By Micha Green
AFRO D.C. Editor
It’s been over 25 years since C. Brian Williams started showcasing stepping as an artistic dance form with Step Afrika!, and it’s been over 30 years since he was introduced to stepping as a student at Howard University. As Step Afrika! celebrates its quarter century milestone and the world enters into a new decade, the highly lauded professional Black dance company is continuing to entertain and educate audiences through the Step Xplosion and new piece “Drumfolk,” at the prestigious Strathmore on Jan. 12.
In an exclusive interview with the AFRO, Williams shared the company’s trajectory, leading to their national and international tours, performing at the Obama White House and celebrating their 25th year. Further, in Williams’ “art as education” fashion, the Step Afrika! founder and executive director shared how he was able to take his love and fascination with stepping and turn it into a celebrated arts style that is able to teach audiences how Black people learned to use their bodies as drums.
Way before Williams connected stepping to the drums or even the continent of Africa, he was wowed by step as a student at Howard.
“I get to Howard University in 1986, and even though my father had pledged Alpha Phi Alpha Beta Chapter, which is like the second chapter created of the fraternity, I didn’t know a lot about Black Greek culture, and I had not been introduced to stepping,” Williams said. “But I get to Howard’s campus, I see the tradition of stepping at the Howard University step show, and I was blown away by, not only the performance, but also the culture that created the art form. That inspired me to pledge the fraternity.”
While Williams was enthralled by the impact and showmanship of step, he was introduced to the tradition as simply a means of celebrating one’s fraternity or sorority, not a dance style.
“If you asked us we’d say, ‘We don’t dance, we step. Stepping is something different. We do this to express pride. Not to entertain.’ So I really viewed stepping in that way, as a ritual and a tradition that should be nurtured and treasured, but I also recognized that stepping was an art form, as dance, and as a unique African American creation that should be celebrated and studied,” he explained.
His participation in step as an Alpha Phi Alpha ended up being the cementing connection needed for the light bulb moment he had when in Southern Africa in the early 90s.
“Fast forward to when I graduated from Howard University in 1990 and I moved to Southern Africa. I have all these thoughts in my head about stepping as an art form and where does this tradition come from. While I’m thinking these thoughts, is when I first saw, in Southern Africa, the South African Gumboot Dance, which is a percussive dance form created by men who worked in the mines of South Africa- that looked incredibly similar to stepping. And that’s when I had my ‘Aha moment,’” Williams said. “’Let’s create something that will bring them together for the first time.’ And that’s what inspired me to create Step Afrika!”
The idea turned into a reality in 1994, when Step Afrika! was created, and the dance company has found much success ever since.
“Today there are only two really fully professional dance companies in Washington, D.C.- the Washington Ballet and Step Afrika- who are able to provide full time employment to their artists. So I take that really seriously, and I’m really honored that we can provide that. And now being one of the largest African- American dance companies in the world, we employ 15 dancers full time over the year, and a team of other artists to support that process. So that was a huge thing,” he said.
The Step Afrika! executive director also talked about the reward of taking the tradition throughout the world.
“When the opportunity presented itself, we really took every moment to represent stepping and introduce this art form to people all over the world in a very authentic and real way,” Williams said.
One unique aspect to Step Afrika! is that the company is also able to educate American audiences on step’s connection to Africa, and how art forms have developed since the enslaved Africans arrived to America.
“I’m really big on preserving that history and celebrating it every second that I can. And Step Afrika! is the way we do that. Our performances seek to reflect and reinforce a really beautiful culture that is not very well understood, and to give other cultures a chance to experience who African Americans are, who African American people are, and why they do certain things,” the Step Afrika! executive director said.
“So our next work that we’re creating is called “Drumfolk,” and we’re going to be doing an excerpt of that work on Jan. 12 at Strathmore, which I’m super excited about,” he said. “’Drumfolk’ is a big moment for us. It’s a chance to share a little known event in American history that greatly transformed African-American life and experience.”
“Step Afrika! Drumfolk is based on the Stono Rebellion of 1739,” Williams said before, in a professor’s manner.
“The Stono Rebellion was one of the largest uprisings on American shores by enslaved Africans. It happened even before the United States existed when it was still the British colony of South Carolina. Basically 20 Africans, some people say they came from Angola, so they say 20 Angolans as well, started a rebellion in South Carolina, using the drum as a way to call people together. So they marched across the plantations beating their drums, leading this uprising that was incredibly successful, considering the fact that they did not have a lot of weapons. And they stole weapons, killed some enslavers, and it was just a rebellious act by African people in 1739.”
The artist, entrepreneur and educator went on to explain that despite valiant efforts of the enslaved Africans, the Stono Rebellion was quashed. The rebellion also led to the Negro Act of 1740, which was a game changer for how enslaved people could operate.
“The Negro Act of 1740 made the drum an illegal weapon, and made it illegal for Africans to read or to write, and made it illegal for them to wear certain clothes for stature, or even gather in numbers over 20. So it really changed how Africans lived in America- that rebellion,” Williams said, before also explaining how the Act led to celebrated African-American traditions.
“But as a result, it also led to the many cultural creations that we love today. One question I’ve always had about the art form of stepping is ‘Where did it come from? Why do we use our body as a drum? Tap. Why did we make the floor into a drum? Ring Shout. Why are most of our dance forms without the drum?’ That’s because African people lost the right to use the drum in 1740. So it totally changed our culture. So we’re really diving into that history and hopefully it’ll spark conversation about who we are, what we have been through as a culture, and how we’ve impacted America and how all Americans can learn from this history,” Williams said.
Excerpts from “Drumfolk” will be featured at Strathmore on Jan. 12, before the national tour, which kicks off in the Eisenhower Auditorium at Penn State’s Center for the Performing Arts on Jan. 31.
In addition to the sneak peak of “Drumfolk,” is the Step Xplosion, which will feature several step squads including: Dem Raider Boyz Step Squad, Eleanor Roosevelt High School (MD); Cook Hall Step Team, Howard University (D.C.); HYPE Queens (NC); Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity (OH); Zeta Phi Beta Sorority- Alpha Chapter, Howard University (D.C.); and The Eclectic Steppers, Paint Branch High School (MD).
For more information on the Step Xplosion, “Drumfolk” and how Step Afrika! is celebrating their 25th year, visit https://www.stepafrika.org. For tickets to Step Xplosion and the excerpt of “Drumfolk,” at Strathmore on Jan. 12 visit, https://www.strathmore.org/events-and-tickets/step-afrika.