With the hit of a spotlight downstage right the shadowy silence of Ira Aldridge Theatre was replaced by the crisp, syncopated sounds and movements of the Step Afrika! dancing troupe.
Founding in 1994 primarily by Howard University students Step Afrika! has spent the last 20 years cultivating, teaching, and sharing the African-American tradition of stepping. Popularized by African-American fraternities and sororities as early as the 1970s, stepping has historical and cultural ties that draw back to South Africa's Zulu people. Today stepping can be found in theater productions, television commercials and there is a huge non-collegiate competition circuit that starts as early as primary school age students. It's evident that Step Afrika! values and is concerned about the future of the art form, but this tremendous milestone served as a great opportunity to look into the past from where it all started.
On June 4 in the Blackburn Center a VIP Gala was held to celebrate the many accomplishments that the first professional arts group dedicated to stepping. Founder and Executive Director, C. Brian Williams along with Step Afrika! staff, alumni and the current cast welcomed cooperate sponsors, elected officials and public supporters, before the opening night performance. The Home Performance Series featured seven sets, some debuting for the first time others reaching back to the very founding of the company. Two days later at the midway point of the performance schedule the spark from the cast is still apparent. What can go underappreciated during these kinds of showcases is striking the delicate balance between paying homage to the choreography this ensemble is known for and allowing the natural artistic evolution that comes with new influences.
Back in Ira Aldridge the program has moved from the center stage to the back of theater. Percussionists Abdou Muhammad with the spotlight on him walks unhurriedly down the aisle yet his hands are striking his drum rapidly, building drama with every replication of his beat. Now onstage at standstill Muhammad is playing at a furious pace and crescendos as the cast takes their place onstage to start the next piece. Under the artistic direction of Mfon Akpan and Christopher Brient the full and complete use of the space was an achievement. Throughout the entire show you felt involved and enveloped in the sights and sounds of the production. If you were not diligent to read the playbill the quick pace of the changing sets could throw you off but the overall narrative of the show was easy to grasp.
Three of the sets struck really distinctive notes. The Wade set starts with a bittersweet singing of "How I Made it Over" by cast member Brittany Smith. The scene is a baptism. In the foreground a minister is strapped in knee-high boots ready to walk into the river where for a time in this country was the only place available for African- American to perform this religious rite. Everyone has a part to play, the newly cleanse saint, the exuberant church lady, other surrounding church supporters, and the choir. The mood slowly breaks from somber and builds to jubilation as the choir adorned in blue robs now giving a stirring rendition of "Wade in Water". This is the art of stepping being uses as tool to pay homage to the deep-rooted tradition of the past. There is even an acknowledgment of the connections that could not be broken by our fateful trip across the Atlantic. For the same knee-high boots worn to protect Sunday's Best in this land were worn by South African gold miners who would give birth to the Gumboot dancing tradition.
The next/step: hip hop set starts with two very different sounds bites. The first set within a news studio clearly after the acquittal of George Zimmerman for his involvement in the death of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin. A pundit tries to explain what happen between the Sanford teenager and the neighborhood watchman within the context of white fear of black criminality. The thrust of the commentary is if the black community is interested in avoiding the sad ritual of burying more of its children then this group must comport themselves in way to never frighten white people.
As this clip plays the cast dressed in baseball caps, jeans, and sneakers swirl around two younger cast members. Given the illusions that they are trapped within a cyclone type force, the movements are fluid but have sharp breakout into tap and modern dance.
The second soundbite is from the streets of Baltimore, after the uprising following the death of Freddie Gray. A news reporter ask a protester about stores that were burnt during the unrest and seemly without delay the protester asked why did it take the burning of stores to garner genuine news coverage. Through the twisting and untwisting of bodies and perspectives the audience is presented with stepping as protest art.
The finale of the show is Ndlamus. The cast is dressed in full Zulu garb and the heart of this set is each individual member stepping to the center of the circle to perform their best freestyle moves. Courtney Thrower leap with power and style that would leave an Olympic high jumper envious. While Danielle Dubois Glover peered into the audience and used our gaze against us as she playfully moved eliciting smiles and at other times smoldering that it felt like a taboo to stare. As each cast member came to the forefront that was no appearance of competition, in fact it was sprit of collaboration as they cheered each other on and did not hide their appreciation for a well-executed move, but before long everyone had their turn and it was over. This was a great display how the art of stepping can unify.
With 30 years of history and tradition stepping is sometimes still described by using other art forms, but it is not line dancing, tap, nor Irish rhythm dance. It's stepping. As Step Afrika! has mixed other elements of dance into stepping they are showing it's versatility, but it is still strong enough of artistic expression to stand on its own.
As the curtain call turned into a roll call each cast member stepped forward smiling brightly each bowing deeply than flashed their fraternity and or sorority hand signs, while the audience show their gratitude. The majority of the Divine Nine Originations were represented in the cast, which was fitting since those bodies laid the foundation for stepping, as we know it. In the playbill the question was asked what will Step Afrika! look like in another 20 years? If this Home Performance Series gives us any indication into the future of Step Afrika!, it will be connected to its history, aware and willing to remark on the present, while looking to inspire the next generation.