by Carrie Thayer
Before the lights went down last Wednesday, Hansen Theatre could have almost been a lecture hall. The room was filled with young adults, half of them struggling to balance a notebook on their lap. But soon they would have to put down the paper to clap and shout as Step Afrika! took to the stage.
The dance company was founded in 1994 as a way to celebrate the tradition of the dance form called stepping. Stepping mixes marching, tap, traditional African dance and gymnastics together to create a percussive performance.
The dancers clap, snap and stomp to create a polyrhythmic beat.
The art was created and popularized by black fraternities and sororities in the 1900s. The rhythmic style was started to foster a feeling of pride and community within the newly-formed houses.
In the founding of Step Afrika! the troupe set out to educate audiences across the world about the tradition, while also giving the audience an enjoyable show.
The production went through the history of stepping and invited audience participation by pitting two dance groups against each other.
This made the volunteer stepping lesson that followed seem less intimidating. The audience cheered on their braver counterparts as they learned to walk and clap to the instructed beat.
It didn’t hurt that there were a few kids that got in on the action. The younger steppers, who seemed to waver between closing their eyes to concentrate on the choreography and waving at the audience, were particularly amusing to the crowd.
For one of the participants, getting up on stage wasn’t a difficult decision.
“I stepped a bit in high school and thought ‘why not?’,” economics sophomore Aba Boadu said. “I didn’t think anyone would ever come to Moorhead to [step], so it was pretty amazing.”
From the jovial attempts at the art form by the newbies, the troupe transitioned into a traditional African dance, celebrating the foundation of stepping. The audience dance students were still sitting on the stage, slack-jawed as one of the dancers moved in a series of circling kicks.
After that, one of the members told of one of their founders traveling to South Africa and seeing a dance style similar to stepping, just including gum boots, rain boots that miners wear to protect their feet while working. In utilizing the rubbered fabric, the dancers are able to create new sounds by stomping and slapping the boots.
By mixing the story of stepping with traditional African dance and modern African variations, the troupe taught the audience about different facets of history and how influence can grow and be shared across diverse groups.
While the performance fulfilled some class requirements, even the notebook-toting audience members enjoyed the performance. Education junior Karissa Gratton said she would have attended even without the class requirement.
“I saw the signs all over campus, and I thought it might be interesting,” Gratton said.
Step Afrika! offers a $500 scholarship to 10 audience members throughout their tour. Further details, as well as tryout schedules for joining the group, are available at stepafrika.org.
When it comes to the art of stepping, Boadu would like to see more of it at MSUM.
“It’s awesome, everyone should come and watch it. Spread the word,” Boadu said.