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Step Afrika! brings energetic cultural experience to Appleton

If you’re like most people, you probably can’t take a week off of work and jet to South Africa on any given day. Luckily, the Performing Arts Center offers the next best thing: sights and sounds inspired by South Africa in downtown Appleton.
Last night, the PAC brought us Step Afrika!, the first stepping troupe of its kind. The performance brought together traditional, college-style step performance and other dances from South African cultures. Stepping is high energy, loud and explosive (think less ballet and more STOMP).

Step originated in American colleges in the early 20th century in African American sororities and fraternities. As it grew in popularity, organized competition took hold on college campuses. The evolution of step resulted in a powerful dance that catches both the ear and eye.

It’s safe to say you have to  be very multi-talented to be a part of Step Afrika! It was hard not to be amazed first by the sheer athleticism of its performers. Warning: by the end of the performance you may be fatigued from just watching. Apart  from basic stepping, dancers could also be seen performing gymnastic feats, drumming and singing.

As part of Step Afrika!’s mission to engage people in “cross-cultural understanding”, the show encouraged people to participate. Hosts often engaged the audience in call-and-response and even let some lucky attendees take the stage and try stepping themselves. Within five minutes, Appletonians young and old were not shabby steppers themselves.

Some of the most interesting parts of the performance were the dances that the founders learned abroad. One of the dances performed, Isicathulo or “the gumboot dance” was traditionally done in the mines of South Africa during the Apartheid. In order to avoid the harsh penalties for socializing during work hours, workers used the rubber boots they wore as a form of communication and rebellion. To pass the time they would create layered beats by smacking their boots. They even created a secret coded language in which different beats conveyed different messages. The performers did a humorous reinterpretation of the dance while portraying what daily life might of been like for workers in the mines under the watchful eye of a “super.”

Step Afrika! was a good reminder of the cultural experiences you can partake in by simply enjoying a performance.  In other words, learning about other cultures doesn’t have to take place through a textbook or even through travel. You can become more worldly right where you are. Step Afrika!’s performance gave us a glimpse of history and culture while giving us reason to tap our feet.

-by Eryn Wecker

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