For two years, the “MC Presents” program at the Morrison Center has worked to bring nationally and internationally touring artists to Boise. Part of this year’s lineup was “Step Afrika!,” a stepping dance company that made their Boise debut on Feb. 21. Combining music, storytelling and dance, the energy in the room was at a constant high.
Step Afrika! is a company focused on the traditional dance form of stepping. Founded by C. Brian Williams in the summer of 1994, Williams describes stepping as a “highly energetic, polyrhythmic, percussive dance form” that uses the dancers’ body as an instrument with the movements. Stepping’s roots can be found within African American fraternities and sororities, including Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Incorporated, which Williams is a member of.
Step Afrika! began in Johannesburg, South Africa, with a two-week festival.
“I was trying to find a way to connect the African American artform of stepping with, at that moment, South African dance forms and culture,” Williams said. “The people, for the most part, had never seen this tradition of stepping. It was their first time, and I was really shocked [by] their immediate response to the form and the energy that’s created.”
Unknown to many, Williams saw something special within stepping that excited him. After touring over 60 countries, he shared there are still new people being introduced to stepping everyday.
“First and foremost, I hope that audiences enjoy their time in the theater with us. It’s important to me to have a good time,” Williams said. “But then I also want them to be introduced to a different part of American culture they may not have known that much about.”
Williams’ hopes for the show were perfectly reflected in their production at the Morrison Center.
Conversations overheard from before the show consisted of audience members asking one another what exactly they knew about the show beyond the program’s description.
The show effortlessly combined entertainment and education. This was especially apparent in the storytelling sections of the show, particularly the story of South African miners and the gumboot dance.
Gumboot dancing began in the South African mines with workers mining tirelessly for stretches of time, often unable to communicate with one another. This led to a creation of a shared code in which workers would slap their boots in determined patterns signaling to other workers in the distance – an example of a message shared was the arrival of their boss in the mines.
Over time, this communication method formed into a dance as a means of entertainment. By slapping their boots in a rhythmic pattern and adding movements, the gumboot dance was born. Within the show, dancers portrayed miners wearing gumboots and bandanas, providing an entertaining retelling of what these experiences in the mines might look like.
During the show, the dancers combined miming out working in the mines and stepping movements. In the middle of her movements, one dancer fell over and shrieked in what was assumed to be pain. The other dancers halted their movements and quickly asked in unison, “What’s wrong?”
The woman who was on the ground pointed her finger up at them and exclaimed, “My nail!” and the audience sang in laughter.
The audience played a large part in the show’s energy as there wasn’t a moment of silence – other than in anticipation for the drums to be played as the traditional South African Zulu dance began. Performers from Step Afrika! periodically spoke with the audience in between dance sections and would encourage clapping, snapping, cheering, standing up and whatever else the audience felt they needed to do in response to what was occurring on stage.
At one point during the show, volunteers from the audience were asked to join the dancers on stage and learn the basic stepping movements. This was similar to the workshops often held by the company.
“Our mission is to preserve and promote the art form of stepping and to use [it] as an educational and motivational tool,” Williams said. “So as much as we do performances on stage, we do a lot of work in the community. Even at the show, if you aren’t able to make the masterclass, we’re still going to find a way to teach a little bit of stepping to audiences there.”
Williams shared one of his favorite things about the productions is the commonality recognized by audience members. While touring in other countries, audiences have been able to see a bit of the same percussive dance style within their culture reflected on the stage.
“Arts remind us of our shared humanity,” Williams said. “We have so much more in common and I like for audiences to recognize that too, to define a little bit of their own culture and their own experiences in our show.”
When it comes to the future of Step Afrika!, Williams is looking forward to performing new material and heading back to where everything began.
“Step Afrika! is getting ready to celebrate its 30th anniversary and a big part of that will be a huge return to South Africa,” Williams said. “A lot of stuff that we’ve experienced overseas, especially in South Africa, we’ve put into our performances and we like to share with our audiences back home. We carry our travels with us.”
While Step Afrika!’s next appearance in Boise is unknown, they’re currently on a national tour in the United States. If you’re looking for an evening full of entertainment, this show stands apart from other dance programs.