Step Afrika! goes far with freshness, energy

By Rebecca J. Ritzel
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, June 18, 2010

South Africa may have lost at home in World Cup action on Wednesday, but Step Afrika! won big -- very big -- at home in Washington. The local dance troupe opened its annual home series with a high-decibel night of dancing at the Lansburgh Theatre.

For 15 years, Step Afrika!, which performs every year in Johannesburg, has built its reputation as an ambassador for stepping, a percussive dance tradition that has long been popular at historically black colleges. As dancer Makeda Abraham told the packed house, the troupe now spends its 10-month season on the road, performing in schools and, thanks to some State Department funding, touring overseas.

The atmosphere at these spring shows is like a ticker-tape parade, with an enthusiastic crowd cheering on the dancers by name. It's fun, but it can also feel like a random night of greatest hits. Not this year. The program lists just five dance numbers, but the highlights may have been the segues.

The show opened with an electric violinist serenading the crowd while a slideshow of the troupe's recent travels flashed behind him. Local turntablist DJ RBI soon followed, and finally, the dancers. The opening number, "X-town Chicago," was a premiere re-creating a Windy City streetscape. Each dancer who crosses the stage steps to a different rhythm: a businesswoman in clacking heels, a street preacher, a jogger, a frustrated Bulls fan. Put them all onstage together and it's not an urban cacophony but a step symphony.

Artistic Director Jakari Sherman can create works like this because he attracts young performers who do more than just step. Recent recruits include virtuosic tapper Ryan Johnson and Suitland High School grad Michael Alford II, who apparently went off to the Ailey School and came home able to transition from a Zulu high-leg kick to an arabesque penchée, balancing on the ball of his left foot while his right leg extends straight up into the air. Ballet moves by Step Afrika!? Oh, yes. Makes you wonder what the company will try next.

Ritzel is a freelance writer.

Step Afrika!

Through Sunday at the Lansburgh Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW. Call 202-547-1122 or visit

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