When people think of the word
“stepping,” they often don’t think of the style of dance developed amongst African American fraternities and sororities in the early 20th century. On Thursday, Feb. 20, professional stepping company Step Afrika! visited SUNY New Paltz and shared this slice of African American culture with the student body. Step Afrika! was founded in 1994 as “the world’s first professional company dedicated to the tradition of stepping,” as stated on their website.
The event was hosted at Studley Theatre and was sponsored by the Union Programming Council (UPC). The UPC, as stated on SUNY New Paltz’s official webpage, is a “volunteer group of students who select and manage programming sponsored by The Office of Student Activities and Union Services.”
Stepping, according to the Step Afrika! website, is defined as “a percussive, highly-energetic art form first developed through the song and dance rituals performed by African American fraternities and sororities.” The body itself becomes an instrument, using footsteps, claps and spoken word to produce complex poly-rhythms.”
UPC Programming Chair Sophie Greenseich states that the E-board started the process to bring Step Afrika! to campus last fall semester. In addition, they wanted to bring a fun and exciting group to campus for their programming.
“Our advisor suggested that we brought an entertainer to campus, and we all really found Step Afrika! to be the best group, considering it would bring culture to campus and we’ve had them perform on campus a few years ago,” Greenseich said. “The campus really loved them according to our advisor so we decided to stick with them!”
Before entering the theatre, I wasn’t very familiar with the art of stepping. My only encounter with a similar dance style is through the Birmingham-based group Stomp, and even then, stepping has deep cultural roots not only in the United States, but internationally as well. It’s also rooted in traditional African dance and more specifically South African gumboot dancing.
However, I was quickly immersed into Step Afrika!’s performance for the evening, as the performers displayed their technical talent right from the get-go. Their hands and feet blurred together as they slapped and stomped tight, complicated rhythms that left the audience wanting more.
In addition to the impeccably choreographed stepping, another prominent feature of their performance was their humor and the level of audience participation. The company kept the atmosphere relaxed and light, and asked the audience to clap, stomp and root at any time during the evening.
The highlight of the evening was one of the later performances, in which the company dressed in traditional Zulu garb and had a pair of drums backing them. The drums boomed in the concert hall, offering an added layer of rhythm and bass to the outstanding stepping of the company. Two audience members even had the opportunity to participate in the performance.
The event closed with two final performances. The first was a demonstration of gumboot dancing, with the company playing a group of South African miners. The company provided history for the dance, as it was also a method of communication for the miners who often spoke different languages. The final performance featured original stepping arrangements by the company.
Step Afrika! brought a lot of energy to the New Paltz campus and offered a glimpse of an important part of African American culture. Step Afrika! is another important piece of the history of stepping in America and abroad.
Student Activities will be sponsoring more events for students to enjoy in the upcoming weeks. “We have a Spirit Day Bingo event on Feb. 29 from 7-8 p.m. at SUB100N, and we have a ‘70s-themed event called Boogie Night on March 6 from 9-11 a.m. in SUB 100N,” Greenseich said. “We also will have an event in April and our traditional Study Break Breakfast in May!”