Stepping Back to Afrika!
By Hwaa Irfan
One can go along to an event with certain expectations, to find a spiritual lesson lurking, waiting to tell you that what one expects/is used to is not what one needs. Growth in the form of change is waiting to spur you on to a road littered with His signs. The impulse to go arose out of a call from within in an environment that fluctuates in hostility towards anything not of its kind. Curious to see how they got here, and glad that they did, in a place that seems to be opening its doors to a wider audience, and not just the wealthy that have nothing to do with the rest of the population. Bumping into someone on route who likes to ensnare, we quickly propels towards the entrance to the Main Hall at the Opera House in Cairo.
Relegated to the upper floor, it is only after the event that on reflection one realizes the way in which it was done. I would have liked to have been on the same level as my performing brothers and sisters in order to connect (eye-to-eye). However we were just in a rush to catch them before the chance escaped us.
And so it was in an impeccable maintained musical complex, 3 brothers and 2 sisters performed something familiar on stage, the floor of which is in desperate need of repair. At first the audience seemed cold, not surprisingly, because they were being presented with a news cultural experience. They were only use to seeing African-Americans dance hip-hop on the music videos, and the many polyrhythms being presented to them, were beyond that of the popular black music in the mainstream today.
“Stepping” is a dance form that arose from the creative inspiration of African-America students allowed to attend higher education in the 1900s. With no musical instruments, their bodies served as percussive instruments using hands and feet. I was in a cultural warp as the speaker from the group continued to explain its history, because I could hear what he was saying, but my reference was the gumboot dance of South Africa , created by coalminers as a social medium to uplift each other while in the coalmines of South Africa under apartheid. While caught in this time frame, the performing group Step Afrika explained how “Stepping” was a social medium to connect with other African-American students, and how social means “together”, and “together” included the audience! Within half-an-hour into the performance, Step Afrika won the audience over, with humor, interaction and getting the audience clapping, stomping, cheering polyrhythmically. Even when the poor sense of rhythm was apparent, Step Afrika played games with the audience through which they learned how to clap, stomp, and cheer in a pattern that they were not used to. The audience became part of the performance, and was able to respond well to the contemporary dance skills of one brother (reminiscent of The Dance Theatre of Harlem), the jazz-tap skills of another, and the African polyrhythm of one sister who caught my attention the most. Step Afrika was professional, interacted in a manner that the audience could identify with, and throughout connected with the audience in terms of understanding what they were watching, hearing and doing.
One of the means by which Step Afrika was able to get the audience involved was through the fact that they have men’s dances, and women’s dances. Artistic challenge being a part of African-American culture, which is probably why itheir musical forms keep on developing, there was a challenge between the men and the women, and the crowd had to vote through clapping and cheering – they decided to end on a tie – a good lesson in “togetherness” rather than competiveness.
From all over the U.S., these brothers and sisters shared an experience, and experience which involved their annual journey to South Africa to learn from them and share what they have. The first professional Step-dance performers, I was taken on a journey wondering how it is that a people of the Diaspora created something that was being created in the coalmines of South Africa, i.e. gumboot dancing, for the same reasons. This clearly demonstrated the depth and the richness of African culture, when ties are not put asunder – one river flowing through different/but the same streams of experience to find an outlet from and into the same source. For anyone feeling depressed or estranged in anyway experience Step Afrika, and you experience ubuntu, removing layers of self deception!
They are larger than we see on the stage, they offer programs and scholarships to help other students meet the cost of higher education, because they remember where they came from, who they are and where humanity should be!
Their motto: “We step, we tour, we teach!”