Step Afrika!, which performed this past Saturday at Kingsbury Hall, is the first professional dance company dedicated to the practice to stepping. Step-dancing uses the body as an instrument to create complex, percussive rhythms. I could go into detail about the structure of each individual piece, or talk about how talented the dancers in this company are, with their high energy and flawless technique. What was more important about this performance was how Step Afrika! made a 2,000-person theater feel as intimate as a small black box. This nine member dance company was able to bring every audience member into their community. You felt like you were at home and like the dancers were your friends.
In the opening work, Tribute, Step Afrika! paid homage to the roots of stepping. This African-American dance form was birthed in East Coast college sororities and fraternities. Introducing this history was vital in bringing the audience in. Dressed in matching fraternity sweaters and performing unison choreography and simple, readable rhythms; they broke the wall of intimidation that’s often felt in dance performances in the United States. Everyone started having fun right away.
Throughout the performance I never noticed a transition between dances. Everything was seamlessly blended together. The audience was as awake and energetic as the dancers themselves.
During the second half, Step Afrika! took audience involvement to a new level. They brought up about twenty volunteers and taught them a short step combination. As an audience member, you felt like it was you on stage learning the combination. It developed a huge sense of community. The volunteers not only stayed on stage for about ten minutes, learning and quickly performing the combination, but the performers used them as a backdrop during Indlamu, a Zulu dance that refers to the company’s origins— Step Afrika! began during an exchange program twenty years ago that brought American students to visit the Soweto Dance Theatre in Johannesburg. They had the audience volunteers sit in a semi-circle around a pile of drums and watch the piece from the stage. This made the sense of community even stronger because the audience felt like it completed the circle around the dancers. Everyone was clapping and cheering along as Step Afrika payed a tribute to the Zulu people of South Africa.
I think there’s a risk involved with putting traditional dance forms such as these onstage in a concert venue. You can lose the context and the initial motivation behind the movement. However, Step Afrika! was very successful in introducing the audience to history. They made it all entertaining and they kept the sense of community that comes with stepping alive.
Temria Airmet is a choreographer and dancer based in SLC. She’s recently been seen in the work of Ashlee Vilos, Shira Fagan, Ching-I Chang and Anne Marie Robson. She works administratively at Millennium Dance.