Stomp in the Name Of...

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!

The Conversation
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Sin #2: Misaligning the spine. Photo by Erin Baiano

Throughout your dancing life, you've heard the same corrections over and over. The reason for the repetition? Dancers tend to make the same errors, sometimes with catastrophic results. Dance Magazine spoke to eight teachers about what they perceive to be the worst habits—the ones that will destroy a dancer's technique—and what can be done to reverse the damage.


Rolling In

To get a 180-degree first position, dancers will sometimes let their arches roll forward. But turnout is not about forcing your feet open; it's about opening up in the hips. “Turning out is an activity, not a position," says Irene Dowd, who teaches anatomy at the Juilliard School. “If we stop sustaining that movement, our feet will passively roll in." Rolling in places stress on the tendons of the feet and leads to injury because the rest of the body compensates for the imbalance when your knees can't line up over your toes.

Dowd warns against using only the arch to combat rolling in. “Dancers will try to lift up their arches and pull up on the inside of the ankle," she says. This can result in the inflammation of the tendons in the ankle and lead to tendinitis, a painful overuse injury that's common in dancers. What she feels are “Victorian furniture feet—feet that aren't fully in contact with the ground" should be solid in three areas: the heel, the ball of the big toe, and the ball of the little toe. Imagine how your weight is being transferred from above, through the body and down the legs, rather than gripping the foot and lifting from the arch.

Misaligning the Spine

Distorting the back, either by crunching the lumbar vertebrae and splaying the rib cage open or by hunching the shoulders forward and tucking the pelvis under, affects every other part of the body. Since the proper placement of the torso is the foundation of any movement, a dancer with a misaligned spine will develop other deadly technique sins. Problems can ripple all the way down to the extremities and upward to the neck and head. The core will be loose, unable to provide essential support. A pelvis that either tips back or tucks under will limit the range of motion in the hips.

Christine Spizzo's students at the North Carolina School of the Arts constantly work on their placement. “The one directive I give in class more than any other," she says, “is tailbone down, navel muscles lifted." She emphasizes that the tailbone lengthens downward without tucking under, and the navel muscles lift upward, not inward. This opposition allows the external rotator muscles to be actively engaged at the top of the thigh. Spizzo uses the expression the Four Ts—“no tucking, tipping, tilting, or twisting of the pelvis"—as a reminder for students.

Clenching the Toes

Clenching, curling, knuckling—no matter what it's called, this condition hampers a dancer's ability to articulate the feet. Clenched toes also make the feet an unstable platform to stand on, creating problems for the rest of the body. The muscles and tendons of the foot, knee, and ankle must work together to perform a relevé or jump, says Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program in New York. Clenched toes will place unwanted stress on the joints of the legs, leading to imbalance and overuse injuries. On pointe, knuckling over can damage the bones and tendons of the feet.

Master ballet teacher Sara Neece of Ballet Arts in New York says that when the first joint of the toe presses down into the floor too hard, the second joint of the toe jams into the metatarsal. For Neece, the key to remedying clenched toes lies in “bringing sensation to those unused tendons" beneath the second joint, and teaching the toes how to work in a careful and deliberate manner. While seated, a dancer should prick the back of each clenched toe with a fingernail about 20 times. Sitting on a chair with the foot on the ground, she should drag it back toward the body, slowly raising it to demi-pointe with a forced arch. Teachers must pay attention to the response of the feet to this localized work, since overstressing the tendons can damage them. Another way to teach the toes to stretch out is to weave a strip of cloth over the second toe and alternate below and above successive toes, leaving it there during barrework and nondance activities.

Giving In to Extreme Hyperextension

Hyperextended legs, in which the straightened knee naturally curves behind the thigh and calf muscles, are prized in the world of extreme ballet bodies. Christine Spizzo sings the praise of a moderately hyperextended leg line, as the leg fits snugly in fifth position, and the arabesque looks gorgeous, with that slight curve offsetting the arch of the foot. However, dancers with extreme hyperextension must take special care. “The hyperextended dancer tends to have weak external rotator muscles," she says, so the legs are more prone to collapse in on themselves when landing from a jump, letting the body weight fall on the knees. This can result in damage to the joints that maintain the alignment of the leg, including twisted knees and sprained ankles. Even if the dancer understands how to avoid giving in to her hyperextension, she has to learn how to express herself fully while restraining her legs.

But Spizzo points to dancers such as international star Sylvie Guillem, who has used her extreme hyperextension to her advantage. The dancer must think of lengthening rather than straightening or locking the knee, even if it feels slightly bent. She must develop a heightened awareness of the turnout muscles from the top of the thigh down to the calf. “The muscles must be activated to not allow the dancer to give in to the hyperextension," says Spizzo. She uses the image of the barbershop pole to encourage dancers to apply that feeling of an infinite spiral to their legs. Somatic practices such as Pilates can help to strengthen those stabilizing turnout muscles. Spizzo insists that dancers stand with the heels together in first position and never be allowed to press back into that knee joint. To do this, “the quadriceps must remain soft. As soon as you grip, it pulls that kneecap back dangerously."

