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Photo: courtesy of Step Afrika!

A Step Above the Rest: Step Afrika! Returns To Strathmore

Step Afrika! was created in 1994 by C. Brian Williams, who wanted to honor the African American ritual of stepping – a polyrhythmic, percussive dance form that uses the body as an instrument – and preserve, expand and promote the art form. 

“We were the first professional company in the world dedicated to the tradition of stepping,” says Williams, the group’s founder and executive director. “It’s a custom dance form first created by African American fraternities and sororities as a way of expressing pride in their organizations.”

Today, the Step Afrika! troupe is comprised of 14 full-time artists. For the past 25 years, the DC-based organization has regularly engaged 30,000 college students across the nation, taught teamwork and discipline to 200 kids as part of the Summer Steps with Step Afrika! summer camp and expanded culture-based arts education for more than 20,000 DC, Maryland and Virginia school students.

The group has also appeared on Broadway and will be returning to the Great White Way in 2020, offering the latest in lightning-fast footwork, percussive chants and incredible synchronicity.

“We take the art form to the next level and put it right up there with ballet, modern and tap,” Williams says. “Our showcase is one of the best ways to get introduced to stepping for those who have never seen it.”

On January 12, Step Afrika! will return to the Strathmore to preview its latest production, Drumfolk. The performance, which was commissioned by Strathmore, traces the roots of step back to the African American percussive traditions of patting juba, hambone, ring shout and tap. 

Drumfolk reflects on the harsh realities of the American South and celebrates the fortitude of enslaved Africans who practiced these transcendent musical forms,” Williams says. “We’re going to be taking this show on a 10-city tour throughout 2020. To have Strathmore get behind us and help us with this work has been super important for us.”

He explains that Drumfolk is based on very little known events in American history that Step Afrika! feels have had a tremendous impact on the country.

“There was a revolt in 1739 called the Stono Rebellion, which was led by Africans against the system of slavery,” Williams says. “These were some of the first activists before the country even formed. Even though it was not successful in overthrowing slavery, it led to the Negro Act of 1740 where Africans lost the right to use their drums. We started to see African Americans using their bodies as the drums, and so many of our art forms can find their origins in his historical moment.”

The Strathmore program will also include Step Xplosion, a showcase of the region’s finest step squads. 

“We’re going to hit the stage at the Strathmore for one of our biggest performances of the year,” Williams says. “This show is where we invite step teams from across the country to share the stage with us and demonstrate the different styles of stepping that can be found across the U.S. This is a uniquely American art form and this show gives audiences a bigger look at the form.”

Among the featured step teams will be Eleanor Roosevelt High School’s Dem Raider Boyz Step Squad; Howard University’s Cook Hall Step Team; Paint Branch High School’s The Eclectic Steppers; the Hype Queens from North Carolina; and Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Inc.

A DJ will play music in between the performances and Williams describes the atmosphere as going to be like “a college step show on steroids!” 

“These teams aren’t competing for money, they are just having fun and exhibiting their abilities, style and forms,” Williams says. “The shows are fun. They are interactive and there really is no fourth wall between the audience and the artists. We encourage audiences of all ages to come out, make noise and connect with our performers.”

Prior to the show, Williams will hold a conversation in the Music Center Education Room 402 to discuss the creative process behind Step Afrika!’s Drumfolk program. The talk is free, but registration is required as space is limited.

“I think more people should see and learn about this art form because it is a uniquely American art form and one of the few indigenous dance forms created in the last 100 years,” Williams says. “If you’ve never seen Step Afrika!, it’s a DMV experience that everyone should see at least once. We are DC’s most celebrated dance company and no one else in the word has a company like us.”

Step Afrika! performs at the Strathmore at 5 p.m. on Sunday, January 12. Tickets $35-$75. For more information, visit www.strathmore.org.

The Music Center at Strathmore: 5301 Tuckerman Ln. Bethesda, MD; 301-581-5100; www.strathmore.org