Stepping Up: Kids Learn the Importance of Arts and College Through Dance  

Step Afrika! and Washington Performing Arts collaborate in a summer camp that teaches young students the importance of education through an explosive art form.

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Campers gather on the floor of the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., for their final performance with Summer Steps With Step Afrika! on Aug. 10, 2014.

Fritz Photographics

Feet flashing, hands clapping, hair swinging.

It’s a display of confidence, self-assurance ... might I even venture to say swag.

This was what was on display Sunday at the National Building Museum as a weeklong summer step camp, a collaboration between professional dance group Step Afrika! and Washington Performing Arts came to an end with a resounding final performance before a packed house. Proud parents filled the floor until some had to go up into the balconies for a better view.

The camp, which was open to students from fourth grade to 12th grade, lasted from Aug. 4-8 at Washington, D.C.’s Anacostia High School. It introduced students to the dynamic and explosive practical side of the step art form, in addition to textbook knowledge about step, as well as the other arts to which step is connected.

The students, divided by age and experience into different colored teams, moved as one well-oiled machine, in sync, on beat, even breathing as one in their daily step classes. The sound coming from collective foot-stomping, almost defeaning. The chants coming from lips moving in unison, entrancing and heart-racing. Even the younger groups were amazing to watch in their determination to perfect the steps. One 10-year-old student rolled her eyes in frustration as she tackled one particular move which involved a rhythmic foot stomp, complete with clapping one’s hands under one’s feet, with her team. And yet they had come this far with four days of practice, looking like a step group that had worked together far longer. 

“Involvement in the arts is essential to being a well-rounded person. We hear about arts being a means, a strategy, for connecting with students academically. We know that it’s something that students and young students, in fact, do very naturally,” Michelle Hoffmann, director of education for Washington Performing Arts, tells The Root after one camp session last week.

“This is the first thing we start off our season with ... so it’s always really cool for us. It gets [the students] motivated for the school year and just [instills] different things into them, teamwork, commitment, discipline,” one Step Afrika! instructor, Joe Murchison, adds. “It leaves a huge impression. Not only is it about stepping, but the thing that I see the most is that it develops character.”

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Students with the green group, the eldest and most experienced group, perform their final performance with Summer Steps With Step Afrika! at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., Aug. 10, 2014.

Fritz PhotoGraphics

Camp is not just about stepping, even though it is exciting to watch even the smallest kids get a routine down pat, chanting and roaring and stomping their feet as if there were no tomorrow.

It’s truly a holistic, educational approach to the art form. Students fill out journals and take “master classes” in their choice of hip-hop, West African dance, drumming, and other arts, as well as attend grueling rehearsals to get down their step routines. All of this, packed solidly into a week.

“Stepping is a percussive body art. It’s a dance form, so it’s related to hip-hop and it’s related to dances that come from Africa, so we try to incorporate those ... it’s related to music and drumming, so all of those elements that really make up a stepping team, we try to [incorporate them],” Hoffman explains. “I think [the extra classes] give a little bit of context to what they’re doing. Every art form has a history, and it’s important for all of us to think about the bigger picture ... I think it really helps students think about the broader world, being global citizens, that this didn’t come out of the backyard, but it came from another continent. I think that having access to many art forms, but focusing on stepping and having access to journal writing, looking at college preparation, just makes it a complete picture.”

Of course, there is the subtle push to college that the camp also provides students.

“Whenever you meet a great stepper, invariably you’re meeting an even greater student,” Step Afrika! founder Brian Williams says. “So all Step Afrika! artists are college graduates ... We really kind of emphasize the college experience. Not only do you get a chance to connect with a cool art form that has incredible history in America and is uniquely American, but you get this kind of hidden message [that] college is a very cool place to be, and we highly recommend it, and that if you are going to step, you might as well study.”

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Nile Speight-Leggett, 12, of Clinton, Md., (front, center) dances with his team during the final performance of Summer Steps With Step Afrika! at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., Aug. 10, 2014.

Fritz PhotoGraphics

And the impression it leaves on students is significant, to say the least.

“I just keep coming back because, like, it’s fun! You’re with your friends, everybody just doing something you love,” 15-year-old Marc Loud, who has been coming to the camp for the past nine years with his twin brother, Jordan, tells The Root. “I mean this camp has taught so many important lessons. First, just starting off, just go hard or go home. Stepping is just explosive ... our teachers are consistently telling us that if you go hard, then it’s going to come out ... you can apply that to anywhere.”

“For me, I know that it’s prepared me for college,” Jordan Loud adds. “I never really thought about being in a fraternity ... but being in a circle and just talking about it [with other steppers] got it really opening my eyes and ears.”

Editor’s note: See the accompanying slideshow, “Kids Dance Through Summer Steps Camp.”

Breanna Edwards is a newswriter at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.