Photos by Pooja Pasupula.

From the first moments of Step Afrika!’s Saturday night performance in the Popp-Martin Student Union, the troupe’s best assets were apparent: Their synchronization is airtight, their sense of rhythm is fail safe, their energy is unmatched, and they’ve got a likable, mischievous sense of humor.  But it’s only after seeing their performance in its entirety that one can appreciate a perhaps more important quality. These dancers are committed to a mission of preserving the traditions of their art form.

Drawing from stepping’s strong history of community, Step Afrika! immediately encouraged the audience to participate and show their support by any means necessary, even if it meant doing a back flip.  Within ten minutes of the start of the show, a step-off was conducted between the ladies and the fellas. It was the crowd’s responsibility to pick the winning team by applauding and cheering for who they thought had the best performance.  It was difficult to tell which side got more cheers (the first round was declared a tie), but the fellas took the second round, gaining extra cheers with their impressive acrobatic moves.

Shortly thereafter, a handful of audience members were invited onto the stage for a workshop during which they were taught steps, one after the other, until there were enough to form a whole routine.  Although those on the stage were the ones actively participating, the audience was not left behind.  We were taught the names for the various steps – the roly poly, hop-step and the march, to name a few – and we were entertained by those who were unable to keep up with the routine and one student who replaced the traditional 5-6-7-8 count-off with 1-2-3-4.

Not only did Step Afrika! display traditional step movements from America, but they cultured the audience by performing dances from South Africa as well. It was more than a performance: they brought history, culture, excitement, and interaction to the crowd. They installed life lessons displaying of the benefits of working together and being strong.  The group presented two works that they brought back from South Africa. The first was based on traditional dances of the Zulu tribe. Intensely percussive and endearingly boastful, one could see clear lineage from this style to stepping.  At first we were left with nothing but a recorded message telling us about the Zulu people followed by two of the company’s members on the drums, which built until the dancers were in wildly moving across the stage.  The room was silent, and although everything but the stage was pitch black, I could see that everyone was wide-eyed and open-mouthed with astonishment.

The second was a gumboot dance. This form of dance was developed by South African miners who, because of their language barriers, needed a new form of communication and used their boots to pass on orders or have conversations.  This form was taught to the group’s founding member by a boy in South Africa, but it’s remarkable to see how closely it resembles the stepping we’re accustomed to seeing stateside.

There is impressive cohesion in motion among Step Afrika! performers. They are clearly one another’s peers in virtuosity, and the exuberance that comes of their unanimity is infectious. So when now and then they show off individually—as if to say, Here’s what I got; see if you can top that!—or when other competitions arise, you get that it’s all part of their polished play-acting. And you know this troupe is close.  They bring this family-like atmosphere to the audience and create an environment were everyone feels like they belong and can let lose.  In a time where the United States and the rest of the world are incredibly divided, this is just what we need. This was a great way to spend a few hours not worrying about problems and just enjoy life, and it was one of the best experiences I have had at UNC Charlotte so far.
Stephanie started as a staff writer for the Niner Times in October 2015 and was promoted to assistant editor of arts and entertainment in October 2016. Her writing has focused mainly on album reviews and other musical topics, but she continues to expand her horizons. She is a senior and is double majoring in English literature and culture and German. When she is not writing articles, she is either people watching, reading, cooking, or updating her many social media profiles. If you're not sure of anything else, be sure that Stephanie is listening to music at any given time.