Step Afrika!'s Magical Musical Holiday Step Show, Fichandler Theatre, Arena Stage, Washington, DC


The opening number of Step Afrika!'s Magical Musical Holiday Step Show at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Jati Lindsay.

Step Afrika!’s Magical Musical Holiday Step Show, the current offering (through December 17) in Arena Stage’s Fichandler Theatre is an eye-opening, high-energy, creative, acrobatic exhibition of amazing dexterity and versatility by the first professional company dedicated to the tradition of stepping. Step Afrika! was founded 1994 by C. Brian Williams, who continues as the company’s executive director.

Stepping gained popularity through the Greek letter fraternities and sororities (the so-called “Divine Nine”) at African American colleges through the last century. Per the StepAfrika! website:

Stepping is a percussive, highly-energetic art form first developed through the song and dance rituals performed by African-American fraternities and sororities.  In stepping, the body becomes an instrument, using footsteps, claps and spoken word to produce complex poly-rhythms.  Stepping has been described as “one of the most exciting dance forms created in the 21st century.”

All of that background is nice to know, but totally unnecessary in order to appreciate and enjoy this 75-minute show that lives up to its name: It is, indeed, a magical and musical holiday celebration that has become a holiday tradition to many in the Washington area. At the opening performance, the audience was surveyed regarding how many times patrons had seen it. I estimate that approximately a third of the audience members were seeing it for the second or third time.

The Fichandler space is decorated for the holidays, with Christmas trees and wreaths on the walls or in the aisles and snowflakes projected onto the stage floor. On one side of the arena space, a DJ is dressed in the garb of a band’s drum major, who is spinning familiar Christmas songs before the show begins. A member of the company informs the audience that this is a participatory performance. Audience members are encouraged to indicate their approval of what is happening by clapping or stomping feet or using maraca noisemakers distributed to the audience upon entering the theatre. And, in fact, there are two opportunities for audience members who are so inclined to join the action on the stage. A good number of attendees (of all ages) took their turns on the floor.

In addition to the “human” dancers, costumed characters (Polo the polar bear, Popper the penguin, and Randi the reindeer) appear from time to time, often doing the same movements as the humans. Often one of the dancers narrates or leads the audience response.  

Airborne: Step Afrika!'s Magical Musical Holiday Step Show at Arena Stage. Photo by Margot Schulman.

The program lists seven parts, each one distinctive. In the first, “Jabuilani!,” we are introduced to the cast. The second, “March of the Nutcrackers,” uses the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies” music from “The Nutcracker” as the cast, all dressed accordingly, enters the stage. “The Arctic Step Challenge” is a dance-off between female dancers dressed as peppermint candies and male dancers dressed as gingerbread men. The audience is invited onto the stage for “DJ Nutcracker’s Yuletide Step Workshop,” in which they are taught several step moves and perform them in sequence, followed by “We Stroll, We Step.” The most distinctive and unexpected was “Snow Day,” in which each of the cast members uses a snow shovel to create all-too-familiar scraping sounds of pushing snow and the beat of knocking the shovel against the pavement to loosen snow that may have stuck to the shovel. The finale, “Home for the Holidays,” brings back the entire cast, each wearing a different costume from an earlier number.

Special mention must go to scenic and lighting designer Marianne Meadows for transforming the arena in a wide variety of colors. The program does not indicate who designed the costumes, but Adelle Gresock and Tyquria Fountain serve as wardrobe supervisors, maintaining a large number of creatively and cleverly designed costumes.

From the finale of 
Step Afrika!'s Magical Musical Holiday Step Show at Arena Stage. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Musical Magical Holiday Step Show clocks in at approximately 70 minutes. Not only is the content suitable for all ages, its length makes the performance ideal for younger audiences.

I left the theatre exhilarated and awe-struck by the athleticism and artistry of the Step Afrika! company. They perform kicks that go higher than the Rockettes, somersaults, splits, and extraordinarily high leaps, along with competition-worthy tumbling. The movement is so rapid and so precise, the sheer fact that the performers could memorize one number is an amazing accomplishment, but to learn so many and to hone their performances to be in sync with each other can only be described as a monumental accomplishment.


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