'Portraits in Color' Step Event Honors Black Artists Who Inspire

February 28, 2012

February 28, 2012— A call went out, one performer led, and then 14 pairs of feet and hands stomped and crashed in perfect unison. For several minutes, their percussion rolled like thunder over the audience that packed the Newcomb Hall Ballroom. As the step-dancing segment ended, roaring applause rushed to fill the sudden vacuum of sound.

The performers are the University of Virginia student step team, Step It Up. The group's "Portraits in Color" showcase on Friday was its sixth annual performance, but the talent and choreography were fresh and fierce.

In its eighth year as a team, Step It Up has built a tradition in its annual spring talent showcase, but presents a new theme each year. This year, groups from across the University came together under the theme "Celebrating Black History in the Arts" to honor the legacies of African-American artists.

During the second segment of the three-part program, members of Step It Up gave short speeches about black artists who have inspired them, including poet Maya Angelou, ballerina Raven Wilkinson and the late singer Whitney Houston. This tribute was accompanied by a video of testimonials from team members and a slideshow of black icons from past to present.

Members of traditionally black organizations offered tributes to African-American art forms. The sisters of Zeta Phi Beta and Alpha Kappa Alpha sororities each recited a poem, and Perfect Praise Dance Ministries performed to a wide range of gospel and contemporary praise music. A short film with the refrain "What makes you so strong, black man… black woman… black people?" was so powerful it silenced the room.

The event also showcased how art forms that began in black communities have influenced and pervaded music, dance, literature and film in cultures across the globe.

Jeson Souvannarath, president and co-choreographer of the Step It Up team and a third year foreign affairs major in the College of Arts & Sciences, said "the beauty of the performance is that it shows that black history, in the arts specifically, has not only paved the path for the black community, but also the communities of other ethnicities as well." He said the theme would "celebrate not only black history, but also the students who put their heart and soul into everything they're in."

Many groups with varied cultural associations performed at the event. A singer from Oluponya sang "Ain't No Sunshine" by Bill Withers while playing acoustic guitar; REMIX sang an a cappella version of "September" by Earth Wind & Fire. A representative from the Student Hip Hop Organization gave an interpretive performance of a poem, and the Mahogany dance troupe and the Hooligans breakdance club gave performances influenced by hip-hop forms.

Step It Up has a history of collaboration with the Office of African-American Affairs, which has included "Portraits in Color" on the official calendar of Black History Month events for the past five years and sold tickets for the show out of its office.

Dion Lewis, assistant dean of the office, said he values the team's program for its reach to all members of the U.Va. community.

Lewis said the event speaks "to the bigger question of informing some and reminding others of the richness of and contributions of blacks and black arts to America. "I think that having a group of multicultural students participating in a Black History Month program is a wonderful thing."

The team itself exhibits the idea that African-American art forms are for everyone. The 15 members, 10 women and five men, come from black, Asian, Caucasian, Indian and Filipino backgrounds, to name a few. They gave their all during the seven step segments of dynamic tempo and trains, or transitions, that both electrified and synthesized the show.

For the members of the team, step has become more than just a hobby.

Fourth-year College and Curry School of Education student Kelly-Ann Williams, who is majoring in environmental thought and practice and elementary education, got involved with step during her senior year of high school. After eight semesters on the team, she said step has become a part of her daily life. "Since first year, I step everywhere I go. It's second nature to me."

Second-year College student Jordan Rennert played in his high school marching band, so he had already developed a strong sense of beat. He tried out for step with an interest in the form because "the incorporation of that concept into something like this was really fascinating to me." He said the stepping style fits him because it requires "a lot of energy and attitude. I can bring my inner fierceness out and it actually looks good."

Club secretary and first-year College student Nikoe Navarro loved hip-hop and urban street dancing, but had never been a part of a dance team when he came to U.Va. When Step It Up came recruiting at the first meeting of the Organization of Young Filipino Americans, he thought, "Why not try?" At Navarro's first performance in the fall, he stepped with such vigor that he popped a vein in his hand, causing part of it to go completely purple.

"It's a sign for me that I love what I'm doing that I'm willing to go through something like that," he said with a smile.

– by Kate Colwell