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!
Choosing music for your first-ever choreography commission can feel daunting enough. But when you're asked to create a ballet using the vast discography of the Rolling Stones—and you happen to be dating Stones frontman Mick Jagger—the stakes are even higher.
So it's understandable that as of Monday, American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick, whose Port Rouge will have its U.S. premiere tonight at the Youth America Grand Prix gala, was still torn about which songs to include.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
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So where can companies find the money?
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Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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Today—April 16, 2019—marks what would have been Merce Cunningham's 100th birthday. As dancers from Los Angeles to New York City to London gear up for Night of 100 Solos (the marathon performance event being livestreamed today), and as companies and presenters worldwide continue to celebrate the Cunningham Centennial through their programming, we searched through the Dance Magazine Archives to unearth our favorite images of the groundbreaking dancemaker.
A bright disposition with a dab of astringent charm is how I remember Brock Hayhoe, a National Ballet School of Canada schoolmate. Because we were a couple years apart, we barely brushed shoulders, except at the odd Toronto dance party where we could dance all night with mutual friends letting our inhibitions subside through the music. Dancing always allows a deeper look.
But, as my late great ballet teacher Pyotr Pestov told me when I interviewed him for Dance Magazine in 2009, "You never know what a flower is going to look like until it opens up."
One night. Three cities. Seventy-five dancers. And three unique sets of 100 solos, all choreographed by Merce Cunningham.
This incredible evening of dance will honor Cunningham's 100th birthday on April 16. The Merce Cunningham Trust has teamed up with The Barbican in London, the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City and the Center for the Art of Performance in Los Angeles for a tri-city celebration.
The best part? You don't have to be in those cities to watch—Night of 100 Solos is being live-streamed in its entirety for free.
When George Balanchine's full-length Don Quixote premiered in 1965, critics and audiences alike viewed the ballet as a failure. Elaborate scenery and costumes framed mawkish mime passages, like one in which the ballerina washed the Don's feet and dried them with her hair. Its revival in 2005 by Suzanne Farrell, the ballerina on whom it was made and to whom Balanchine left the work, did little to alter its reputation.
Yet at New York City Center's Balanchine festival last fall, some regretted its absence.
"I'd want to see Balanchine's Don Quixote," says Apollinaire Scherr, dance critic for the Financial Times. "It was a labor of love on his part, and a love letter as well. And you want to know what that looks like in his work."
Even great choreographers make mistakes. Sometimes they fail on a grand scale, like Don Quixote; other times it may be a minor misstep. Experiment and risk help choreographers grow, but what happens when a choreographer of stature misfires? Should the work remain in the repertory? And what about a work that fails on some levels but not others?
After the horrific March 15 terrorist attacks at two New Zealand mosques, the music and arts community sprang into action to plan a way to help victims and their families. A series of resulting concerts, titled "You Are Us/Aroha Nui," will take place in New Zealand (April 13 and 17), Jersey City, New Jersey (April 17) and Los Angeles (April 18). Proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to the Our People, Our City Fund, which was established by the Christchurch Foundation to aid those affected by the attacks.
Throughout 2019, the Merce Cunningham Trust continues a global celebration that will be one of the largest tributes to a dance artist ever. Under the umbrella of the Merce Cunningham Centennial are classes and workshops, film screenings and festivals, art exhibitions and symposia, and revivals and premieres of original works inspired by the dancemaker's ideas. The fever peaks on April 16, which would have been the pioneering choreographer's 100th birthday, with Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event, featuring a total of 75 dancers in three performances live-streamed from London, Los Angeles and New York City.
Cloud & Victory gets dancers. The dancewear brand's social media drools over Roberto Bolle's abs, sets classical variations to Beyoncé and moans over Mondays and long adagios. And it all comes from the mind of founder Tan Li Min, the boss lady who takes on everything from designs to inventory to shipping orders.
Known simply (and affectionately) to the brand's 41K Instagram followers as Min, she's used her wry, winking sense of humor to give the Singapore-based C&V international cachet.
She recently spoke with Dance Magazine about building the brand, overcoming insecurity and using pizza as inspiration.
The Ballet Memphis New American Dance Residency, which welcomes selected choreographers for its inaugural iteration next week, goes a step beyond granting space, time and dancers for the development of new work.
This is huge news, so we'll get straight to it:
We now (finally!) know who'll be appearing onscreen alongside Ariana DeBose and the other previously announced leads in Steven Spielberg's remake of West Side Story, choreographed by Justin Peck. Unsurprisingly, the Sharks/Jets cast list includes some of the best dancers in the industry.
The pleasure of watching prodigies perform technical feats on Instagram can be tinged with a sense of trepidation. Impressive tricks, you think, but do they have what it takes for an actual career?
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What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.
Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.
At six feet tall, Jesse Obremski dances as though he's investigating each movement for the first time. His quiet transitional moments are as astounding as his long lines, bounding jumps and seamless floorwork. Add in his versatility and work ethic, and it's clear why he's an invaluable asset to New York City choreographers. Currently a freelance artist with multiple contemporary groups, including Gibney Dance Company and Limón Dance Company, Obremski also choreographs for his recently formed troupe, Obremski/Works.
Last night at Parsons Dance's 2019 gala, the company celebrated one of our own: DanceMedia owner Frederic M. Seegal.
In a speech, artistic director David Parsons said that he wanted to honor Seegal for the way he devotes his energy to supporting premier art organizations, "making sure that the arts are part of who we are," he said.
It's a bit of an understatement to say that Bob Fosse was challenging to work with. He was irritable, inappropriate and often clashed with his collaborators in front of all his dancers. Fosse/Verdon, which premieres on FX tonight, doesn't sugarcoat any of this.
But for Sasha Hutchings, who danced in the first episode's rendition of "Big Spender," the mood on set was quite opposite from the one that Fosse created. Hutchings had already worked with choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, who she calls "a dancer's dream," director Tommy Kail and music director Alex Lacamoire as a original cast member in Hamilton, and she says the collaborators' calm energy made the experience a pleasant one for the dancers.
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