In a rhythmic feat, teams step up to battle

Cheers roared from the audience as emcee Ifiok Inyang ’11 took the stage to begin the highly anticipated Steady Steppin’ Forward Competition on Saturday night. College students, adults and even young children packed the ’62 Center’s MainStage for Sankofa’s fifth annual competition. Energy levels in the theater escalated when Inyang announced that the performance was interactive – so that viewers should not hesitate to express their excitement.

Saturday’s competition demonstrated the strengths of an often overlooked art form. Stepping combines the beauty and visual aesthetic of dance with impressive self-produced musical qualities. Using only their bodies, performers create a variety of percussive sounds, complemented by periodic chants and conversations. Each team had a distinct character, and Inyang provided smooth transitions between groups. Within a few minutes it was clear that the event was popular, and the show exceeded my expectations.

Sankofa’s performance established a high standard at the beginning of the night. Its first number began with only women, but soon men joined them onstage, creating a more dynamic atmosphere. As the dance number continued, more members filed onto stage, filling out the ensemble to create an overwhelming sound.

Unlike the four other groups, Sankofa had little dialogue, no apparent theme and lacked the creative costumes that characterized several of the others. Nonetheless, what they lacked in presentation they compensated for with some of the best rhythms of the night. Sankofa’s emphasis on movement and sounds rather than theatricality was closer to pure step form than the other groups’s approaches were. Despite the group’s large size, the steppers were in sync the entire time, creating a crisp, sharp sound and a unified appearance.

Middlebury’s group, which certainly won in the creativity department, followed Sankofa. Its Harry Potter theme was indicated within the first minute by the color-appropriate costumes and an off-stage voice declaring that it was “rush week at Hogwarts.” Middlebury spoofed Gryffindor and Slytherin as the group split into two factions and used stepping in clever ways to mimic competition. The narrative voice introduced humorous stories enacted by the performers on stage; the “morning exercises” number, during which Slytherin accomplished a multi-person version of “The Worm” dance move, was particularly memorable. Middlebury’s skills extended beyond entertainment for its own sake; its formations and compositional use of the entire stage were also note-worthy.

After Middlebury’s light-hearted theme, the team from Siena College conveyed a darker mood from the outset. The militaristic style was initially constrained to the camouflage and black costumes, but the theme was reinforced later in the number by aggressive chanting, imitative of a superior officer and cadet. One could even argue the all-girls group’s aggressive stomps suited the theme. Siena’s team stepped well but lacked a distinguishing characteristic to set its performance apart from the others.

When Inyang introduced MCLA, the crowd erupted into highly charged exclamations. MCLA students stood up from their seats and crossed their forearms to create Xs, representative of their step squad, Nexxus. Nexxus began with a skit about janitors wanting to step instead of sweep, and soon the steppers were doing both. Like Middlebury, MCLA also referred to its theme throughout their time on stage. The costumes combined the custodial theme with a more professionally uniform appearance; outfits resembling typical custodial dress had Nexxus logos on the backs, with ‘MCLA’ printed on the fronts and the names of the individuals on the sleeves.

The incorporation of brooms into several of the numbers was interesting and unique, though I was disappointed the steppers didn’t exploit their sound potential the way the percussion group Stomp does. Additionally, MCLA’s performance didn’t meet the expectation that its wild fan base incited. The over-zealous cheers from the audience, coupled with legitimate uniforms, suggested a squad in a league of their own. I awaited remarkable moves, fancy footwork, quick rhythms or witty dialogue. Though a few moves stood out, such as the one where individuals hit the heels of other members of the squad, overall the performance was on a similar level as the others.

Tufts’s all-boys group BlackOut ended the show on a high note, perhaps the highest note of the night. The smaller group, composed of 10 men, immediately established itself as a viable competitor for first place. High-energy moves furthered the suave image conveyed by sharp, handsome costumes: black clothing with white ties and suspenders. Bright lighting at the back of the stage often cast the steppers in silhouettes that fittingly alluded to their team name.

The Tufts men had fun music and their captivating footwork was well timed. Frequent jumps pumped up the audience and the steppers retained impressive skills throughout their performance. Intermittent conversation between stepping, usually facetious insults at each other, was sometimes a bit awkward, but successfully conveyed an amiable group dynamic. Though the casual dialogue provoked some laughs, audiences familiar with the personalities on stage may have better appreciated the humor.

After BlackOut’s performance, a panel of Williams faculty, staff and alumni spent a few minutes determining the winners. The audience cheered modestly for third place Siena. After the announcement of second place for BlackOut, a slight tension pervaded the audience. I was confused, having expected that they would easily be the champions. While many applauded, the MCLA section of the audience grew quiet in mounting anticipation of the declaration.

Inyang’s voice rose: “For the first time in three years … in first place is MCLA’s Nexxus!” The entire step team raced on to stage and danced in celebration, audience members from their college stood, jumped and screamed. The support was endearing, but somewhat unqualified. Nexxus was impressive in its own right but not extraordinary. Though my loyalty will always be with the College’s own Sankofa, I would have been more than satisfied to see BlackOut awarded first place.

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