Among the many celebratory Juneteenth events held this past weekend, Step Afrika! ranks high on my list. There were prayers, parades, music, the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, and baking Red Velvet Cakes — a reference to the blood that was shed during slavery and beyond. Nonetheless, this writer was moved by Step Afrika! and the world premiere of “Little Rock Nine” that honors the nine teenagers who stood up for their rights 57 years ago.
This virtual program, free and available on YouTube and Facebook, showcases two other dance gems, “Trane,” a merge of jazz dance and stepping, and “The Movement,” a powerful statement that “Black Lives Matter.” Add to the list vibrant dancing and newly filmed stepping, all inspired by African American history and experience.
Among the many celebratory Juneteenth events held this past weekend, Step Afrika! ranks high on my list.
After a few minutes of a lonely guitar, director C. Brian Williams welcomes viewers and shares his thoughts and appreciation for the support from area organizations. “Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration of the end of slavery in the United States, says the founder of Step Afrika! “It has been called America’s second Independence Day and is considered the longest running African American holiday in the country.
“Juneteenth reminds me to not only celebrate freedom but also insure that we are actively working to expand and sustain for future generations.”
With obviously pride, Williams introduces Ernest Green, one of the famed Little Rock Nine who broke through the barriers of American segregation. “This is an important activity for me to be able participate in the premiere of ‘Little Rock Nine,’ says the elderly gentleman. “Now 65 years later, I’m grateful for Step Afrika! to continue the ideas that we were trying to make certain people understand…that we were able to stand up for our rights. We can’t go backwards.”
The piece begins with Green’s narration and an unseen tapper shuffling 1-2-3 until the beats become more intense and syncopated. Elizabeth Eckford, who was harassed at Little Rock’s Central High School, is portrayed by a dancer, wearing glasses, a blue pinafore and a look of anguish. 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 trademark of stepping. The filming of these nine dancers (who could have been the nine students in Arkansas) takes place in front of an educational building, perhaps a high school, too. They snap their hands in unison to remember the names of Thelma Mothershed Wair, Minnijean Brown Trickey, Jefferson Thomas, Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Ernest Green, Melba Pattillo Beals and the aforementioned Elizabeth Eckford.
“Trane” is set in a sultry night club, perhaps Harlem in the 1930s. Guitar music greets a dancer dressed in midnight blue silk and green satin. She sashays over to her lover in matching colors. Then the gorgeous strain of a saxophone enraptures them. This ballet — yes, one could call it that — brings couples together for a feast of the eyes and ears. Too bad the camera forces our eyes on certain dancers rather than letting us find those we choose to follow.
“The Movement” closes the program with a fierceness that best captures Step Afrika! and its power through dance. The dancers are dressed in black t-shirts that remember dead heroes of the Black Lives Matter movement. Set in a garage – looks like Strathmore where the company perform and rehearses – the dancers come forward like the Jets in “West Side Story.”
I loved this dance, especially the tapping and stepping and yelling for justice. And the good part of a virtual show is that you can see it over and over again. I only wish there was a program, not virtual but one you could hold in your hand. Then I could praise the guy playing the cool sax in “Trane,” and list the names of choreographers for these dances. And I wouldn’t have to re-wind a thousand times to copy the names of those martyrs, Emmett Till, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, among them.
Step Afrika! is the first professional company dedicated to the tradition of stepping and has evolved into one of America’s cultural exports, touring more than 60 countries as DC’s only Cultural Ambassador. More impressive, the dancers were employed full time with all health benefits during COVID.
Running Time: 50 minutes without intermission.
Performance schedules for Step Afrika! can be found here. Stay tuned for a fall schedule of new works and step dance favorites.