Happy-footed dance forms keep communities in sync.
“When you think about animated tap-dancing penguins, here in the 21st century, you sort of forget the roots,” Lane Alexander says. “But it’s in the genetics of people that we’re drawn to stomping the ground with our feet and, whether it’s dancing for rain or crops or celebrating birth or wedding, percussive dance has always been about community, about being ‘a part of.’?” The Chicago Human Rhythm Project cofounder is speaking by phone from his office in Lakeview’s Athenaeum Theatre.
From another office in another theater, Washington, D.C.’s Atlas Performing Arts Center, Step Afrika! founder C. Brian Williams is squeezing in a lunch break. “Of course we love to do big shows on big stages,” he says, chewing. At Alexander’s invitation, Step Afrika! performs in Global Rhythms at the Harris Theater Saturday 27 and Sunday 28.
“But what’s critical to our mission,” Williams continues, “are our teaching opportunities. Our workshops. Inspiring and motivating young people to do well in school.” For the 42-year-old who, like Alexander, is a Texas native, stepping was an integral part of his membership in the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity at Howard University (think 2007 film Stomp the Yard). Sixteen years going, his ensemble is no stranger to big stages, but the smaller ones add up: Its total youth outreach is in the hundreds of thousands, and in the D.C. area alone, annual participation tops 25,000.
In the past month, following its first trip to Egypt, Step Afrika! has finished a four-week residency in West Virginia, visited Michigan and North Carolina, and performed in São Paulo, Brazil, engaging with local youth at each stop. “We all have hands and feet. The body is the first instrument,” Williams says.
Yet while there may be nothing more universal than a stomp or a hand clap, Alexander notes that percussive dance, in general, makes do outside the mainstream. He clarifies: “I’m not saying that we’ve been shut out. I’m saying that we haven’t done a very good job of building our own institutions.”
To that end, CHRP’s Thanks 4 Giving program, part of Global Rhythms since its inception, continues to expand. Audience members can choose from among 70 nonprofits this year, including the Greater Chicago Food Depository and Vocalo.org, to receive a donation equal to half the cost of their ticket; for participating, they get 10 percent off, too.
A member of CHRP’s first Global Rhythms lineup in 2004 was Trinity Irish Dance Company, a now-dormant touring group affiliated with a network of schools that trains kids in a style of fast folk footwork well-preserved thanks to an Olympian competitive structure. Trinity dominates the global circuit: It’s won an unprecedented 32 world titles for the U.S.
But founder Mark Howard, 48, stresses that “95 percent of our students do this to perform around town, dance the Irish jig for Grandma and Grandpa.… The byproduct is that you do well at those competitions,” Howard says emphatically. “But our intent is to teach kids to do their best for the sheer point of doing their best, and not phoning it in for the rest of their lives.
“I couldn’t be doing this for 30 years and care about trophies,” he adds. Howard relates that, when he was an avid soccer player growing up in Rogers Park, his parents allowed him to display awards only for a month or two, after which they were relegated to the attic.
Maggie Doyle, a senior at Immaculate Conception High School in Elmhurst, enters this year’s championships Friday 26, a step toward her goal of being declared best in the world next April in Dublin. (The 17-year-old is currently ranked fourth, and third in the U.S.) As she chats with me on her mom’s cell phone, she dutifully and humbly answers questions about preparing for regionals and worlds, but she’s giddy to be reunited with friends she sees only once a year.
For Doyle, college on the horizon means her competitive career is almost over. “We’ll see what happens after that,” she says, “but I’ll definitely be teaching for the rest of my life.”
Global Rhythms 6 plays the Harris Theater Friday 26 through Sunday 28, while Maggie Doyle goes for gold at the Mid-America Irish Dance Championships.