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By Lisa Traiger
Knee slaps, flat-footed stomps, sandpapery drags, and resounding claps rattle the rafters whenever Step Afrika! takes the stage. The energetic Washington, DC-based company makes irrepressible body music, and audiences whoop and holler their approval like a Baptist revival. A sell-out from DC’s Kennedy Center Family Theater to Palm Beach County’s Dolly Hand Cultural Arts Center, from Brazil to Vietnam, the curtain calls mount and the accolades pour in. “Electrifying talents,” crowed Sarah Kaufman in The Washington Post.
Part body percussion and part poetry slam, step dancing has been popular for decades on the African American fraternity and sorority circuit. Today stepping has marched off the college yard and into middle schools, high schools, churches, and community centers. Think Spike Lee’s School Daze or Sylvain White’s Stomp the Yard, two Hollywood takes on college kids who break it down, dance it out, rhyme, and play the dozens to win credibility (and, because it’s a movie, get the girl).
Step Afrika!, the 15-year-old troupe that led stepping from the campus to the concert hall, was founded by a young college grad who had hardly seen a dance concert. With no formal training other than hours of late-night parking lot or dorm basement rehearsals for Howard University’s annual step show, Brian Williams found himself heading up a motley but dedicated crew. It consisted of one-time frat brothers and sorority sisters who wanted to spread the gospel of stepping, college education, and community service to a younger generation raised on rap and hip hop.
Their recipe resembles the “edutainment” that Chuck Davis promotes as founder of DanceAfrica and his African American Dance Ensemble. “Step Afrika! takes their creative energies from traditions found on the continent of Africa,” observes Davis. “Then they do their homework to show the traditional as well as the contemporary.” The company’s programs are long on entertainment, but they don’t neglect a few discreet historical and cultural lessons as well.
Williams, a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, the nation’s oldest black fraternity, was inspired by a trip he took to South Africa right after college. There he saw the traditional gold miners’ dance known as the gumboot (because of the knee-high rubber Wellingtons the miners wore to keep their feet dry). The boots, sometimes decorated with clinking chains (either to tie the miners together or to allow them to hear if one went astray in the darkness), became a percussive element. During breaks miners would slap their boot shins and syncopate their footwork while inventing sing-song critiques about their foolish or hard-hearted bosses.
Williams noticed the connection between what frat brothers did in step shows and the miners’ gumboot dances. “So, I thought, let’s use this as a tool to create connections with other people.” In 1994 he forged a relationship with Soweto Dance Theatre, initiating an exchange program to teach stepping to township children. Later he realized that American kids, particularly urban African Americans, would benefit from learning stepping and the history behind it. Step Afrika! was born. And, in 2000, 12 members of Soweto Dance Theatre joined Step Afrika! in its sold-out Kennedy Center debut, completing the exchange.
The insouciant rhymes and heavy-duty percussion that attracted kids appealed to adults as well, allowing the company to branch out with concert performances by night and school cafeteria shows by day. “People used to laugh,” Williams recalls, “when I told them my idea for Step Afrika! They said, ‘Stepping in a professional theater? Good luck!’” But Williams’ vision of bridging cultures and bringing the gospel of stepping to underserved city youths has brought the company visibility at high-profile venues from the Kennedy Center to Lincoln Center Out of Doors. The group continues presenting midday school shows during its annual tour, which stops at 50 cities across the U.S. and Canada. This month alone Step Afrika! performs at Texas Women’s College, University of Texas at Austin, Virginia Tech, University of Missouri at Columbia, and more—and not because it’s Black History Month. (In fact, the company eschews school shows during February to encourage students to value its work beyond Black History Month.)
As step evolves, it assimilates urban contemporary rhythms, along with hip hop, Far Eastern, and Spanish flavors. Howard University’s famed homecoming step show is now a sold-out blockbuster with rock concert lighting, multimedia technology, and dazzling choreography.
“Nobody does what they do,” says Carla Perlo, artistic director of Dance Place in Washington, DC. Perlo has watched the company develop and thinks nothing can stop them now. She points to the irresistible draw of the company’s high-energy, theatrical body percussion—and Williams’ business acumen and marketing expertise.
Company member Aseelah Shareef, who trained at The Ailey School’s summer dance program and directed Cleveland Contemporary Dance Theatre, values the Step Afrika! mystique. “Step Afrika! easily could make a lot of money—get a big investment and perform on Broadway and not have any interaction with the community,” she says. “But it’s important for us to stay community-oriented and accessible.”
Among the company’s popular works, Wade, a paean to the African American church, stands out for its tension-filled rhythmic footwork and body slapping that builds into a spirited baptismal release. Reminiscent of Ailey’s Revelations, it “turned stepping into an aching expression of spiritual anguish and redemption,” wrote Sarah Kaufman in The Washington Post. Other works play off traditional frat and sorority house steps, including the Alpha Train and the Sigma Nutcracker. The Zulu Dance, by the late Mbuyiselwa “Jackie” Semela of Soweto Dance Theatre, is a drum-and-dance spectacle drawn from tribal forms the company learned in South Africa.
Recently settled into a new home in the renovated Atlas Performing Arts Center in DC, the company’s nine professional dancers are employed 40 to 45 weeks a year. They perform a home series at the Atlas in the spring and tour from September through May around the Washington Beltway and further afield to colleges, concert halls, and festivals around the world.
Step Afrika! has come a long way in 15 years. “We didn’t know anything about rehearsals, warm-ups, stretching, costumes,” Williams admits with a grin. Today, with an annual budget in the $600,000 range, the troupe isn’t among the richest dance organizations in the DC area. But, supporting a seasonal contract longer than The Washington Ballet’s, it may be the busiest.
The company is branching out in new directions. In 2006, Williams launched a collaboration with modern dancers Art Bridgman and Myrna Packer that resulted in Nxt/Step, a multimedia work with contemporary music for the performers to respond to while they step with themselves as projected images on screen. Next up is jazz. And then there’s this idea for a ballet floating around in his head, maybe with stepping, maybe not. It’s just too soon to tell.
Lisa Traiger, former president of the Dance Critics Association, writes on the arts from the Washington, DC, area.
Photo: Erik Watson, Courtesy Step Afrika!