ArtsEmerson dances with diversity for Step Afrika!

by Kavita Shah / Beacon Staff • November 6, 2013

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Step Afrika! opens tonight in the Cutler Majestic Theatre.
courtesy of The Napolean Complex Project
Step Afrika! opens tonight in the Cutler Majestic Theatre.
courtesy of The Napolean Complex Project

To cater to a city as diverse as Boston, ArtsEmerson works constantly to craft its season with a global focus. Within this season alone, it features Irish, Russian, Italian, Indian, and South African productions, among others.

Starting Nov. 7 and running until Nov. 9, ArtsEmerson will host Step Afrika! at the Cutler Majestic Theatre. Step Afrika! is the first professional company in the world dedicated solely to the tradition of stepping, a dance that creates rhythm through kicks, stomps, chanting, and clapping. 

Stepping derives from the gumboots dance that came out of the mines in South Africa, where miners used man-made rhythms as an alternative to drumming, which was often banned by authorities. The company’s adaptation of the dance intersects this traditional style with modern forms of dance like jazz to appeal to a contemporary audience. 

Members have performed on many stages in South America, Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Caribbean, and are now coming for only three nights to the Boston.

“The show is deeply rooted in the African continent,” said David Dower, director of artistic programs at ArtsEmerson. “It gives a high-energy look into the South African world through movement and percussion, but it also has a real, direct relationship to neighborhoods of Boston.”

Various step teams and organizations, both traditional and multicultural, exist all throughout the city, creating a melting pot of different ethnicities. Bringing the company to Boston helps unite the diversity of the city through a medium that’s ‘largely wordless but entirely communicative,’ as Dower put it.

Step Afrika!, which started in Washington D.C., serves as a cultural ambassador for the United States as well. It represents the nation at events around the world through special invitations from American embassies. As Dower mentioned, the company is effective in bridging cultural boundaries through education about African culture.

The company is regarded internationally for its use of stepping as an educational tool for young people. It hosts workshops, residency programs, and arts education activities for grades K-12 and college students across the globe. The artists also lead the Washington Performing Art Society’s Summer Steps Camp, where they step in relation to other percussive dance styles.

All lessons taught by Step Afrika! are catered to the age group and setting. They focus heavily on the energetic appeal for younger audiences, teaching life skills such as teamwork and discipline. For older students, they introduce African history and its ties to historical percussive dance.

“What sets this show apart is its focus on movement as the storytelling form,” said Dower. “It shows the history of step and it’s so much fun. You’ll be on your feet the entire show with the amount of energy on stage.”

Featuring a dance production in the ArtsEmerson schedule emphasizes the diversity of the shows offered throughout the season, including a marionette version of Sleeping Beauty and multimedia productions. On Nov. 30, ArtsEmerson will premiere another South African production called Mies Julie, giving viewers back-to-back glimpses into South African culture through two different styles of shows. Step Afrika!, in particular, appeals to a wide range of Emerson students, including dancers and theater and film majors.

“I’ve taught a little bit of step over the summer to four-year-olds,” said sophomore performing arts major Lauren Barkhouse. “There’s really no need for music and I like being able to teach as well as watch how sounds can create a rhythm.”

Barkhouse sees ArtsEmerson as a great opportunity for Emerson students to be exposed to cultures and meet professionals in the business. She excitedly said that last year, ArtsEmerson brought actors from the Globe Theater in London to the Paramount Stage.

“Before the school year even started, I put all the shows into my calendar,” said Barkhouse. “I’ve been looking forward to this show for a while.”

Students working for ArtsEmerson highly anticipate the production as well, including senior Cassie Samuels, a performing arts major and dance minor who works as a lobby usher.

“I love that they’re introducing us to shows of so many different ethnic backgrounds,” she said “I think it brings in a broader range of people. And, honestly, everyone loves dance.”

ArtsEmerson works constantly to engage Emerson students in preparation for its productions. The organization has a team of student employees called creative producers, all of whom are assigned to a project and help  produce the artists’ visits.

“We work with the artists and their companies to build outreach with the student community,” said Dower. “For this show, for instance, the dancers will be doing an open rehearsal where people can see the show come together, as well as a Master Class in step dancing which is open to 40 students.”

Dower and the rest of the ArtsEmerson team are hoping for a diverse turnout to the student engagement events and the show itself.

“We are always looking for an expanse in what we consider to be our programming world,” said Dower. “Step Afrika! helps us express that.”