Iman Mekonen, Contributing Writer
The sounds of feet pounding and hands clapping and striking the chest filled the air, accompanied by rhythmic chants. Performers presented upbeat, percussion-heavy songs under red and green lights to an audience in the Commonwealth Ballroom of the University Student Commons.
The Activities and Programming Board celebrated Black History Month with a Feb. 14 performance by Step Afrika! — a dance company based in Washington, D.C. dedicated to the dance style of stepping.
The event focused on the origins of stepping and the dance’s impact on African-American communities.
Stepping is a form of percussive dance in which the dancer utilizes the hands, feet and mouth as instruments to communicate and create music. This technique has been used cross-culturally to tell stories and celebrate culture.
“Not many people know about stepping as a form of art,” said Step Afrika! member Ta’Quez Whitted. “We want to share it with the audience and showcase the culture behind it.”
Founded in 1994, Step Afrika! is the first performing dance company dedicated to stepping.
Several African-American sororities and fraternities attended the Step Afrika! event; some performed as an introduction, showcasing different forms of stepping with chants and movement styles.
Stepping originated when African-American college students, who were barred from joining many organizations in the early 1900s, came together to uplift each other academically and socially through dance.
Many of the event’s dances were inspired by the South African dance called “the gumboot.” The dance originated in South Africa, where miners wore heavy work boots and used them to create loud sounds and communicate in the mines, where talking was prohibited.
Step Afrika! founder C. Brian Williams visited South Africa with his fraternity brothers and noticed a young boy practicing what he learned to be the gumboot dance.
“[Williams] noticed that it was similar to his version of stepping, and they began to teach each other,” Whitted said. “It was a cultural exchange of dancing styles.”
The discovery of the dance move inspired many of the elements in the performances by Step Afrika! and African-American fraternities.
Halfway through the event, they paid tribute to the dance’s origin with a “Zulu Nation” skit, which included large drums with tribal symbols, traditional African garments and gumboots, the rubber shoes worn by performers, also known as Wellington boots.
In the skit, members recreated life as a South African miner, using the boots for stepping and creating sounds to warn when a supervisor was coming.
In another portion of the event, performers communicated with the crowd in a series of claps, asking the audience to repeat the rhythms.
“As a full-time dancer, I want to make sure I’m upholding the art of step by connecting the audience with the art form by keeping them engaged with high energy,” Whitted said.
The Step Afrika! event allowed VCU students to see the different ways stepping can be performed while learning about African culture.
“We wanted to bring this event to VCU because of the significant culture behind it,” said Ashley Sakyi, VCU senior and live entertainment co-director. “For Black History Month, we wanted to host this event to show where stepping comes from because people might not know about the origins of it.”
To learn more about Step Afrika, visit stepafrika.org.