Cool comfort and joy in Step Afrika!’s ‘Holiday Step Show’ at Arena Stage
With a distinctly DC flair and African/African-American dance vocabulary, the cast illustrates the excitement and power of Step throughout the performance.
Written by Gregory Ford for DC Theater Arts, December 11, 2023
The Peppermint Candies were robbed! At least that’s my opinion of the MC’s decision in “The Arctic Step Challenge,” a much-anticipated segment of Step Afrika!’s annual Magical Musical Holiday Step Show.
In “The Arctic Step Challenge,” the men in the Step Afrika! company (aka The Gingerbread Men) face off against the women of the company (the aforementioned Peppermint Candies) to determine who has the best steps this year. The audience is encouraged to voice their approval for their favorite performance — calling out the dancers’ names, hooting and shouting, and stomping their feet — strongly enough to raise the roof at Arena Stage. But every year, after each team completes their round, the MC draws us back to the conclusion that everything goes better “if we all work together.” The teams then recombine into one company and move into the next performance piece. The admittedly dapper Men, in their classic gingerbread-colored suits and indisputably cool athleticism that no one in the audience could ever dream of matching, were still out-cooled by the Candies, who matched the athleticism of the men while demonstrating a sweat-free litheness and effortless grace as they politely took on the Men’s efforts.
Regardless of who wins “The Arctic Step Challenge,” a good time is had by all. And that’s the point of this annual Step Afrika! celebration: bringing disparate communities of this continuously gentrifying city and nation together for comfort and joy amid the darkest time of the year and some of the darkest times of our lives. Step Afrika! does this with a distinctly Washington, DC, flair that can be seen in just a few other DC institutions such as Sweet Honey in the Rock and Busboys and Poets. Over the course of 30 years, Step Afrika! has become an institution to rival the renown of Radio City Music Hall’s Rockettes, but with an African/African-American dance vocabulary.
The cast encourages audience participation throughout the performance and not just from the seats. The music for the evening, knowingly and vigorously mixed by nationally respected DJ Jeeda Barrington this year, includes songs that many in the audience have danced to throughout the year. The audience is not interrupted when they begin to sing along. Nor is the audience discouraged if the music stimulates them enough to move to dance on the same floor that Step Africa! artists dance on. For those who are shy about following their spontaneous dance urges, another moment is provided during which they are led in simple steps they can follow to join in an audience-inclusive line dance.
For the most part, the Holiday Step Show functions as a kind of call-and-response ensemble in which everyone takes solos illustrating the excitement and power of Step throughout the performance. But this year, Joseph Vasquez was given an extended moment to showcase Latino presence in the Step spectrum. His deliberate, lubricated entrance alternated with a “you-can-look-but-don’t-touch-unless-I-touch-you-first” smile/gaze that heated the vast arena to a sizzle. Then he launched into a demonstration of Step that showed why this Lambda Sigma Upsilon Latino fraternity brother was a leader and choreographer for the Bachata Performance Team.
Mfoniso Akpan choreographed and directed the entire show giving it astonishing variation and pace and a take-no-prisoners rigor. To my eye, there was more of a lean toward specifically West African nuances in some of the dances. It’s worth making Step Afrika!’s Magical Musical Holiday Step Show an annual tradition to start the holiday season. At the same time, be aware of the company’s work that is informed by dance and art history as well as narrative from the American experience such as The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence. Arena Stage will be hosting this piece from June 6 through July 14.
Step Afrika!’s Magical Musical Holiday Step Show plays through December 17, 2023, presented by Step Afrika! performing on the Fichandler Stage at Arena Stage, 1101 6th St SW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($92–$115) may be obtained online, by phone at 202-488-3300, or in person at the Sales Office (Tuesday-Sunday, 12-8 p.m.).
Arena Stage offers savings programs including “pay your age” tickets for those aged 30 and under, student discounts, and “Southwest Nights” for those living and working in the District’s Southwest neighborhood. To learn more, visit arenastage.org/savings-programs.