Percussion Drives the Beat
at New Dance Performances

By: Lucia Mauro

Flamenco and stepping moved out of the Spanish cabaret and the African American fraternity and onto the concert stage at “Global Rhythms,” the Chicago Human Rhythm Project’s seventh annual international percussive dance showcase. Though past shows have reached out to Brazil, Spain, and Israel, this year CHRP founder Lane Alexander stuck closer to home. On opening night, two high-energy troupes—Chicago’s Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theater and Washington DC’s Step Afrika!—proved there’s no need to travel far and wide to show off the ever-widening world of percussive dance.

Rhythm is a key component of music and dance – especially if you’re planning on combining the two. But you could also think of rhythm as a universal language - and a potent way to explore our connections to one another. Two upcoming dance performances by DanceWorks Chicago and the Chicago Human Rhythm Project celebrate the joy of making music with our bodies. For WBEZ, Dance Critic Lucia Mauro helps us feel the beat. Now in its 20th year under the direction of tap artist Lane Alexander, the Chicago Human Rhythm Project seeks out thrilling percussive-dance innovators from around the world. For its fall Global Rhythms concerts the group presents the debut of Step Afrika!, established by Brian Williams 15 years ago in Washington, D.C. The company consists of artists dedicated to the ever-evolving spectrum of the African Diaspora, or influences of music and movement outside the African continent. Known for mastering the competitive precision style of stepping, which originated in African-American fraternities and sororities, Step Afrika! also will perform Zulu dances, the South African gumboot dance, and hip-hop. Williams, a graduate of Howard University, founded his company after visiting South Africa during Apartheid. He was intrigued by the similarities between the gumboot dance, originally a rhythmic protest dance created by black miners in rubber boots, and African-American stepping associated with the college pledging scene. The highly percussive and cohesive form of stepping, in fact, gained wider recognition via Spike Lee’s 1988 film, School Daze. Williams wanted to create a platform for celebrating those cultural ties. Audiences at the Global Rhythms concerts will experience these styles, as well as aggressive Zulu dances distinguished by strong kicks that are not concerned with how high the leg flies up but with how strongly it comes down. Most significantly, the artists of Step Afrika! create the music they dance to…with their bodies. For instance, the gumboot dance transforms footwear into a communicative device. Even tap, says Wiliiams, is the drum reinvented and reinterpreted. He believes the body as a drum is a way for African-American dancers to retain their connection to the mother land. To emphasize the inextricable movement-music bond, Williams calls his performers dance-icians Dance Afrika! headlines the Chicago Human Rhythm Project’s Global Rhythms concerts running Nov. 19 to the 21 at the Harris Theater in Millennium Park. Both DanceWorks Chicago and Step Afrika! demonstrate how bodies can truly sing.