Stepping, the historically African American Fraternity and Sorority polyrhythmic and percussive dance form in which the body is used as an instrument, is something I’ve admired for quite some time. I wasn’t aware, however, of C. Brian Williams’ Step Afrika!, the first professional company dedicated to the tradition of stepping, until recently, and I jumped at the opportunity to see them at the Auditorium Theatre on Saturday, January 14th. The program was an intermission-less ninety minutes packed with high intensity stepping that integrates songs, storytelling, humor and audience participation.
On the night of the Chicago performance, the company was made up of eleven dancers and all of the men and women had outstanding technique, charisma, and seemingly endless endurance. Performers took turns at the mic: one spoke about the origins of step, another led a competition between a group of male dancers and a group of female dancers, and yet another explained the Gumboot Dance, a dance that originated in the mines of South Africa as a means of communication and a way to keep spirits up.
One of the things that really impressed me is the way Mr. Williams has created a company that is rooted in and dedicated to the tradition of stepping but also includes influences from other dance styles, such as tap, jazz and modern, just to name a few. The Auditorium Theatre’s nearly 4,000 seats were almost sold out and there was clearly a large contingent of audience members from the Divine Nine Fraternities and Sororities that created and have continued the stepping tradition. The dancers invited the audience to yell, stomp and clap their appreciation of the show and that didn’t happen to the extent I was hoping it would. Perhaps the formality of the venue had an impact on the audience’s propensity to be boisterous.
While stepping is typically performed in groups, I really loved the solos that were peppered throughout the show, especially those towards the end of the program, one of which started as a duet between a gumboot dancer in mining clothes and a solo dancer in formal dress; the contrast illustrated how far the tradition has come, from its humble beginnings to the stage of the most famous theatre in Chicago. Another highlight of the evening was the traditional South African dance in which two men played drums and the dancers were in traditional costumes. The syncopated high kicks, accompanied by a whistle being blown, were exciting no matter how many times they were repeated, and this is where the dancers were really able to let go and show the audience what they’ve got.
Step Afrika! visits about fifty U.S. towns on its tour and I was disappointed that they were only in Chicago for one night. I hope they do multiple shows the next time they’re in town so that even more people get to experience the company’s unique melding of dance traditions. The evening provided a wild ride of joy, tradition, agility and pure talent.The performers included Ariel Dykes, Kamala Hargrove, Akievia Hickman, Jabari Jones, Conrad Kelly II, Isaiah O’Connor, Valencia Odeyka Emonni Springer, Ericka Still, Pelham Warner, Jerel L. Williams, and Robert Warnsley, the only company member that’s a native of Chicago. Jakari Sherman and Jackie Semla choreographed the evening’s pieces, and Niomi Collard’s lighting design added to the mood and exuberance of each dance. Step Afrika! is not to be missed the next time it stops through our city!