Soul Steppers Dance to the Beat of an African Drum

Marlene De La Cruz-Guzman The Soul Steppers

As the lights come up in the COA gym, six girls and a boy sway and twist their bodies to the beat of a distant drum while a graceful figure before them calls out dance movements. The children systematically sway from side to side, touch the ground and reach for the sky. They then step to each side and jump and jump again. Today the African Soul Steppers are learning Koko, a dance from Guinea in West Africa, and the children are catching right on. As Tamara Keyes, their instructor, remarks, “They have so much soul. Once they get the movement, they put that extra little bit of soul into it.” So, with colorful fabrics wrapped around their waists and heads, the dancers finish their practice of Koko and move on to movement drills. Two by two, they perform the drills with passion as Keyes offers strong coaching and much encouragement. The COA African Soul Steppers were founded in February 2002 by Keyes who wanted to give children the gift of African dance. She says, “I took an African Dance course during my sophomore year at UWM, and I felt good. I wanted to give that feeling to them.” So, as Director of the Computer Learning Center at the COA, she suggested the formation of the group in preparation for this year’s celebration of Black History Month. Keyes now works with 21 group members who range in age from 7 to 16. The children are primarily from the Riverwest neighborhood, and they all belong to the COA. They have performed at Black History Month programs and the opening of the Greenfolks Garden and have plans to perform at the African World Festival, the Safe and Sound annual breakfast at the Italian Community Center, and the Fernwood Apartment Complex for the Elderly. The COA African Soul Steppers have been widely praised by those attending their performances, but it is the very members of the group who are most pleased with its existence. Sunny Benson praises this group as an opportunity for him to “learn about different cultures through African dance,” and his sister, Monalisa Benson, adds, “I love that I can express myself in different ways. I can also lose weight, and it makes me feel really great.” Aiesha Austin points out another wonderful aspect of the group as she remarks, “I like having fun, playing, joking, and being part of the African World Festival. We get to have fun!” Natalya Dent concurs, “You get to move a lot, dance, have fun, and be yourself. You also get to learn about the different African dances from the south, west, and everywhere.” The reviews are unanimously positive as the children enjoy this outlet for their creativity, and they bring much joy to the communities fortunate enough to host their performances. Riverwest Currents – Volume 1 – Issue 6- July 2002
by Marlene De La Cruz-Guzman