Students poured into the auditorium of Dunbar Middle School while the announcements blared over the intercom. Step Afrika dance troupe was here to perform and the excitement was audible. As first-year principal and new Academy Center of the Arts board member Derrick Brown attempted to settle the energetic crowd, a uniformed officer turned to me and mentioned how the din is always a precursor to special events.
Principal Brown introduced Shaun Spencer-Hester who spoke about the life and contributions of her grandmother Anne Spencer. She was a renowned icon of the Harlem Renaissance as a civil rights activist, poet, and a former librarian at Dunbar.
Before Step Afrika took the stage, a group of young girls from the school performed an elaborate step recital, building on the now almost tangible anticipation of the student body.
Finally, Principal Brown invited Step Afrika to take the stage. The dancers began in a circle facing each other, singing, stepping, clapping, and dancing. They were as impressive vocally as they were visually. As they progressed into each new routine, it was obvious that they had practiced choreography extensively. The music and rhythms they created were completely unaccompanied by music, and yet they stayed in perfect sync with each other.
Between dances, different members of the troupe explained the history behind styles of step, such as the Gumboot dance, which takes its name from the footwear of South African miners. This dance, involving slapping different beats on one’s boot, came about as a form of communication between workers when speaking was not allowed. A short skit permeated a few different routines of the Gumboot dance in which one member pretended to be an angry supervisor, and all the dancers were workers eagerly awaiting the lunch train’s arrival.
The dancers also performed step dance in the style of fraternities and sororities. The men and women had a sort of mock dance battle which was judged by the loudness of the student body’s cheering. The troupe decided it was a tie, but even if there was no winner, let me assure you, my eardrums lost.
Several of the members later stated that they were in Fraternities and Sororities of their own during their college years. A few also said they had degrees in performing arts and musical theater, which explains the high quality of the vocal performance as well.
Towards the end of the show, the dancers taught a few basic moves to the audience, including a move where they yelled “attention!” and the audience would respond “HUH!” followed by three full seconds of silence. The troupe invited a few students on stage to perform a short routine with them, praised them for their courage, performed one more routine, and with that, the show was over.
Principal Brown took the stage once more, saying “attention!” to which the student body replied “HUH!” as they were just taught. “You know I’m going to use that one from now on,” he said with a smile, before beginning to dismiss the students.
“The kids had an amazing time,” he later shared. The thing about Step Afrika, he pinpointed, is that they aren’t just performing, but “educating and inspiring” the students.
Step Afrika originated in D.C. and is the first professional dance troupe dedicated to stepping. They perform in 10 different countries and to over 50,000 people each year, including an annual performance in the White House. Principal Brown was glad to have them visit, saying that Step Afrika is “welcome here at Dunbar anytime.”
The Academy’s Community Outreach Program was proud to present Step Afrika along with sponsors Moore & Giles and Centra Health in celebration of black history month. Thank you to the Dunbar faculty and administration for working with us to share these talented performers with Lynchburg youth.
Images and article written by Amber Rabie, Intern at the Academy Center of the Arts
Amber Rabie is a Senior at Liberty University. She is double majoring in Graphic Design and Studio Arts with a minor in Global Studies. Amber is a strong supporter & enthusiast of the arts in all forms, having dabbled in many forms of performing and visual arts herself.