Elevating the Party Walk

Step Afrika! blends traditional dance with modern hip-hop beats

June 20, 2012
Step Afrika! dancers perform “Party Walk,” a dance based on traditions in the black fraternity and sorority community.

They’re two art forms that have roots in African American culture, but stepping and hip-hop have less in common than you might think.

Stepping — a performance style common in African American fraternities and sororities that combines synchronized movement and sound — has been around for almost 100 years, and its traditional roots outside the United States go back even further. Hip-hop, meanwhile, is still a young genre.

But they complement each other in intriguing ways. And C. Brian Williams, executive director and founder of D.C.-based dance company Step Afrika!, is combining the two in the troupe’s latest performance, “Nxt/Step,” opening Thursday.

“The show is about what’s happening now,” says Williams, whose company, founded 18 years ago, now tours its distinctive brand of movement all over the world. “We’re looking at hip-hop and playing with it in terms of stepping.”

This is a change from last year’s show, which used stepping to tell the tale of painter Jacob Lawrence’s “Migration Series,” set in the early part of the 20th century. The new show, rather than using images, focuses on sound — the music accompanying each piece as well as the sounds the performers make with their feet and hands.

One piece, “Party Walk,” highlights a key element of African American fraternity and sorority culture. “If you go to a party on an African American college campus, [people] move through the party doing a kind of line dance,” says Williams. That’s known as a “party walk,” and the piece will highlight the various styles found around the country, backed up by songs such as Lil Wayne’s “Six Foot, Seven Foot” and the remix of Rihanna’s “Birthday Cake” with Chris Brown.

Another piece is set to a go-go beat, a decision that was made months before Chuck Brown died, says Williams. Peppered throughout the evening will be performances by guest artist Kenny Muhammad, a nationally acclaimed beat-boxer who has performed with the New York Philharmonic. He’ll be freestyling and accompanying the dancers in pieces sure to get the floor thumping with a contagious beat.

If they’re really feeling the rhythm, people in the audience can join the company in a line dance. “It wouldn’t be a Step Afrika! show without audience participation,” says Williams.

Atlas Performing Arts Center, 133 H St. NE; through July 1, $20-$40; 202-399-7993.

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