bySuzanne Schriener & r & So you've been anticipating the launch of the fall dance season and you have a hankering for something unusual, something with lots of percussion, maybe more folk art than high art. Well, hanker no more. Step Afrika! hits Beasley Coliseum on Wednesday, Oct. 19, fusing the African-American dance tradition of stepping with the rhythms of the gumboot dance of South Africa. Stepping is a fairly young dance form that was created by members of historically black sororities and fraternities in the mid-20th century. The dance combines "footsteps, claps and spoken words that create complex rhythms," says Step Afrika! Director Brian Williams, so that "the body becomes an instrument." As one reviewer commented, "the first thing you hear is the drum, but in fact there is no drum." The reason, says Williams, is that in the days of slavery, drums were illegal, since slave owners feared their use as a means of communication. So, "there is a long tradition of African-Americans using the body as a drum" in the absence of the actual thing.
The sororities and fraternities held step competitions as a way to express "the pride and love of their organizations to a broader audience," says Williams, and they continue today, more competitive than ever thanks to cash prizes. Williams says that elementary schools, high schools and even churches now have step groups. The connection to youth culture means that new elements -- most recently, a dash of hip-hop -- are always being introduced to the step vocabulary. "Whatever's hot now invariably finds its way into the step show," says Williams.
Step Afrika! also performs the gumboot dance, which is specific to South Africa, says Williams. It arose from the work of the black men who toiled in the gold, diamond and bauxite mines there, sloshing along in wet tunnels while wearing oversized rubber galoshes, or gumboots. Williams had never even heard of the gumboot dance until 1991, when he was in South Africa on a fellowship after graduating from Howard University. In the landlocked country of Lesotho one day, he saw a young boy, about 12 years old, playing on the side of the road, doing a dance that looked a lot like stepping. "What in the world is that?" Williams asked in amazement. When Williams demonstrated stepping to some of the South African students he was working with, "they were in awe" at the similarity.
Out of that serendipity, the Step Afrika! Festival was born. The December festival, held in Soweto, highlights the links between the two traditions. At his troupe's heart, says Williams, is cultural exchange -- helping different cultures find common ground. For example, Step Afrika! has also uncovered the similarities between African-American stepping and Appalachian clog dancing.
In fact, the roots of stepping, says Williams, are more participatory than competitive. Its "real purpose" was to promote the ideals of the fraternities and sororities, such as community service and academic excellence. Service is a large component of what Step Afrika! does -- specifically, arts education. "Stepping into Schools" sends the six dancers of the company into schools all across the country to hold workshops for children. But audiences can get in on the act, too. Sometimes the company brings people onstage who can join in the clapping, body slapping, stomping and shouting. If you come to Pullman on Oct. 19, better bring your happy feet.