Featuring African-American “stepping” and South African dances, including Gumboot (Isicathulo) Indlamu, Step Afrika! performed for an audience of over 1,000 at Cairo’s Opera House on Thursday, Oct. 7.
The US embassy and the Egyptian Ministry of Culture brought to Cairo the dance company and non-profit organization, which is based in Washington, DC and rooted in Africa.
Originated by African American fraternities and sororities in the early 1900s, stepping grew out of African dance traditions using movement, words and sounds as a means of communication.
"It’s a highly energetic, polyrhythmic, percussive dance form," explained performer and assistant artistic director Mfon Akpan.
The performance opened with an icebreaker in the form of a step “battle” pitting two female steppers against three male steppers. Both drummed up a perfect rhythmic storm using spoken word and high-energy movements with feet and hands, adding flair through total body articulation.
The battle — decided by audience applause — ended in a tie, because, as the emcee explained, “it’s better when we step together." Gesturing for the audience to join in, he explained that “by together, I mean together.”
From that moment forward, the performers were clear about one thing: theirs is not a show meant for passive consumption. Instead, the crowd was encouraged to participate actively, by clapping, cheering, getting out of their seats, stomping their feet and dancing.
It sounds good in theory, but in practice the emphasis on audience interaction detracted from the show’s focus and energy. The show was much more entertaining when the steppers were stepping instead of putting on a rambling and crude piece of impromptu theater or prodding the rhythmically-challenged audience to clap in unison.
The addition of slapstick comedy skit in particular about the Apartheid-era origins of the Gumboot dance pleased the crowd on occasion but generally diluted the rapture of an otherwise talented and engaging performance. Similarly, alternating clapping between performers and audience members seemed contrived and quickly became tiresome.
One of the show’s highpoints was the Indlamu performance. A traditional Zulu war dance performed to the backdrop of drums, the act began with a limber, carefully executed yoga-meets-hunting-dance solo, signaling the troupe’s transition from African-Americans expressing themselves to Africans expressing their roots.
The dance became aggressive and exuberant as it picked up speed and performers, employing a sequence of high kicks, low crouches and acrobatics and building drama through unpredictability.
Following the Indlamu, the steppers performed a South African dance of more contemporary origins: the Gumboot. Created by African mine workers as a means of communication and self-expression, the dance closely resembles African American stepping with the addition of one crucial prop — the knee-high rubber boots from which the dance draws its name.
Ambassadors for Stepping
Founded in 1994, Step Afrika! is the world’s first professional company dedicated to the tradition of stepping and a prominent actor in advancing and popularizing this vibrant expression of African-American culture.
As artistic director Jakari Sherman emphasized, Step Afrika! is about more than just performing — arts education and community outreach are equally central to their mission. In fact, the company dedicates over half of its time to community outreach.
“We reach out to 1,000 people per year in the DC and Virginia, said Sherman. “When we perform in South Africa, this includes food and clothing drives, performances in orphanages, and workshops. It is very important to us to reach out to the community wherever we go.”
The troupe has performed in cities around the world: North and South America, Europe, Africa and the Caribbean. In addition to performing and giving workshops, the group studies local forms of percussive dance while on tour, to be incorporated into future performances.
In travelling to Egypt, Step Afrika! “seeks to build connections between people and to highlight similarities in not only our dance form but our lives and communities, as well,” said Founder and Executive Director C. Brian Williams. Group members will also study Egyptian drumming styles, including Tahteeb and Tanoura.
“We are cultural ambassadors for Washington, DC, and we take that very seriously,” said Sherman. “Stepping is one of the few dance forms that it truly indigenous to the US. The objective of the show is to be ambassadors for the art of stepping as well as for the US.”
Step Afrika! will perform at The Creativity Center in Alexandria on Saturday, Oct. 9 and at Sawy Culture Wheel on Tuesday, Oct. 12.