Art Works Blog

In Step with Step Afrika!

C. Brian Williams first discovered stepping as a fraternity brother at Howard University. This was in the 1980s, before stepping hit the big screen in School Daze, Drumline, or Stomp the Yard, and before it represented the nation at Bill Clinton’s 1992 inauguration or the 1996 Olympic opening ceremony in Atlanta. At this point, the percussive dance had only existed within the intimate community of black fraternities and sororities, where it originated in the early 1900s as a way to express membership and pride for a particular Greek organization. “It was only performed by a subset of the African-American community in a very targeted environment,” said Williams, comparing stepping to a folk dance. “It was very culturally specific.”

But even before stepping hit the mainstream consciousness, Williams began to realize its potential as a global art form. While in South Africa on a post-graduate fellowship, he discovered gumboot dancing, originally developed by black mine workers who used their bodies and rubber boots to make music when drumming was forbidden. “I was shocked at how incredibly similar it was to stepping,” he said. “I also saw how they performed the art form. It wasn't just done in the mines. At that point it had spread to the broader community. It was a cultural art form that the entire nation celebrated. So I thought, ‘That could happen for stepping.’”

And so it has, in large part thanks to Williams’s efforts. In 1994, Williams founded Step Afrika!, the first professional company in the world dedicated to the art form of stepping. Based in Washington, DC, Step Afrika!—a frequent NEA grantee—has performed all over the world, becoming a powerful tool not just for performance but for arts education. 

Men and women dancing in a line onstage

A 2014 Step Afrika! performance at the University of North Carolina. Photo courtesy of Step Afrika!

“Because of stepping's strong ties to college, academic achievement is very important to us,” said Williams. Every year, Step Afrika! serves over 30,000 students in the Washington, DC area through in-school performances and residencies, after-school programming, and the Step Afrika! Youth Ensemble. Williams said that stepping’s unique focus on teamwork, discipline, and commitment make it an ideal tool for empowering and inspiring students. “It’s not necessarily art for art's sake, but art as a place where you can learn skills across the board,” said Williams. “We like to say that behind every great stepper should be an even greater student.”

But even outside a school setting, Williams said Step Afrika’s performances can prove educational. Depending on the program for example, audiences might learn about gumboot dancing, the signature styles of various African-American Greek organizations, a traditional Zulu dance called the indlamu, and African-American icons such as John Coltrane or Jacob Lawrence. “America's very unique in the fact that it has so many cultures, and there are so many lessons we can learn from each other,” said Williams. “The arts are the perfect platform for people to come together and learn something new.”

For international audiences, he said, stepping can be eye-opening in and of itself. “When we leave the country, most folks aren't aware that African Americans, as a society, are a culture within the larger American culture that have their own unique artistic expression,” he said. Although hip-hop and jazz have become global forces, Williams noted that many African-American art forms and traditions remain unknown outside the U.S., and the full artistic richness unexplored. Through stepping, Williams said, “We like to introduce them to other aspects of African-American culture besides what they may know from the movies.”

Despite the new ways Williams and his company have pushed the art form, Step Afrika! remains dedicated to its origins as a form of community expression. “We really view the theater as a place where communities gather, where people gather,” he said. “It's not just, ‘Come watch us, come see us do what we do.’ It's more ‘Come be a part of what we do. Join us in this conversation.’ We're onstage, you're in the seats, but we're really all together. That's what we like to do every time we hit the stage.” 

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