Step Afrika!, touted as the “world’s first professional step team” visited Elon’s campus as part of its 15th anniversary tour Sept. 2. The approximately hour and a half show filled McCrary theater with pulsating rhythms and infectious handclaps — hallmarks of the style of dance known as “stepping.”
Stepping involves carefully coordinated arm, leg and body movements coupled with timed stomps, claps or slaps that turn the entire performing company into one percussion section.
The group says its mission is “to promote an understanding of and appreciation for stepping,” something many students at Elon have never seen before. In addition to being a touring company, Step Afrika! is also a cultural ambassador for the United States. They travel the world sharing the uniquely African tradition of step dance and learning more about other cultures in the process.
Step Afrika! began its performance with the South African gumboot dance, a form of expression and communication that evolved out of the harsh working conditions in the Johannesburg mines.
The group’s founder, C. Brian Williams, discovered the gumboot dance while on a cultural exchange in South Africa and immediately drew a connection between American stepping and African dance.
The dance was interjected with humorous and lively banter between the performers, acting out the parts of an overseer and mine workers, before culminating in a thundering dance that left the audience cheering.
After examining Step Afrika’s roots, the company delved into the roots of stepping. Developed on college campuses in the early 1900s, stepping came from black cultural group socials. Eventually, stepping divided into two styles: “sorority” and “fraternity.”
The performers demonstrated the difference in styles through a step contest. Sorority style features more stylized chants and challenges, while fraternity style is bent on intimidating the opposition. The audience’s cheers indicated which team won.
Audience involvement remained high throughout the night. The team even invited audience members onstage and taught them a simple step routine. The rookie steppers then took their places as Step Afrika! brought the focus back to traditional dance with a Zulu celebratory drum circle.
Beginning and ending with pounding drum beats, the celebration featured acrobatic leaps and feats of flexibility as a young woman and young man appeared to court.
The evening wound down with a superb tap dance performance culminating in the entire group’s final step routine, impressively showing off each performer’s individual style and talent. The packed theater left marveling at the performance, particularly those who had never seen or heard of step before.