Step Afrika stomps expectations

Step Afrika is the first professional dance troupe in the world dedicated to the new tradition of stepping. Their excellent full-length shows blend story-telling, humor, dance and music in an easily-digestible vignette style.

While some audience members may learn a lot, others can see straight to the slightly exaggerated truth of the presentations, making the show entertaining for both seasoned steppers as well as those who are just having their first encounter. The complexly choreographed routines were executed with astonishing skill and grace while easily combining all the different elements of the show together.

At its most fundamental, stepping is a form of dance. However, it is much more than that in that it often includes song and theatrics to augment the polyrhythmic movements of the dancers. It is more than movement; it is chanting and singing in and out of time with stomps, claps, slaps and hits sometimes combined with skits or mime to tell a story. Stepping is always percussive dance which means the sounds of the dancers’ movements are significant, or even primary elements, of the whole experience.

Step Afrika’s goal is for everyone to understand and appreciate the dance form while also seeing it as an educational tool. As a distinctly American art form, Step Afrika is a global ambassador touring around the world through the Americas, Europe and Africa. The group also hosts an annual conference of sorts in Johannesburg, South Africa called the International Cultural Festival, the fruit of a 10-year collaboration with the Soweto Dance Theatre. Step Afrika uses their shows and workshops to promote teamwork, academic achievement and cross-cultural understanding.

The show at the Ferst Center is in a vignette style with about eight different sections. Each section highlights a different or related aspect of stepping. This format is surprisingly entertaining because it would otherwise sound boring just having 10-minute sections lined up one after the other. However, each vignette is its own story and has its own function. For instance, one section may use several props to make different sounds while another section may be literally tell a story which revolves around stepping.

All of the different aspects and influences of stepping from traditional African tribal dances to the black fraternity and sorority pledging process are expertly explored in this informative show. Stepping is made up of many different types of dancing from South African gumboot dance to the powerful techniques of the Zulu people. The most popular stepping, however, takes place on college campuses. Most steppers were college students who pledged a black fraternity or sorority. But a similar style of dance permeates Africa, which is what the show explores.

Overall, the dancers were sublime. Their choreographed movements entertained both the eyes and ears in a way only stepping can. Every movement was practiced and perfect. While what they do may be slightly esoteric, this dance troupe obviously knows what they are doing and immensely enjoys bringing their art to new people as well as those who already enjoy it.

People who already know all about stepping will see the show as a showcase about something they already know they like. Those who do not know anything about stepping will see the show as an almost purely educational but still thoroughly enjoyable experience. Both are effective and entertaining in their own ways. While the focus of the show is the dancing, there is a cursory explanation of the history of the form, its roots and its practices.

Step Afrika is one of the most energetic shows around. Between the jumping, chanting, rhythm and noise, the dancing can almost fall by the wayside. As a multidisciplinary form, stepping encompasses much more than dancing, and this entertaining and enthusiastic show grasps it all. Step Afrika excitingly blends history, dance, theater and music to create a show that will leave all the audience members walking out of the theatre wanting to recreate some of those sweet dance moves they just saw.

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