Among the many festive events organized last weekend, Step Afrika! takes pride of place on my list. There were prayers, parades, music, the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the baking of Red Velvet Cakes – a reference to the blood that was shed during slavery and beyond. Nevertheless, this writer was moved by Step Afrika! and the world premiere of “Little Rock Nine” which honors the nine teens who stood up for their rights 57 years ago.
This virtual program, free and available on YouTube and Facebook, features two other dance gems, “Trane”, a fusion of jazz and step dance, and “The Movement”, a powerful statement as “Black Lives Matter”. Add to the list of vibrant dances and recently filmed footsteps, all inspired by African American history and experience.
Among the many festive events organized last weekend, Step Afrika! takes pride of place on my list.
After a few minutes of a lone guitar, director C. Brian Williams welcomes viewers and shares his thoughts and appreciation for supporting organizations in the area. “Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration of the end of slavery in the United States,” explains the founder of Step Afrika! “It has been called the Second Independence Day of the United States and is considered the longest African American holiday in the country.
“Juneteenth reminds me not only to celebrate freedom, but also to make sure that we are actively working to develop ourselves and to support future generations. “
Obviously with pride, Williams presents Ernest Green, one of the famous Little Rock Nines who broke the barriers of American segregation. “It’s an important activity for me to be able to attend the ‘Little Rock Nine’ premiere,” said the old man. “Today, 65 years later, I am grateful to Step Afrika! continue the ideas that we were trying to convey to certain people… that we were capable of defending our rights. We cannot go back.
The play begins with Green’s narration and an invisible tapper mixing 1-2-3 until the beats become more intense and syncopated. Elizabeth Eckford, who was harassed at Little Rock Central High School, is portrayed as a dancer, wearing glasses, a blue apron and an angry gaze. She sits on a bench and carries her book like a weapon.
The intensity grows as eight dancers join her in what has become the hallmark of stepping. The shooting of these nine dancers (who could have been the nine Arkansas students) takes place in front of a school building, possibly a high school as well. They clap their hands in unison to remember the names of the aforementioned Thelma Mothershed Wair, Minnijean Brown Trickey, Jefferson Thomas, Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Ernest Green, Melba Pattillo Beals and Elizabeth Eckford.
“Trane” takes place in a sultry nightclub, perhaps Harlem in the 1930s. Guitar music greets a dancer dressed in midnight blue silk and green satin. She walks over to her lover in matching colors. Then the magnificent tension of a saxophone delights them. This ballet – yes, you could call it that – brings couples together for a feast for the eyes and ears. Too bad the camera forces our gaze on certain dancers rather than letting us find those we choose to follow.
“The Movement” closes the program with a ferocity that best captures Step Afrika! and its power through dance. The dancers are dressed in black t-shirts reminiscent of the dead heroes of the Black Lives Matter movement. Set up in a garage – looks like Strathmore where the company performs and rehearsals – the dancers come forward like the Jets in “West Side Story”.
I loved this dance, especially the pats, steps and screams for justice. And the good part about a virtual show is that you get to see it over and over again. I only wish there was a program, not virtual but that you could hold in your hand. Then I could congratulate the guy who plays the cool sax in “Trane” and list the names of the choreographers for these dances. And I wouldn’t have to rewind a thousand times to copy the names of those martyrs, Emmett Till, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, among them.
Afrika stage! is the first professional company dedicated to the step-by-step tradition and has grown into one of America’s cultural exports, traveling to over 60 countries as DC’s only cultural ambassador. More impressively, the dancers were employed full time with full health benefits during COVID.
Duration: 50 minutes without intermission.
“Not Afrika! Juneteenth Virtual Celebration ‘premiered on Saturday, June 19, 2021 at 8 p.m. ET and is available for extended viewing through Monday, July 5 at 11:59 p.m. ET. To watch Facebook Where Youtube.
Show times for Step Afrika! can be found here. Stay tuned for a fall program of new works and step-by-step dance favorites.