Sankofa celebrates 25th anniversary joined by alums with “Step Back In It,” features student choreographers

Tali Natter

Sankofa members and alumni performers, back for the anniversary, pose together at Moonlight Diner. (Photo courtesy of Sydney Pope.)

Over the weekend, Sankofa took to the mainstage of the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance for its reunion show titled “Step Back In It” in celebration of the College dance group’s 25th anniversary. Sankofa’s numbers were interspersed alongside performances from selected student choreographers.

Founded in 1997 by five Black women — Dahra Jackson ’00, Maxine Lyle ’00, Mya Fisher ’00, Melina Evans ’00, and Samantha Reed ’00 — Sankofa is the College’s step dance group, named for a word from the Akan ethnic group in Ghana that means to “reach back and get it.” The Reunion show, which occurs every five years, centers around the “reunion step,” a twelve-minute compilation of steps from Sankofa’s first five years. The dance, which was created in 2001, is taught to members of the group every year during Winter Study and serves as a tradition like “passing down oral stories or family treasures,” according to the show’s program.

“Reunion is a show that celebrates how far Sankofa has come,” Sankofa co-president Veronica Berger ’22 said. “We do the same set of steps, although how we present them changes a little bit over time… It is a testimony to how these steps are being remixed and changed slightly to fit each year’s attitude towards stepping and how we want to present the team.”

Co-president Sydney Pope ’22.5 added that “learning the reunion step gives you a connection to literally every single person who has ever been on Sankofa.”

To that end, both nights of the performance featured alumni guest performers ranging from the class of 2005 to 2011.

“What’s really cool about the movements is that even though they change, you can combine the old and new — and they still sound incredible together,” Pope said. “You can sometimes notice that the styles the alums brought were pretty different [from ours], because each alum brings their own style and history with stepping … but it still sounded great with what we knew.”

This year’s team worked extensively with Lyle, who is now the artistic director of Soul Steps, a professional step company in New York City. Throughout 2020 and 2021, Lyle and her collaborators at Soul Steps held a three-part event series at the ’62 Center as she developed her new musical, “Step Show.” The production tells the story of a first-year at a fictional historically Black university as she fights against white supremacy and for the Black Lives Matter movement while navigating issues of colorism within the Black community. Lyle and members of Soul Steps held a workshop with Sankofa this year and performed in a collaboration with Sankofa for the show’s finale.

“The workshop was special for us because we were doing a lot of different movements and techniques that aren’t usually in our wheelhouse,” Pope said.

In addition to Sankofa’s steps, the show also featured performances by student choreographers Alex Bernstein ’23, Isabel Carmona ’24, Caroline Morrissey ’25, Ethan Richmond ’24, and Lucy Walker ’23, which ranged in style from tap to contemporary and in size from solos to groups. (Walker, an executive editor at the Record was not involved in the writing or editing of this article.) While the College has allowed students to choreograph pieces in the past as part of dance group performances, this was the first time that student choreography opportunities were available to individual students and to all students regardless of their involvement in dance groups. The dance department invited student dancers of all styles to submit works, which were blindly judged by an anonymous committee of alumni who studied dance at the College.

One of the selected pieces was a contemporary duet between Carmona and Richmond who dance together in Nothin’ But Cuties (NBC), the College’s hip-hop group, and took this as an opportunity to try a new style of dance. Their performance to “Two Slow Dancers” by Mitski was filled with dramatic lifts, graceful turns, and impressive partnerwork.

After getting accepted into the show, the pair received constructive criticism on the one-minute dance selection that they submitted for the audition. “That was actually really helpful because it helped us solidify what story we wanted to tell,” Carmona said. “It helped us have a good balance of tricks in a way that added to our movement and was not just excess.”

This dance was the first time the pair choreographed a duet together. “We choreographed a lot on the spot,” Richmond said. “We tried to get all the bad ideas out first and did a lot of improvisation.” Carmona added that they often workshop old ideas. “Some of it would be horrible, and we would either completely scrap it or revise it to something new,” she said.

In comparison to dancing with NBC, the pair noticed a big difference in the process that comes with working with the dance department. “We were inundated with resources that are not always extended to student run dance groups,” Carmona said, pointing to the professional costume and lighting designers, rehearsal spaces open for reservations, and the opportunity to perform on a large stage. “It was almost overwhelming, the amount of stuff that was offered to us,” Richmond said.

Berger agreed that this show created new opportunities for dancers at the College. “Dance on campus can be limited if you’re not a part of an ensemble, because there are so few opportunities to practice and perform,” she said. “This was a win-win. There were new people on stage to express themselves, and it added to our show,” she said. Pope agreed, saying that “it was really special that the campus got to see a whole range of dance.”