By Jack Fishman, VP, External Affairs, BSO at Strathmore

There are so many fabulous holiday traditions in the performing arts, you have to wonder if there is room in our busy lives for just one more. The BSO thinks so! On Saturday, December 6, the BSO introduced a new artistic collaboration between symphony orchestra and step dancers. We hope it becomes another must-see holiday tradition for families in Montgomery County.

It all started with a story called The Nutcracker and the Mouse King written in 1816 by E.T.A. Hoffmann. Tchaikovsky set this tale to music for a ballet called The Nutcracker in 1892. Jazz great Duke Ellington arranged parts of Tchaikovsky’s music for his big band in 1960. In 1998, composer, arranger and pops conductor Jeff Tyzik took parts of Ellington’s arrangement and created a new 19-minute work for orchestra. This year, the BSO commissioned the choreography for step dancers to create a new holiday show.

The collaboration is the BSO’s first with the Washington, DC group called Step Afrika!, the first professional dance company dedicated to the tradition of stepping. Now they have evolved the dance form to include other styles, such as tap, modern and hip hop. After BSO education staff observed Step Afrika!’s holiday show last year, they were convinced they had found the perfect partner for this new work. It was made possible by a new gift by Charlotte A. Cameron and the Dan Cameron Family Foundation.

Step Afrika!’s web site explains, “In stepping, the body is used as an instrument to create intricate rhythms and sounds through a combination of footsteps, claps and the spoken word. Stepping is based on a long and rich tradition in African-based communities that use movement, words and sounds to communicate allegiance to a group. It draws movements from African foot dances, such as Gumboot, originally conceived by miners in South Africa as an alternative to drumming, which was banned by authorities. The stepping tradition in the United States grew out of song and dance rituals practiced by historically African American fraternities and sororities, beginning in the early 1900s.”

The family concert began with Tchaikovsky’s music, and the program was narrated by DC actress and former Step Afrika! member Shannan Johnson. Five movements of the Ellington Nutcracker were performed:

Toot Toot Tootie Toot (Dance of the Reed Pipes)
Danse of the Floreadors (Waltz of the Flowers)
Sugar Rum Cherry (Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy)
Peanut Brittle Brigade (March)

As BSO Director of Education Annemarie Guzy notes, “Our collaboration with Step Afrika! has resulted in a holiday program that combines the excitement of a live orchestra with a sense of relevance and cool. We believe that adults and children will find this program both percussive and persuasive.”

 Jack Fishman