Soul Steps Brings History and Rhythm to Philadelphia

by Kat Richter for The Dance Journal

I’ll do just about anything in the hopes of convincing at least one of my three nephews to follow me into the world of dance: Nutcracker tickets and Nutcracker figurines, books about Bojangles and twinkle-toed giraffes, dance contests in the backyard and Uptown Funk on my iPhone every time it’s requested, and, as part of a 5th birthday “adventure,” a trip to the Free Library of Philadelphia to see Soul Steps, a New York-based step company.

Now before we move on, I should clarify that we’re not talking about Irish step dancing. In this case, “step” refers to the percussive dance tradition that developed among African American fraternities and sororities as early as the 1920s. (Think the Off-Broadway hit “Stomp” or the 2007 film “Stomp the Yard.”) Many steppers, including Soul Steps Artistic Director Maxine Lyle, trace the roots of the dance form even further back to the mines of South Africa in the 19th century.

Lyle explained the form’s origins in kid-friendly tones but avoided sanitizing it. “The gold mines of South Africa were hot, dark, and filled with dirty water,” she told the audience at this past Sunday’s performance, which took place at the Free Library of Philadelphia. “The owners were too cheap to drain the water so they had the miners wear rubber boots—gumboots— instead.”

Forbidden from speaking to one another, the miners developed a secret form of communication by playing various rhythms with and on their boots, just as enslaved Africans in the United States resorted to body percussion when drums were outlawed following the Stono Rebellion (which was, in part, facilitated by communication between neighboring plantations).

The Soul Steps performance began with an infectious quartet performed by four women, including Lyle. The dancers stamped their feet in unison before breaking into a series of polyrhythms, building from one crescendo to another, fast then slow, as if teasing the audience. All of the women in Sunday’s performance had training in multiple forms of dance, from tap and hip hop to ballet and praise dance, and later sections of the show included step fused with both Reggae and tap, plus plenty of call and response exercises to give the audience a taste.

A native of Newark, New Jersey, Lyle drew inspiration from fellow Newark native Savion Glover and his hit Broadway show “Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk,” which left her committed to the tradition and power of black storytelling. The company, which consists of 8-10 dancers depending on the performance, has since gone on to dance around the world, from Paris and Cameroon to Dublin and even Jacob’s Pillow.

Sunday’s performance included a trio of dancers performing their interpretation of a traditional gumboots dance to honor those who came before them. Shoulders hunched, bodies low, elbows high, they walked slowly across the stage, drawing the audience in as their footsteps set the rhythm. The perfect unison of their boot-slapping was enough to leave my nephew and the rest of the audience spellbound and ready to give it a try when the kids were invited up on stage to learn a short 8-count phrase. Savion Glover, he was not—at least not yet—but I like to hope that the Sundays on Stage series has at least planted a seed.