WASHINGTON, D.C. — An irate business woman breaks up the crowd of dancers from in front of her office building. The scene could be any busy downtown street, populated by a cast of characters: a man late and lost on his way to a job interview, the business woman pacing and talking on her cell phone, a bookworm on his way to God knows where, and the jogger immersed in his workout and preoccupied with the tunes on his iPod.
Then there’s the lecherous man scouting out another woman on her way to a hair appointment. Dressed to the nines in his three-piece suit with the exposed glistening gold chain of a pocket watch, he almost evokes the image of a well-dressed pool shark or some other type of hustler. There’s something sinister about his grin and the way he rubs his hands like a casino gambler.
In the midst of everything is the sound: the Morse code of hard-bottom loafers, sneakers and stilettos pounded out on the pavement. The energy of that scene might place you somewhere outside, taking in the rhythm of an active city, instead of sitting in the crowded Lansburgh Theatre on the opening night of Step Afrika!’s “2010 Home Performance Series!” (Shows are scheduled between June 16-20.)
At last night’s performance, Step Afrika!’s audience got a glimpse of life on the road as a dancer. The high energy, high impact series was a culmination of “rhythmic footwork, body percussion, and spirited vocalizing” with roots traced back to military exhibition drills and the South African gumboot dance, according to various sources.
Stepping, or step-dancing, also incorporates the stage routines of popular singing groups like the Temptations and The Four Tops. It became popular in the mid-20th century among fraternities and sororities from movies like School Daze (1988) and Stomp the Yard (2007), and the TV series, A Different World and Sister, Sister.
In addition to collaborations with local guest artist, DJ RBI, and violinist, Brian-Joseph Uzuegbu, the multi-media production included video footage of Step Afrika!’s dancers on the road—rolling luggage through various airports, performing in classrooms and organizations around the world. “For our home base in the nation’s capital…we bring you what no other city in the world gets!” Founder and Executive Director C. Brian Williams stated in the handbill, referring to the two new dance pieces premiered last night. “The artists in Step Afrika! are truly a unique group of dancers…creating a veritable wall of sound through the syncopated interplay of hands, feet and voice.”
Started in December 1994, Step Afrika!, based in DC, boast to be the first professional company dedicated to the tradition of stepping. “And we’re doing everything in our power to make sure we live up to that,” said Makeda Abraham, a Step Afrika! dancer who’s studied and performed African dance for 15 years. That company’s claim is backed by its 16 years of serving as a cultural ambassador for the U.S. at events around the world—including Canada, Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile, Madagascar and Zimbabwe—through special invitations from American embassies.
While completing an annual 50-city tour of U.S. colleges and universities, from Maine to Mississippi, Step Afrika! frequently conducts residencies, master classes and performances in schools and community-based organizations around the world. “To date, Step Afrika! has reached well over 500,000 students with critically-acclaimed arts education programs,” Williams said. “Our programs stress academic achievement through teamwork, discipline and commitment.”
On a local level, the company provides similar services for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the Washington Performing Arts Society, and the Smithsonian Institution. Abraham noted that their educational outreach serves more than 30,000 students in the DC metropolitan area.
The opening show also encompassed the college aspect—from stepping on the quad, to frat parties, to the two-round battle of the sexes. It ended by giving homage to its roots in Africa.
The “2010 Home Performing Series” was also a revelatory experience for Artistic Director Jakari Sherman. The downtown city street scene, a small part of the series performed last night, was a look at Sherman’s ingenuity in exposing the music and performance in the everyday rhythms of pedestrians.
In other scenes from the series, the crowd stomped and clapped along. Some folks shouted to the dancers when their fraternities and sororities were represented.
They cheered when Brian McCollum, who played the lecherous man in the downtown scene, took the stage. He electrified the crowd through another African-inspired tradition: call and response. “When I say ‘alright,’ you say ‘ok,’” McCollum told the crowd. “When I say ‘ok,’ you say ‘alright.’” McCollum: “Alright!” Crowd: “OK!!” McCollum: “OK!” Crowd: “Alright!!”
Immediately following its DC shows, Step Afrika! will fly out to perform in Morocco, Central America, Panama, Honduras and Belize. Proceeds from the entire run of the Home Performance Series funds Step Afrika!’s year-round programming and recently established scholarship fund for college students.
After being on the road for 10 months out of the year, Abraham, a Step Afrika! dancer and last night’s master of ceremonies, is glad to be doing a home show. “What an amazing year it has been for us,” she told the crowd. “We have performed all across the United States, performed internationally, and it feels so good to be back home.”
For additional information about Step Afrika!’s HPS 2010, please contact Tynisha Brooks at (202) 399-7993 ext. 111 or firstname.lastname@example.org. For up to the minute information on HPS 2010 and to keep abreast of Step Afrika!’s events, visit http://www.stepafrika.org.