On Ice, Black Music And Dance Catch Fire
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 19, 2003; Page C01
The ancestors couldn't have foreseen this.
The good people of U Street could hardly believe it themselves. But there it was, laid out on fliers right outside Ben's Chili Bowl: "SOUL Spectacular On Ice; Not Just Another Ice Show, But An Event."
Twelve black performers, jamming to primordial drums and hits from Cab Calloway and Otis Redding all the way up to the late works of Mary J. Blige -- on an ice rink at the Lincoln Theatre? That definitely qualifies as an event.
Blockbuster touring ice shows have long proved that whatever you put on ice gains a magical quality. But who knew what a little frozen water could do for African dance?
Chiseled male skaters in traditional African headdresses and loincloths erupted onto the stage, gliding, then stomping their blades to the accelerating beat of the drums. In this medium, the genre's athleticism was even more explosive than usual, the arcs their bodies cast longer, their movements more muscular and fluid, as if at any moment they might take flight.
The ice covering the Lincoln stage -- created by equipment shipped from California on 18-wheelers -- had a similar effect on the other performances, which were accompanied by the biggest black musical hits of the past century, with a heavy emphasis on soul singers like Al Green, Barry White and the Pointer Sisters.
For Alaska-based figure-skating champ Rory Flack Burghart -- who along with her skating champion husband, Ralph Burghart, conceptualized, choreographed and cast the show, which ends a two-week run this afternoon -- there was nothing more natural.
"We just felt it was something that needed to be done," said Burghart, also the program's lead dancer. She hopes to take the production, sponsored by District sports management agency Strickland & Ashe, on a national tour in the fall.
The history of blacks in skating began way before Surya Bonaly and Debi Thomas made it onto VH1's "Where Are They Now? On Ice" special. During the Lincoln program, Flack Burghart told the story of the late pioneer Mabel Fairbanks, whose race prevented her from competing in the 1930s and 1940s but who went on to coach the first black national champion, Atoy Wilson, in 1966.
After the program's first half, which was heavily packed with music from Kirk Franklin, Donnie McClurkin and Oleta Adams, Burghart announced that "church is over -- now it's time for the after-party."
The dancers launched into a medley of sassy solo performances. "Go'on with your bad self!" a woman in the audience shouted out while gawking at a male skater doing truly remarkable things with a chair, Luther Vandross singing accompaniment.
The music drew a big reaction from the 300 or so patrons, who looked lost in the 1,200-seat theater on Thursday. They clapped along when Al Green sang "Let's Stay Together" and chanted along to Calloway's "Minnie the Moocher." They even cheered encouragement when dancers tumbled on the ice.
Once the program entered the rap era, the male skaters -- now clad in Kangol hats, bandannas and tight white T-shirts -- danced to Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" and MC Hammer's "U Can't Touch This." They did a mini-revue of dance moves from over the years -- the wild wild west, pop-and-lock, running man. The modern era climaxed with Blige's hit "Family Affair."
The show was a smash to 11-year-old Emeatabong Morfaw, a sixth-grader at James McHenry Elementary School in Lanham, who was in the audience Thursday for the second time.
A member of the Kids on Ice program at Fort Dupont Ice Arena in the District, Emeatabong has been skating since she was 6. And she recently served as a flower girl for the World Figure Skating Championships at MCI Center.
"I think it was great," she said, nodding yes when asked if she wants to do something like this when she grows up.
"She just doesn't know how to get there," added her mom, Gladys.
The Morfaws were among the many in the audience who concluded the show with a whooping standing ovation.
Speaking on the phone before practice yesterday, Burghart explained that the most obvious challenges for blacks on ice have receded. Now there are new ones, mostly competing in a subjectively judged sport that few blacks have entered.
"The obstacles we see now in 2003 aren't huge," said Burghart, who played the Sugar Plum Fairy in the 1995 "Nutcracker on Ice," featuring Oksana Baiul and Brian Boitano.
"It's just a lack of knowledge. That's why we needed to do this."
"Soul Spectacular on Ice" will be performed today at 3 p.m. at the Lincoln Theatre, 1215 U St. NW. 202-328-6000. Adults $28.50; children are half price.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company