With countless renditions of “The Nutcracker,” on stages across the world this time of year, Step Afrika!’s “Magical Musical Holiday Step Show,” at Arena Stage offers an engaging, energetic welcome into a fantastic winter wonderland full of festive characters, mystifying moves and the spirit of the season.
In all honesty, I’ve done no Christmas shopping and there are no decorations in my home except a sign in green marker that says, “Happy Birthday Micha!” My birthday is Aug. 23.
Despite sounding like a “Bah! Humbug! Betty,” I promise I’m not Ebonisha Scrooge or Micha Grinch. Just writing this article is making me pull out my Christmas To Do List, because, quite frankly, I’ve been bitten by the holiday cheer bug ever since seeing Step Afrika!’s opening night performance on Dec. 9.
From the moment I noticed the audience members were being handed noisemakers like clappers and shakers, I knew I was in for a treat for the show directed by the company’s Artistic Director Mfoniso Akpan.
With a production design by Marianne Meadows that immediately evokes holiday cheer (and allows for seamless transitions), the show takes place on Arena’s Fichandler Stage, a four-sided auditorium. The space allows for audience members to interact with one another before the house lights dim and throughout the show.
And when those stage lights come up, Step Afrika! not only performs, the multifaceted artists bring the audience into the action, sharing the magic, cheer and soulfulness of the season.
DJ Nutcracker keeps the tunes bumping from the pre-show to curtain call and the narrator, (played by Ariel Dykes on opening night) uses storytelling, song and dance to guide audiences through the action of the show.
The dynamic steppers and musicians create music with drums, their bodies and voices.
The auditorily pleasing show, with sound design by Byron Hurst, includes DJ Nutcracker’s tunes, the show’s score and the sounds of step: hand clapping, thigh slapping, finger snapping, foot stomping, chest beating, kicks, splits, jumps and more. The audience’s participation, full of claps, stomps, snaps and noisemakers also adds to the show’s musicality.
Throughout the action, audience members are asked to come on stage, learn dance moves and vote on their favorite step routines.
It’s 70 minutes of nonstop holiday cheer and the performers are putting their all into the entertainment, executing moves with precision and extreme energy. Though the show is full of captivating complicated choreography, stunts and splits, the artists make it look easy.
As a former dancer and stepper, current Zumba instructor and occasional stroller– as a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.–I know firsthand, what they’re doing is far from easy. It requires focus, a good memory, exact timing, technical training, a lot of energy and even more heart.
“It takes so much work to bring this joy,” said C. Brian Williams, who founded Step Afrika! in 1994.
The first professional company dedicated to the tradition of stepping, D.C. based Step Afrika! has toured all over the United States and more than 60 countries. With Williams continued leadership as executive producer, Step Afrika! has become a celebrated institution, ranking as one of the top 10 African-American dance companies in the United States.
The Step Afrika! founder said the company is happy to be home.
“We’ve been all over the world performing, and it’s so good to come home for the holidays… and you all make the artists feel very, very special.”