Jerusalem culture: Stepping into the station

Step Afrika! brings a taste of African dance to the holy city.

DANCERS PERFORM before a packed audience at Jerusalem’s First Station yesterday. (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
DANCERS PERFORM before a packed audience at Jerusalem’s First Station yesterday.
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
Mfon Akpan comes from the melting pot of New York, but Jerusalem has left an impression on her.
“To come to see this part of the world and the religious sites, it was breathtaking,” she says.
A biochemistry major, she learned step dance at State University of New York, and is the artistic director of Step Afrika!, which is performing in Israel this week. “It’s our second day here and the energy is great. I didn’t have any concerns about coming,” says Akpan.
The nine-member dance group performed at Jerusalem’s First Station Monday to a crowd of 200. It is part of an initiative by the US Embassy to bring cultural exchange events to Israel. Tuesday they will be performing at Haifa’s Krieger Center and will visit Kafr Yasif and Kibbutz Mirza.
“This venue at the First Station is new and it’s a place that is progressive and has the kind of diversity and cohesion and tolerance that matches our goals,” said Bill Murad, director of the American Center, before the performance began.
The diverse attendance was clear from the crowd, which included off-duty soldiers, families, religiously observant and Arabs.
As the performers warmed up, dressed in black shirts and blue jeans, C. Brian Williams, the founder of the company, watched from afar. From Houston, he learned step dance in his Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity at Howard University, a traditionally African-American college. But it was South Africa that transformed college fun into a life-long mission.
While in Lesotho in 1991, during the last years of apartheid, he saw a boy doing a local “gumboot” dance. Three years later, working with a dance theater group in Soweto, one of the most infamous townships of the apartheid era, he founded Step Afrika! “Our root is cultural exchange and artistic exchange. I love the arts and I love travel and to combine that in Step Afrika!, to share dance forms.”
Working through a combination of loud stomping or stepping and clapping, Williams describes the dance as deeply rooted in African-American culture in the US. “We convert the body and the floor into a drum,” Williams explains. When the drum was banned during the slavery era in the US, slaves replaced it by turning the body into an instrument.
But it was Greek-life or fraternity culture among African-Americans that turned it into it’s current art form.
As the performance got going the audience was encouraged to participate through clapping and supporting one of the teams of dancers as they had mini danceoffs with each other. Seeking to encourage the audience to chip-in, one of the dancers, named Brittny Smith, described the routines as a mixture of love, pride and community.
“Today we are all sort of the same community so when you see something you like, do what you want to do – clap and yell and stomp; the more energy you give us, we will give back to you.”
Later, as the sun began to dip beneath the trees lining the railroad tracks that give the First Station its name, the performers put on the almost knee-high “gumboots” that have their origins in the South African mines. With bandanas and almost looking like African-American members of a cowboy ring, the men and women sang songs and gave memory to the days of grueling work in South Africa’s mines.
For Williams the concept is not just to bring cultures together, but to introduce the world to this American art form. “All my dancers are American and are college graduates and not necessarily in dance. They love the art.” With degrees in journalism, graphic design and media, the dancers come from all across the US, and have all the qualifications to be running a newspaper, if not for committing years of their life to this.
Audience members enjoyed the experience, with some of the younger children joining the dancers to learn the steps. Katheina Vasilliadis from Machol Shalem, a dance house in Jerusalem which helped host the group, thought this event accomplished its goal of building bridges and working with the local community.
For Williams and his dancers, who are experiencing Jerusalem and Israel for the first time, the concept of cultural exchange overrides any political issues here. “I love that people can be different; in spite of the differences that exist, with cross cultural communication. We see how similar we are in art and when people move beyond that, who knows what is possible; it’s good to be beyond the media reports.”