Step Afrika! puts music at center stage in annual series

(Tony Powell/ Step Afrika! ) - This year’s performance was more of a variety show, with an emphasis on music and theatrics rather than footwork.

(Tony Powell/ Step Afrika! ) - This year’s performance was more of a variety show, with an emphasis on music and theatrics rather than footwork.

Anyone torn between watching Game 5 of the NBA playoffs or heading out into the heat to see Step Afrika! on Thursday had to be relieved after walking into the Atlas Performing Arts Center and seeing the dance troupe’s props:

Basketballs. Two racks of them. Because any object you can pound a rhythm with is fair game for Step Afrika! Usually, the dancers stick to pounding their body parts — feet, hands and thighs — but in a clever, rambunctious opening sequence, crossover dribbling provided the dancers with a baseline beat.

(Tony Powell/Step Afrika) - Step Afrika!’s run continues through July 1.

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That scene — set in a schoolyard and also featuring jump-ropes, recess chants and a rapping teacher — is the best of nine works that Step Afrika! is offering at its annual June series. Last year, the District-based troupe went serious, performing an extended work inspired by the art of Jacob Lawrence. This year’s format was more of a variety show, with an emphasis on music and theatrics rather than footwork.

For nearly two decades, Step Afrika! has been dedicated to elevating stepping, a casual form of tap dancing that has long been popular at historically black colleges, from a campus contest to performance art. This month, the troupe toured Samoa and Quebec. District crowds expect to see certain favorites, such as “Party Walk,” a step-off between dancers who were members of rival fraternities and sororities.

For dance fans who aren’t Howard University alums, the best part of a Step Afrika! show is often the company’s latest effort fusing stepping, modern dance and the South African Zulu movement, famous for its high leg kicks and butt-jiggling jives. But, at this performance, “American Zulu” was barely three minutes; a beat boxer got considerably more stage time, as did a call-and-response tribute to Chuck Brown.

The show closed with “Nxt/Step,” a promising work-in­progress that had the dancers laying down triplet rhythms while onstage DJs created a screechy soundtrack.

Step Afrika!’s run continues through July 1. If you go this year for the music, hope that next year, dancing is once again the main draw.

Ritzel is a freelance writer.

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