Step Afrika!'s Magical Musical Holiday Step Show, Fichandler Theatre, Arena Stage, Washington, DC
The opening number of Magical Musical Holiday Step Show
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.
Magical Musical Holiday Step Show
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 Magical Musical Holiday Step Show
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
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.