Step team keeps Cultural Day on the beat

Two days of cultural festivities culminated in a Black Student Union (BSU) sponsored- performance on Nov. 16 by Step Afrika, a dance and step team that specializes in combining modern hip-hop and traditional African movements.

The performance, which took place in the Kendall Hall main theater, featured Zakiya Harris, Aisha Lord, Darrius Gourdine, Paul Woodruff, Jason Nious and Brian McCollum, members of the team who have different backgrounds and career goals, but a shared love of stepping.

Stepping is a form of dancing that African-American fraternities and sororities have made popular.

“Cultural Day is an annual event for the Black Student Union (BSU), but has typically only been a one-day event in the student center atrium with a steel band, African dance performance, a DJ, student organization performances and a soul food buffet,” Shannon McCray, junior criminology and justice studies major and BSU president, said. “This year, we decided to expand the program by adding another day of events and the Step Afrika performance seemed like a fitting way to complement the program.”

Step Afrika was created by Brian Williams, who learned the popular dance form while a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity at Howard University. He originally saw people performing the South African gumboot dance, which originated among miners who would create beats and rhythms by hitting their boots.

The men began learning the dances and, eventually, the group branched out to become a performing and touring troop.

“When we (invited Step Afrika), the hope was that it would be for a variety of sectors within our institution. The stepping, for example, might appeal to Greeks from all circles; the dance, the history and education, we hoped to appeal to faculty, staff and members of the local and regional community as well as our students,” Paul Harris, senior political science major and BSU trustee, said. “Overall we hoped that the entertainment this group would provide coupled with education would appeal to a wide cross-section of classes within our institution.”

Harris’s hopes appeared to come true as Kendall Hall was filled with people of all different races and backgrounds who came to celebrate this unique form of dance. Ten students were even brought onstage to learn a type of step dance with Woodruff, master drummer.

After a few minutes of learning and practicing the steps, Woodruff introduced them to the audience as the first College of New Jersey Step Team.

With the volunteers still onstage, the members of Step Afrika came onstage dressed in traditional African tribal wear as they played drums, danced and sang to the delight of the audience.

Later in the program, one member of Step Afrika read a poem he had written while one female performed a mix of elements of ballet, lyrical and jazz. According to the author of the poem, he had written it in response to questions from past audiences about whether or not the members of Step Afrika can actually dance or if they only know stepping.

But despite their abilities in other forms of dance, their stepping was the highlight of the performance, as they were very skilled and constantly in sync with each other.

“I had heard many great reviews about Step Afrika and I feel their performance lived up to all of our expectations,” McCray said.

According to Zakiya Harris, who auditioned for Step Afrika in November 2002, the group practices at least 20 hours a month and twice a week if possible.

The group is on the road very often, traveling to such places as Africa, Amsterdam, London and throughout America, performing at colleges, elementary schools and major venues. In addition, they also have jobs outside of dancing.

Harris also said that the group had rotating members, but now, many have jobs and some of the women are pregnant, so there are only six people in the actual touring group while there are 22 people overall in Step Afrika.

Lord is one member with other commitments with which to contend. She has been part of Step Afrika for four years but took time off to study to be a physical therapist.

Despite her new title as Dr., she still loves the experience of traveling and performing. “(I love) to interact with the world,” she said. “I love to perform and travel.”

Woodruff shares a similar sentiment. “I like learning different cultural dances,” he said. “(I like being) able to study, learn, comprehend and ultimately display the dances.”

Step Afrika’s performance at the College proved successful with the audience who delighted in the group’s rich brand of humor mixed with unique stepping and other dancing.

“It was a very receptive audience,” Lord said. “That makes it memorable for us.”