Using Unnecessary Tension

“Tension," says Daniel Lewis, dean of dance at the New World School of the Arts, “pulls you off balance. It tightens the muscles and causes injury." Stiff muscles are injury-prone muscles, which make free and confident movement impossible.

Unwanted stiffness can also limit your versatility as a dancer. “Modern dance is concerned with trying to go into space off-center and off-balance," says Mary Cochran, chair of the dance department at Barnard College. “If you spend too much time holding your body stiffly, it's hard to make the transition from working in-balance to working off-balance."

Rhythmic breathing helps dissipate tension. Think of the lungs as another limb and pace the breath with the dynamics of the music. Sustain a sense of motion in the body, even when you are still, advises Cochran. Doing so will help reverse the muscle memory of using tension as a form of stability.

Pinching Your Shoulder Blades

Although used as a strategy to open the chest in front, pinching your shoulder blades together immobilizes the back. The serratus anterior on the sides of your rib cage is so overstretched that it can't work. Edward Ellison says that pinched shoulder blades impede the freedom of the arms and the support of the upper spine. He feels that they “cause your weight to fall behind your axis, and strain the trapezius and rhomboid muscles of the back."

Irene Dowd suggests thinking about widening the tips of the shoulders to the side, to allow plenty of room for the chest. “It helps to think about the chest—full of your lungs, your heart, all those organs—as a sphere," says Dowd. “We need to have enough room for all those precious organs to breathe." To relax shoulder blades, sometimes she will tell students to focus on the movement of the hands. “Is the hand really a lively part of my being?" Dowd has her students ask. “The shoulder blade should support that hand."

Getting Stuck in a Rut

While physical habits impede progress, the deadliest sin is losing the drive to improve technique at all. Franco De Vita, principal of American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, says good technique begins with a dancer's approach to class. Being present and focused enables the dancer to learn combinations quickly—and correctly. “Not listening and changing the exercise is unacceptable," says De Vita.

Michael Vernon, chair of the ballet department at Indiana University, feels the worst thing a dancer can do “is to get fixed into doing something a certain way, being safe. I love young dancers who understand that you have to dance for tomorrow, and not yesterday." Keeping an open mind means more than just trying a different preparation for a pirouette. “Being open to new styles of dance and new ways of moving the body is vital to keeping the art relevant."

Rant & Rave
Matthew Murphy

I write this letter knowing full well and first-hand the financial challenges of running an arts organization. I also write this letter on behalf of dancers auditioning for your companies. Lastly, I write this letter as a member of society at large and as someone who cares deeply about the culture we are leading and the climate we create in the performing arts.

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"When I started out, I wanted to be a Fred Astaire," he told us, "and after that a Jerome Robbins. But then I realized there was always somebody a dancer or choreographer had to take orders from. So I decided I wanted to become a director, namely a George Abbott. But as I got older I dropped the hero-worship thing. I didn't want to emulate anyone. Just wanted to do the things I was capable of doing—and have some fun doing them. By this time I'm glad I didn't turn out to be an Astaire, a Robbins or an Abbott." He would go on to become an Academy Award–winning director, indelibly changing musical theater in the process.

The Creative Process
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Dance Magazine recently asked him about how he got this career, and what it takes to thrive in it.

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Health & Body
Leon Liu/Unsplash

Let's say that today you're having a terrible time following your class's choreography and are feeling ashamed—you're always stumbling a few beats behind. Do you:

1. Admit it's your fault because you didn't study the steps last night? Tonight you'll nail them down.
2. Feel worthless and alone? You slump your shoulders, avoid eye contact with your teacher and fellow dancers, and wish to disappear.

Shame is a natural emotion that everyone occasionally feels. If you answered #1, it may be appropriate—you earned it by not studying—and positive if it motivates you to do better in the future.

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My hypermobility used to cause me a lot of trouble, but I've gained confidence and strength after reading about it in one of your columns. I now have a Pilates instructor who's retraining my body and helping me dance in a consistent way. Thank you!

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George Balanchine famously wrote, that ballet "is a woman." Four of his most celebrated women—Allegra Kent, Gloria Govrin, Kay Mazzo and Merrill Ashley—appeared onstage at Jacques d'Amboise's National Dance Institute Monday evening to celebrate his legacy. The sold-out program, called "Balanchine's Ballerinas," included performances of excerpts from ballets closely associated with these women and a discussion, moderated by former New York City Ballet principal Wendy Whelan. Here are some highlights of the conversation, filled with affection, warmth and fond memories.

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