pants, a gold buckle belt, tops with two exaggerated buttons and beanies for costumes. While shirts worn by the Auburn students were red and their beanies were brown, Zeta’s shirts were rainbow and their beanies were gray.
Step Sing’s popularity among Greek organizations at UNA regularly results in unhealthy consequences for the contestants.
“There’s this high intensity,” said Kayla Edwards, UPC advisor. “This emotion that comes from [the groups] and I just don’t think that it’s beneficial for anyone.”
The biggest difference of the two routines is the length of each performance. In Auburn’s Greek Sing, routines can last a maximum of three and a half minutes. Routines in UNA’s Step Sing can last up to 10 minutes.
Any Registered Student Organization (RSO) at UNA can compete in Step Sing as long as they have at least 10 members (40 members maximum) on stage. The three divisions include men’s, women’s and co-ed, however only one group is awarded overall champion.
“The goal was to win,” Edwards said. “And by any means necessary that they can make that happen. That’s the vibe I get from most of the groups.”
This year, Zeta lost overall to Phi Mu, but also failed to win the women’s division, losing to Alpha Gamma Delta.
“[Winning is] not the point, the point is to raise money,” Edwards said. “Whether that’s for United Way, whether that’s for campus infrastructure, it’s to get together and raise money for a cause that we can all get behind. And I want the groups to realize that again. I don’t think they do.”
Regardless of its loss, should Zeta be penalized in some way for cheating?
“Some kind of penalty would make sense, even if they didn’t win,” Loughrist said. “Though it certainly does force the issue more if they do.”
Currently, nothing in the rules outlines the direct consequences for copying another performance.
“If there’s nothing in the rules that suggests that, that is something that we would deem inappropriate, there’s nothing we can currently do about this year’s [competition],” Edwards said. “But that doesn’t mean that’s not something we can explore more in the future.”
Although rules and ethics are philosophically related, they share important distinctions.
“The explicit rules that are written are guidelines for people to help them do what it takes to pursue whatever that endeavor is,” Loughrist said. “However, just because something is not against the explicit rules does not mean it’s not cheating. It’s just not a violation of the rules.”
Audience members at Step Sing reported the Eta Rho chapter exiting the stage immediately upon the announcement of Phi Mu as the overall winner.
“This is where sportsmanship comes in,” Loughrist said. “You’re not required by the rules necessarily to be a good sport…But it still might fly in the face of the purpose of the endeavor. There are these kinds of norms and expectations that arise that aren’t explicit but are still expectations none the less.”
Zeta makes up one of four chapters at UNA in the College Panhellenic Council (CPH). According to the UNA website, CHP’s third objective is to “…maintain high social and moral standards.”
“As soon as we start allowing ourselves to do something when we think we won’t get caught, or do something as long as we don’t win, we are losing integrity,” Loughrist said. “We are being one way in one context, but in a way we wouldn’t behave in another context.”
Greek organizations across the country come under scrutiny for unethical behavior. However, sometimes the loud voices of a few outweigh the silence of the many.
“I don’t think that cheating is fair,” Edwards said. “And stealing someone else’s intellectual property for a show, for a competition, I don’t think that that’s right.”
In addition to addressing this year’s cheating episode, Edwards and the productions team are working to create a more positive environment for Step Sing in the future by implementing a captain’s forum.
“Right now, the groups, when they submit their themes, they don’t tell each other,” Edwards said. “But I don’t see how moving forward that can sustain a healthy atmosphere with the groups.”
The forum will give captains and teams more power to vocalize what they like and dislike about the current show and create a more supportive network in place of the current hyper-competitive environment.
“My overall hope for it is that the groups can move forward and learn to experience Step Sing and enjoy it,” Edwards said. “That the students don’t have to worry about their grades because of a competition, they don’t have to worry about staying up until 4 o’clock in the morning to learn dance moves.”