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dance review

Stepping leaps forward in popularity

“We’re trying to transform the theater into a place where everyone can make music and perform together,’’ says C. Brian Williams, who founded Step Afrika! in 1994.

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“We’re trying to transform the theater into a place where everyone can make music and perform together,’’ says C. Brian Williams, who founded Step Afrika! in 1994.

When the dance company Step Afrika! roars into the Emerson/Cutler Majestic Theatre this week, expect thundering rhythms, lively stories, and a raw exuberant energy that aims to rouse audiences to their feet. It’s a formula the award-winning professional stepping troupe has been perfecting around the world for almost two decades. “In stepping, we transform our bodies into percussive instruments, using our hands, our feet, and voices to make music and produce very complex rhythms,” says C. Brian Williams, founder of the Washington, D.C.-based company. “We are the music and the dance.”

Williams calls stepping a “living tradition.” Despite its aggressive contemporary edge, stepping dates back to the early 1900s, when African-American fraternities and sororities created the unique form as an expression of unity and pride. “No one can point exactly when step was first created,” Williams says. “Stepping is the latest in a long line of African-American body percussion, like tap, juba, hambone, ring shout, [which was] an effort to turn a wooden floor into a percussion instrument. The use of the drum in Africa was so important, but was made illegal in this country during slavery, so all dancing out of the African-American traditions uses some element of body percussion.”

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Stepping really began to blossom in the 1960s, when competitive step shows among college teams became the rage. Williams fell in love with the form in 1989 as an undergraduate in a fraternity at Howard University. “It was a public display of love for the brotherhood. We might break into a live performance at any point and time, a random act of culture.”

After graduating, Williams thought he’d left stepping behind, traveling to Africa to teach in Lesotho. But there he learned about gumboot dancing in South African mines and was fascinated by its similarities to stepping. He began exploring the connections between African movement traditions and those developed in America. In 1994, he founded Step Afrika! “It started with the idea of connecting the dots between cultures. Since then, we’ve used it as a guide for our work all around the world. Cultural exchange is the backbone of the company.”

Also at the heart of the company’s mission is youth outreach, stressing academic achievement and cross-cultural understanding as well as critical life skills. “Three words are very important to us in working with kids — teamwork, discipline, and commitment,” says Williams. “Those are the core qualities to be a good stepper that they can use anywhere in life.”

Step Afrika! is the first professional troupe to take stepping to the theatrical stage. Thirteen full-time artists tour 10 months annually, hitting roughly 50 US cities and nearly a dozen countries each year. The show includes traditional stepping routines and works that pull from South African traditions, such as gumboot and Zulu dances, as well as original choreography. Most of the original work is by company artistic director Jakari Sherman, who created the show’s groundbreaking 13-minute centerpiece, “Chicago.”

Sherman, 36, has been stepping since he was a teen in Houston. “Stepping was as big as football and baseball at our school,” he says. “We competed, and our team was like a family.” Though he studied engineering in college, he couldn’t shake his passion for stepping. He joined Step Afrika! as a dancer in 2005 and became artistic director in 2007. “The career chose me, and now it’s an opportunity to share my gift and passion with the world.”

He adds, “I’ve really enjoyed pushing stepping to a different place, using its ability to reach people in different ways, tell stories. Traditionally, stepping has been used to compete, with one set of emotions on display — pride and raw energy. It’s been about going hard, which is awesome, and we pay tribute to that, but we also showcase how it can be soft and lyrical and narrative. ‘Chicago’ tells the story of people, characters on the street, on the subway platform.”

Sherman says Step Afrika! conveys much more than sophisticated rhythmic interplay. “At its very roots, stepping is about coming together and showing solidarity. It’s unity in motion, a living and breathing example of people working together and having a shared energy and sense of commitment. When people see stepping, they have an urge to participate, to become a part of that community, and in the Step Afrika! show, we really highlight that aspect of audience engagement. They come onstage, we engage them in games, they vote on which stepper they like the best.”

Williams says another distinction of the performance art is that stepping is not merely about watching, it’s about learning and even participating.

“There’s constant interaction and engagement,” Williams says. “We’re trying to transform the theater into a place where everyone can make music and perform together, so when they leave, they’re stepping down the aisles.”

Karen Campbell can be reached at karencampbell4@rcn.com.
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