The art of “stepping,” an exuberant form of communication and an integral component of African-American fraternities and sororities since the early 20th century, strongly resembles African foot dances like Gumboot which South African miners developed after authorities outlawed drumming.
This rich history served as the impetus for the dance company Step Afrika!, launched in December 1994 by Founder and Executive Director C. Brian Williams who “wanted to use the art form of stepping as a platform for artistic and cultural exchange.”
Twenty-five years later, Step Afrika! remains committed to that goal, evolving into a global phenomenon, one of America’s most celebrated dance companies, designated as D.C.’s official “cultural ambassador.”
They’ll kickoff their 25th anniversary season at the Strathmore on Sunday, Jan. 20 performing what Williams describes as “some of our most exciting works ever created.”
“I’m especially looking forward to our performance of Indlamu, the legendary dance of Zulu warriors and a dance style we’ve been studying for more than 20 years. And since 2019 marks the 25th anniversary of the election of President Nelson Mandela in South Africa, we [also] plan to honor his legacy,” said Williams, a Howard University graduate who first learned to step as a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. Beta Chapter in 1989 before moving to Africa where he began to research stepping.
“Whether performing in Haiti before 10,000 people or a small theater in Latvia for 250, it has been incredible to watch the people of the world connect with the artists of Step Afrika! almost as soon as we hit the stage,” he said. “In April, we’ll tour Ukraine for the first time in the Company’s history – already there’s tremendous excitement building there for our arrival.”
But how does one become a member of the country’s first professional company dedicated to the tradition of stepping and currently ranked as one of the Top 10 African-American dance companies in the world?
“We hold annual auditions each May in the District during which we invite artists for a two-day process,” he said. “We look for traditional ‘steppers’ who can dance and dancers who can step. We also look for artists who love to teach and share the stepping tradition. Each year we perform and work with over 25,000 young people so we require not only excellence performers but dedicated teaching artists.”
Step Afrika! opens auditions to artists from anywhere. However, as one might expect, their troupe includes skilled individuals hailing from the greater Washington area.
“We’ve found incredible dancers in the DMV and currently have two Howard graduates in the Company, Deatrice Clark and Jordan Spry, along with Ronnique Murray, a native Washingtonian and Kiera Harley, born and raised in Maryland,” he noted.
Clearly, the future holds tremendous opportunities for Step Afrika! However, Williams, while looking back at the early years, remembers that it hasn’t been an easy journey.
“When we began, few considered the tradition of stepping as an ‘art form’ worthy of promotion and preservation,” he said. “That was our greatest challenge. But after 25 years of performing in over 50 countries and the White House under President Barack Obama, and by creating a prominent exhibit in the National Museum of African American History and Culture, we’ve achieved many of our original goals and so much more.”
“I anticipate the next 25 years will be even better. We’re working on our next big production, ‘Drumfolk,’ which will make its D.C. premiere in June 2020 before touring across the U.S. We’re also looking forward to our 25th Anniversary Gala (June 6, 2019) which promises to be an incredible celebration and will serve as [the Company’s] most important fundraiser that will support the work we do with students all across the DMV.”
“We’ve had excellent opportunities to perform, experiment and dream and for that I’m eternally grateful,” he shared. “And while we travel the world, representing Washington, D.C. as a Cultural Ambassador, it’s always good to come home and perform for our family,” Williams added, pointing to the Company’s recent production, “Step Afrika!’s Magical, Musical Holiday Step Show,” which appeared on the stage of the Atlas Performing Arts Center in Northeast for 15, sold out performances.