Traditions explored with Step Afrika!
at Victoria

Ndlamu is a traditional dance of the Zulu people at Step Afrika!. Photo: Sekou Luke

By Arnecia Patterson

For arts organizations in Dayton, one of the conundrums of audience building is the prominence and consistency of where performances are held. Theatres and auditoriums, like stadiums and arenas, have identities. The Victoria Theatre Association’s programs enjoy high popularity due, in part, to its two theatres, the Victoria Theatre and the Schuster Center for the Performing Arts. They are cultural touchstones located in the center of Dayton. Their size and location provide a backdrop for the broadest range of arts programming in the city—classical music and dance, Broadway touring productions, and popular artists and speakers. While each show may hold its own appeal to age groups, cultures, and tastes, the Victoria Theatre’s Family Series of shows bring children and adults together in the same place, and at the same time, to enjoy the arts. With a stage production at its center and workshop and storytelling in between, the content of Family Series shows extends past ephemerality.

Step Afrika! Is guaranteed to last forever in the memories of everyone who sees it take the Victoria Theatre stage on Saturday, Mar. 3 at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. The company was created in 1994 as the first professional dance company dedicated to the tradition of stepping. Step dance, as a genre, has evolved from its roots in European and African countries and the indigenous Americas. Its transformation in the United States has multiplied and is now practiced and stylized in Appalachian folk dance, Irish-inspired ceilis, dance companies and competitions, American tap dance, and what is popularly known as stepping.

Stepping and its African progenitors are the domain of Step Afrika! Vernacular forms of stepping are highlighted in films like School Daze, Drumline, and Stomp the Yard; as well, it is the subject of a recent documentary, Step, which follows a Baltimore step dance team of girls. While its African roots are often attributed to the Gum Boot protest tradition of South African miners, today it is most widely practiced by historically black Greek fraternities and sororities.

Step Afrika! performances showcase the historic provenance of stepping in a contemporary presentation that fills the stage with full-bodied percussive
sound and movement.

C. Brian Williams, founder and executive director of Step Afrika! was introduced to stepping as a student at Howard University and member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. Since his initial foray into producing a festival with the Soweto Dance Theater in 1994, Step Afrika! is now an international touring company that performs across the country and abroad.

In some of its repertory, Step Afrika! retains the African tradition. Dancers are outfitted in brightly-colored, geometrically patterned costumes and headdresses using African materials in their design—beads, shells, and fur—and accompanied by African drumming. The set movement does not shy away from its historical influences. There are circular formations in which dancers take solos. Because of the strong presence of drum rhythms in the traditional dances, there is less percussive impact on the chests and thighs than when stepping. Then there is the speed that is sometimes interrupted for slow lyrical arms and rounder hip movement that serve as somewhat of an invitation to the next burst of rapid-fire kicks, turns, and splits.

Even with their proficiency in African drumming and dance traditions, the dancers of Step Afrika! are experts in stepping. In performance, the company’s contemporary step repertory shapes itself into the strict line formations that give stepping its structure. They disperse into multi-linear parallels and crosses that contrast the shapes dancers throw with their hands and feet onto their torsos and thighs and into the air. The complex geometric structures change spacing and levels to form substantially artful, machine-like images.

Contrary to its name, the original point of stepping was sound. In the 19th century, South African gold miners found a way to communicate despite an imposed ban on talking through producing code with slaps to their boots and chests. In contemporary stepping, the concept of polyrhythmic communication is replicated as percussive, self-produced accompaniment.

Dancers move toward and away from each other while covering the stage with loud steps. Their hands find a multiplicity of ways to layer counter-rhythms. Clapping, chest and thigh slapping, and vocals, often sped up are sometimes slowed down,
and it is riveting.

The Step Afrika! performances are sixty minutes long with no intermission. The 4 p.m. show will be sign interpreted and have audio interpretation available if requested in advance. A feature of Family Series’ performances are the workshops held between shows and conducted by the Victoria Theatre Association’s team of teaching artists. The workshop between Step Afrika! performances is a rhythm workshop designed for ages 5 and above; tickets are $5 per child accompanied by an adult who is admitted free. Ticket holders can also attend a free “story time” held at 3:15 p.m. in the Victoria Theatre’s Kettering Reception Room. Tickets to Step Afrika! are $16 and can be purchased online at at the box office, or by phone at 937-228-3630
or 888-228-3630.

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Arnecia Patterson has an infinite capacity to view concert dance. She found her former career as dance executive, funder, and consultant extremely satisfying—and finds writing about dance equally rewarding. Reach DCP Resident Dance Critic Arnecia Patterson at

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