When in “The Dry Salvages” T. S. Eliot wrote of “music heard so deeply / That it is not heard at all, but you are the music / While the music lasts,” he could hardly have imagined that he was providing a description of Step Afrika!
But the performance that this phenomenally accomplished Washington–based company gave Thursday evening at the Cutler Majestic Theatre turned body language into body music. The kind that makes you want to get up and dance.
There was, of course, plenty of footwork on stage. Stepping was developed at African-American fraternities and sororities in the early 20th century. C. Brian Williams founded Step Afrika! in 1994, having been inspired by his experience of stepping at Howard University and also by the South African gumboot dancing he saw during a year in Lesotho.
Step Afrika!, presented by ArtsEmerson, included some virtuoso drumming, but for the most part the nine performers created their own percussion. Part marching band, part drum and bugle corps, part cheerleader squad, part morris dance troupe, they clapped their hands and stomped their feet in patterns of dizzying rhythmic complexity, making music — at one point a fugue ran through the ensemble — without the need for pitches.
The four sections of the 90-minute evening moved from college step shows (with the steppers in V-neck cardigans right out of the 1950s) to a Zulu village in South Africa, then paid tribute to the South African gumboot dance before returning to urban America. Education is a part of the proceedings: Mfoniso Akpan gave a brief history of stepping, and later an offstage voice explained how the gumboot dance originated among South African mineworkers. There was some sly humor in the gumboot section: a female mineworker went to pieces when she broke a nail, and when Step Afrika! artistic director Jakari Sherman showed up as the mineworkers’ boss, he was wearing an orange top and blue trousers, the colors of the former Union of South Africa flag.
Audience participation is also a big part of any Step Afrika! show. Right off the bat, audiences are challenged to respond to the troupe’s “OK” with “All right” and vice versa; they invariably mess up when it gets complicated, but that’s part of the fun.
And there’s a step face-off between ladies and gentlemen that’s decided by audience vote. A call for volunteers brought 16 audience members — many of them young children — to the stage to learn a basic step sequence. Clapping was another way in which the audience participated; at one point, the ensemble had three different rhythms going.
By the end, audience and performers had fused into a joyous community.
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.