When we listen to music, we oftentimes think of a piano or a guitar. But music can be constructed without a manmade instrument — human bodies can become instruments, creating song and dance through ordinary, natural movements, like walking or snapping. In celebration of Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday, the ‘U’ is bringing Step Afrika, the first professional dance company devoted to the art of stepping, to the Mendelssohn Theater.

Step Afrika!

Tomorrow at 7:30 p.m.
Mendelssohn Theater

The dancers wear hard-soled shoes with which to pound on the floor. One might think a simple slap of a foot on the ground could only create a simple sound, but by using heels for a harsher tap and toes for a lighter noise, the sounds become distinct. Further distinguishing between the speed of each movement and the force used to exert it, the piece becomes filled with melody and established rhythm.

Step Afrika not only communicates a greater understanding of the stepping style, but also dedicates itself to educating and inspiring young people to become interested in the arts.

“Stepping is a dance form created by African-American college students who were members of fraternities and sororities,” said Step Afrika founder Brian Williams. “During stepping we use our hands, feet, bodies and our voices to make music. It is a highly energetic and percussive dance form.”

Step Afrika’s style of stepping originated from the Gumboot dance of South Africa, which was made popular by men who migrated to Johannesburg, South Africa to work in the mines. In order to handle the harsh conditions, the workers, coming from diverse backgrounds and languages, developed Gumboot dance as a means of communication and amusement.

Williams created Step Afrika to develop a relationship between stepping in America and the dance forms of South Africa. This not only established an innovative dance form, but also explored the connections between movement and culture between the two continents.

The upcoming performance will feature South African Gumboot dance as well as Zulu dance technique, a form derived from the Zulu tribe designed to celebrate certain rituals. Throughout the show, a traditional African drum ensemble will mix their rhythms with the beats the dancers create.

“One piece is called ‘Tribute,’ and this is our way of paying homage to the African-American step show and all different styles of stepping,” Williams said.

In addition to to the traditional stepping of South Africa, more interpretive pieces will be interspersed into the show, covering the history of a wide variety of styles.

Throughout the performance, dancers start and stop at separate times, creating a continuous piece. The music becomes more powerful as a larger group of dancers perform the same rhythm at the same moment. It then transitions into softer, divergent tones as they break away from the group and perform their own songs, providing a contrasted, complicated dimension to the performance.

The show will also incorporate slam poetry, using voice as another component of the performance. Moreover, Step Afrika encourages constant communication with audience members to let them become part of the dancers’ songs.

Like a Morse code message, the Step Afrika dancers will clap, stomp, yell and, of course, step to the beat of the drums, speaking their own language to the audience.

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