I just landed back in Wellington after a hectic week of ceremonies, official functions, speeches, and meetings in Apia in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the founding of Western Samoa, now known as the Independent State of Samoa. Before I turn my attention to the mountain of correspondence, memos, and other work that piled up on my desk while I was away, I thought I’d share a few more photos from Step Afrika!’s Samoa performances.
Stepping is a unique dance tradition created by African American university students. As explained on Step Afrika!’s website, stepping involves using the body as an instrument to create intricate rhythms and sounds through a combination of footsteps, claps, spoken word, and chants.
The tradition grew out of dance rituals practiced in the early 1900s by fraternities and sororities in historically African American schools to communicate affinity and allegiance to the group. The art form has grown rapidly in popularity and can now be widely found in primary and secondary schools, churches, and other community organizations as well as universities.
Founded in December 1994, Step Afrika! is the first professional step company in the world. The group is renown not only for its dynamic performances but for its work to promote stepping as an educational tool for young people worldwide. Step Afrika! reaches tens of thousands of Americans each year and has performed on many hundreds of stages in North & South America, Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, and now Samoa.
Step Afrika!’s first performance in Apia (at the National University of Samoa) was a major challenge. The airline lost the group’s baggage containing their costumes, equipment, and musical instruments. The steppers had only the clothes on their backs, literally, when they drove into town from Faleolo Airport. Rather than disappoint, however, the group scoured the markets of Apia en route to the venue and purchased clothes and basic props for the show.
The audience of more than 200 students waiting in NUS’s ornate fale, though, didn’t seem to notice any problem. They swayed, clapped, cheered, and at times joined in the stepping. As is Step Afrika!’s custom, the group followed the show with a collaborative workshop with local Samoan artists.
The next day – still without any luggage – the group drove over the mountain to the southern shore of Upolu to perform and hold workshops in Sataoa and Poutasi villages. Again the shows were dynamic, engaging, collaborative, and well-attended. The steppers thoroughly enjoyed the enthusiasm of the audiences and the beauty of the mountain drive, the beaches, and the sea.
That evening Step Afrika! had the special treat of performing at the annual beauty pageant sponsored by the Samoa Fa’afafine Association. Considered in certain island cultures to be the third gender, fa’afafine occupy a respected position in Samoan society. … And they throw a great party. Held in a sports arena, the pageant drew an exuberant crowd of about 6,000 people. Step Afrika! performed halfway through the show and brought much of the audience to its feet.
Over the next few days the group performed and conducted workshops in several other villages including a wonderful show that Dr McWaine and I attended in Moataa. More than 250 people packed the church hall, and dozens more watched from the parking lot and nearby trees.
Step Afrika! raised the roof for two hours, after which the local Moataa performance group shared traditional Samoan songs and dances. It was an absolutely wonderful evening filled with warmth, respect, music, and goodwill. The steppers and village youth were still talking, laughing, and sharing moves when we left close on midnight.
On June 1st, although they already had a very full schedule, the steppers generously marched with my Embassy and Peace Corps colleagues in the official Independence Day parade. Dr McWaine, Congressman Faleomavaega of American Samoa, and I stepped down off the reviewing stand to join the American contingent.
We were all decked out in our new Embassy elei (aloha) uniforms, marching behind a banner carried by my Chargé’s two young sons. When we reached the central dais, Step Afrika! performed a step salute to Samoa’s Head of State, His Highness Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese, who responded with a broad smile and generous applause.
Step Afrika! performed several other times at official events, including in a float parade along the waterfront and concerts on the main stage in front of the Government Building. One of the shows drew more than 1,500 people.
Another performance during an evening-long national variety show of Samoan and American Samoan acts drew a crowd of more than ten thousand, including many young people perched in trees, on car roofs, and atop light poles. Despite intermittent rain, the large crowd clapped, swayed, and cheered with the performers, including Step Afrika! It was an electric night, and Dr McWaine and I had a great time.
The men and women of Step Afrika! represented the People of the United States in superb fashion throughout Independence week in Samoa. Wherever they went they lit up the room (or stage or street) with positive energy, delighted audiences with the universal language of rhythm and dance, and collaborated in ways that underscored just how much our different cultures share in common.
I’m delighted that these marvelous steppers were able to take time away from their busy performance schedule in the United States to join us in Samoa. They brought fun, laughter, and warmth with them, and they left many new friends and stronger relationships in their wake … as all good ambassadors should.
And, yes, their luggage did finally arrive.