Good Vibrations From Step Afrika!

"Wade in the Water" is one of the troupe's fresh gospel numbers. One night, the performance featured the a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock. (Photos By Eric Watson)
By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 1, 2007

"Sit back and feel us step," urged a Step Afrika! dancer during Wednesday's performance at the Atlas Performing Arts Center. You fear she's talking about some kind of mushy New Age soul-searching experience, but then she and her colleagues hit the stage with their hard shoes and you realize that she's right. This percussive style of performance -- a mix of traditional African dance and the stepping perfected by African American fraternities and sororities -- peppers the audience with vibrations. You feel it in your eardrums and elsewhere. Each jackhammer step stamps you.

After two hours you take home a bit of an ache, an after-buzz from footwork as sharp, swift and insistent as a Teletype spewing the news:

Breaking news, clickety-clack, a new-old fusion, rat-a-tat-tat, no music necessary, think about that.

Except for one rafter-raising segment with the a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, there were few sounds accompanying the dancers save the tattoo of flesh and bone and wood. We're not just talking hand-clapping and foot-stomping but chest-slapping, thigh-smacking, boot-bonking, hamboning, head-whacking and finger-snapping, too. That little hangover you left with notwithstanding, this was some show, and some dance company.

There's a remarkable power in the self-contained performer, whether he's the one-man band wearing cymbals on his head or a solo hoofer who can fill a stage with spectacle and sound. These folks are braver than the rest of us; no one's got their backs. Each member of Step Afrika! (pardon the exclamation point; we're stuck with it) is a single-serving opera, merging music, dance and vocals. Put the whole eight-dancer troupe together (with three guest artists) and -- well, we've already talked about what that felt like.

And what did it look like? Picture birds of prey swooping in for the kill. One work, a free-for-all of fierce one-upmanship, brought together the whiplashing torsos and pelvic gyrations of rural African dance with the speed and fury of urban American break dancing. This piece, called "Ndlamo 2007 (the after party)," was modeled on a Zulu dance party in South Africa, where Step Afrika! has hosted a dance festival since 1994. Just when you thought you'd seen all the rubber-band moves these dancers could produce, someone sliced through the air with a few one-handed, leg-scissoring capoeira kicks, to make sure we were still paying attention.

There's a palpable zeal in these dancers' eyes, whether they're bounding through a South African gumboot dance, dreamed up by fun-starved apartheid-era miners, or whether they're dancing with video images of themselves in "Nxt/Step," a techno-infused effort to bring stepping into the digital age. There's a sense that they're on a mission.

That's the feeling you get from company founder Brian Williams, too, as he gave the curtain-raising speech of a man who can't brag enough about his baby. An Alpha Phi Alpha stepper while attending Howard University, Williams launched his troupe after touring Africa and seeing the ties between longstanding dances done in the dirt -- the gumboot dance, for one -- and what he'd done for fun with his Greek buddies back home. He says Step Afrika! is the first professional company dedicated to stepping.

What jumps out in the performance is the group's marriage of traditional steps to 21st-century bodies, gym-honed, Pilates-perfect, flexible as titanium alloy. "The Deacon's Dance" left an especially memorable mark, when Michael Forde launched himself into a swan dive that would earn cheers at the deep end of a swimming pool, except he was soaring down to the hard stage, landing on his hands with his legs fishtailing above him. I have never seen anything like it, on land or water. In the moves that followed, it was as if his body parts occupied different dimensions, head careening one way, torso flat as a board, legs rocketing somewhere else. This was a virtuosic performance to make the venerable Alvin Ailey dancers sigh.

In fact, Step Afrika! did Ailey one better with the freshness of its gospel numbers, such as "Deacon's Dance" and "Wade." For Wednesday's performance only, "Wade" featured the incomparable songbirds of Sweet Honey in the Rock, six ladies of exceptional cool and exceptional presence. Their rendition of "Wade in the Water" conjured up baptism at a boil. To take a dip in that river of sound was to truly be transformed.

When this piece ended, for once the audience grew louder than the performers.

Performances continue through Sunday at the Atlas Performing Arts Center .

© 2007 The Washington Post Company