Step Afrika! to present performance steeped in history

Fine Arts

March 26, 2021

If you depicted a group of performers as having a blend of technique, agility and pure energy that makes each performance unique and leaves their audience with their hearts pounding, you might think you were describing an athletic team.

But it actually describes Step Afrika!, the first professional dance company dedicated to the tradition of stepping.

For the second time in four years, the Fine Arts Series at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University is presenting this talented group to the community – but unlike its February 2017 appearance, this one will be done virtually. Step Afrika! celebrates the pursuit of freedom in “Stono” at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 10 via a virtual performance.

It’s a performance rooted in history.

On Sept. 9, 1739, the largest insurrection of enslaved Africans in North America began in South Carolina on the banks of the Stono River. Twenty Africans marched south toward a promised freedom in Spanish Florida, waving flags, beating drums and shouting “Liberty,” according to the Step Afrika! website.

One year later, when Africans lost the right to use their drums through The Negro Act of 1740, “they began to use their bodies as percussive instruments in response. This act of cultural survival and activism earned them the name of ‘Drumfolk,’ and gave rise to some of the country's most distinctive art forms including the ring shout, tap, hambone and stepping,” the website continued.

Fueled by the artistry and traditions of these art forms, Step Afrika! ensures that this little-known yet history-altering movement is recognized for its transformation of African-American life and culture and honors its place in the story of America.

This presentation of “Stono” will be followed by a live discussion featuring C. Brian Williams, founder and executive director of Step Afrika!, and Jonathan Nash, associate professor of history at CSB and SJU. The discussion will be moderated by Tanya Gertz, executive director of Fine Arts Programming at CSB and SJU.

Stepping has evolved into one of America’s cultural exports, touring more than 60 countries across the globe, and the company now ranks as one of the top 10 African-American dance companies in the United States.

Step Afrika! blends percussive dance styles practiced by historically African-American fraternities and sororities; traditional African dances; and an array of contemporary dance and art forms into a cohesive, compelling artistic experience.

Tickets for the Step Afrika!  “Stono” performance have a suggested price of $20 per ticket. CSB/SJU students can view the performance for free.

In addition to its performance, Step Afrika! will conduct a “Learn to Step” online workshop via Zoom at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, April 10.

This workshop, best for ages 12 and up, will consist of an introduction to stepping, the history of the art form and Step Afrika! Participants will work through beginner level technique, drills and choreography, and conclude with a question and answer segment with the teaching artists.

Tickets for the workshop have a suggested price of $10, and are free for CSB/SJU students.

During the 2020-21 academic year, the Fine Arts Series has introduced “Pay-As-You-Can ticketing” in an effort to make the arts more accessible to the public. Please note that for any ticket with a dollar amount, there will be a $2 fee.

As part of the Fine Arts Series community outreach program, Step Afrika! is also conducting virtual dance workshops with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Central Minnesota and the Roosevelt Education Center, St. Cloud. On campus, they will meet virtually with a history class and a dance class taught by David DeBlieck, visiting assistant professor of theater at CSB/SJU.

The Fine Arts Series events are supported in part by the voters of Minnesota through an operating support grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.

This engagement is also supported by the Arts Midwest Touring Fund, a program of Arts Midwest that is funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, with additional contributions from the Crane Group.

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