Step Afrika! is the world’s first professional dance troupe built around the electrifying African American tradition of stepping. Founded in 1994 during a cultural exchange in South Africa, Step Afrika! (SA) has visited six continents, over 60 countries, and performed on the most respected stages in the world – including the Kennedy Center and most recently The White House for President Barack Obama in late 2016. Despite its lofty achievements, the company has never strayed from its roots and remains committed to their annual tour of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). We spoke with founder and CEO C. Brian Williams about the traditions of stepping, their unique philanthropic mission, and the future for one of the unique dance/performance experiences in the world today.
Stepping is a uniquely African American “body percussive” dance tradition created in the early 1900s. It most likely began shortly after the first black fraternities and sororities for African Americans were created. A fourth generation HBCU graduate, Houston Texas native, and alum of Howard University, C. Brian Williams, who became a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Incorporated in 1989, described how Step Afrika! began “literally on the streets of the Soweto Township” in the early 1990s.
After seeing the similarities between stepping and the South African Isicathulo or “Gum Boot” dance, he knew he had to create a way to share these unique dances with the world. Isicathulo is also a body percussive dance form created in the early 1900’s in South African mining camps by workers who were separated from their family and cultural traditions for long periods of time. Its movements were referred to as shadow stepping. In the United States after the Stono Rebellion (a successful slave rebellion in Virginia in the early 1700s) slaveholders banned access to drums on plantations as they were used to communicate instructions for the revolt. This “lack of access to the drum, seemed to create a similar ‘DNA level’ and uniquely AFRICAN response to these environments,” Brian said.
A 501c3 not-for-profit organization, philanthropy has been part of Step Afrika!’s programs from its inception and includes their popular “Summer Steps” Camp in the DC area, “Scholar’s Program” and “Step Afrika! Reads” as well as other programs that feature in-school interactive experiences. These programs work to support Brian’s philosophy on the “power of education to give young people options for their lives.” Brian credits attending an HBCU as the driving force that has made community service a way to “give young people a culture, a tradition (for) them to take to the future.” And the focus on the youth doesn’t end there, the company performs a one of kind Christmastime holiday program called “Magical Musical Holiday Step Show” that features “10 dancers, 2 polar bears, 1 penguin and 1 DJ.” The show was a sellout in the 2016 season for its three-week run. Simply stated, Brian believes in “using stepping as a way to build bridges between people who don’t even speak the same language and have never seen each other before.”
Step Afrika! employs 19 full-time dancers from August to June – which are some of the longest contracts for artists of this type. This unique relationship with its dancers allows the company – which is comprised of “Divine Nine” members (refers to the nine fraternities and sororities founded by African Americans,) to focus solely on preparation for the complex performances, which can last 90 minutes without intermission. Over its 23-year history, Step Afrika! has become known for its dynamic sets and unique historically referential works including “the first-ever merging of stepping with classical music in a production called Symphony of Step, Spirituals with the famed gospel artist Sweet Honey in the Rock,” and Indlamu – a cornerstone of identity of Zulu Tribal dance. The company has studied it for 20 years and has made it their own with solo dances in featured performances and Isicathulo or “Gum Boot” dance which has become one of the most popular dance forms in South Africa. One of their most creative works is entitled “Bridgewater Sonata.” This original work was commissioned in 2013 to tell the story of African-Polish violinist George Augustus Polgreen Bridgewater. Step Afrika! is planning to bring this back to the stage, possibly in time for their 25th-anniversary celebration. Plans for Step Afrika!’s anniversary are already under way and it just happens to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the independence of South Africa and the presidency of Nelson Mandela. Brian was living in Johannesburg during that time and said,“…so we’re going to celebrate that like crazy!”
For the 2017/2018 season the company is touring the country in collaboration with the Phillips Collection and performing The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence. It’s an original production that “fuses stepping with the visual arts, in this case noted American artist Jacob Lawrence.” It relates the story of the Great Migration of African Americans from the southern states in the U.S. to the North. Scheduled cities include: Seattle, WA, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, PA, Minneapolis, MN, Atlanta, GA and the week of April 17th-22nd in Champaign/Urbana, Illinois, (home of the University of Illinois.)
Additionally, the company performs on HBCU campuses with a “more traditional show” throughout the year. Performing on HBCU campuses are particularly rewarding for the company as it provides that continued connection to the culture of stepping. The company takes their role as Global Step Ambassadors seriously. “Because we come from the culture (of stepping) we very much respect the tradition and know that there are some aspects of the culture that are not to be shared,” says Williams. “We’ll never teach circle steps or the songs… those are sacred parts.”
When asked about the future of stepping, Brian said no one can really answer that. “Will there be drone stepping, hover board steps – who knows,” he laughs. “As long as African American Greeks on HBCU and other campuses consider it necessary to express themselves in the tradition of stepping, it will remain a viable part of the culture. It’s African-American folkloric dance, just like Zulu Dance has survived, so should stepping.”