.Stepping Out

Step Afrika! dances Black American history

Don’t attend Step Afrika! at Berkeley’s Zellerbach Auditorium on Feb. 25 if a preference is to sit on hands at a show. Step Afrika! performances, according to founder and executive director C. Brian Williams, are highly interactive.

“We engage the audience to make music with us,” Williams said. Clapping, stomping, call-and-response are all encouraged. “The more energy the audience gives the performers, the more they are part of the performance.”

Williams founded the Washington, DC-based troupe in 1994, and it’s the first professional company dedicated to the tradition of stepping. Stepping history is inextricably linked to the American stories of both slavery, and those who triumphed over slavery.

The 1739 Stono Rebellion of slaves in South Carolina led to the Negro Act of 1740, which, along with prohibiting enslaved people from growing their own food, learning to read, moving freely, assembling in groups or earning money, also took away their right to use drums, which slaveowners considered provocative.

So, people began using their bodies as percussion, thumping chests, slapping hands, pounding the ground with their feet. They developed the “ring shout,” in which participants move in a circle, providing rhythm by clapping their hands and patting their feet. “One individual would set the tempo by singing, and his lines would be answered in call-and-response fashion. In some cases, another individual rhythmically beat the (usually wooden) floor with a broomstick or other piece of wood,” www.jazzhistorytree.com describes.

Direct connections between this and African traditions are apparent, but are still being researched, said Williams.

Then, in the early 1900s, as more Black students began being admitted to colleges and universities, they found themselves shut out from traditional “Greek” fraternities and sororities. They countered this by forming their own societies, eventually leading to what are still known as the “Divine Nine” at Cornell, Howard, Indiana University, Butler University and Morgan State University. These organizations blended the early body percussion tradition with dance moves, which were called “stepping.” 

“The societies became safe places for the students to express their love and pride,” said Williams.

As Step Afrika! materials explain, “In stepping, the body becomes an instrument, using footsteps, claps and spoken word to produce complex poly-rhythms.” While Step Afrika! has evolved, performances now include songs, storytelling, humor and, as described, audience participation. Contemporary styles of stepping are woven together with the traditional style, and the company has been influenced by its tours and connections in Southern Africa, Williams said.

The company reaches tens of thousands of Americans each year through a 50-city tour of colleges and theaters, and performs globally as Washington, DC’s only cultural ambassador. “We have been introducing the art form into the American theater for 29 years,” Williams said.

Step Afrika! has earned Mayor’s Arts Awards for Outstanding Contribution to Arts Education, Innovation in the Arts, Excellence in an Artistic Discipline, and headlined President Barack Obama’s Black History Month Reception at the White House. The company is featured prominently at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History & Culture with the world’s first stepping interactive exhibit.

Currently, the Step Afrika! company includes 14 artists, recruited from all over the country by annual auditions. Eleven members are performing in the current tour. Asked how the show is created, Williams emphasized, “All of our work is created internally. Each artist contributes some degree of the pieces we make.”

Like the rest of the performing arts community, Williams believes that the restrictions of the pandemic have created a hunger for live performance. “People are ready to make music,” he said.

Step Afrika! has also returned to classrooms, both in-person and online. “We work with thousands of young people each year,” said Williams. The company offers “Step Afrika! Reads,” which emphasizes the importance of parents reading to their children on a daily basis. The 35-minute program is structured for pre-K to 2nd grade students and combines reading, exercise and creative movement.

Another educational program is “Stepping with Step Afrika!,” a highly interactive 45-minute performance for K-12 students highlighting the rhythm, physicality and history of stepping, culminating in a group activity to get students on their feet.

According to Step Afrika! materials, “The program introduces the ties between stepping, college life and academic achievement [as well as] the concepts of teamwork, discipline and commitment. Performers incorporate world traditions, demonstrated through the lively South African gumboot dance. Students enjoy learning basic step choreography and discover how dance brings people and cultures together.” This program is available virtually to schools.

Also available virtually is “Step Up to College,” a weekly residency program (in school or after school) for grades 4-12. “The curriculum covers stepping, its history, tradition and meaning, preparation for college life and simple health and fitness. Students learn the core values of stepping: teamwork, commitment and discipline as a part of their own ‘step team’ by working together to create choreography and seeing how every member of the team adds value to their performance,” according to Step Afrika! materials.

While visiting the East Bay, the company will perform a special matinee for local school kids. “The theater is an amazing classroom,” said Williams.

In a time in which some politicians are trying to prevent Black history from being taught in schools, does Step Afrika!’s work have even more importance? “I do think the American theater has a role to play in telling all forms of history,” said Williams. “Our work celebrates African American history. We just finished a tour in Florida. There is always a way to get the stories out.”

Reviewing Step Afrika’s show, Drumfolk, for Boston NPR station WBUR, Jacquinn Sinclair wrote, “The show is a testament to the influence and endurance of these cultural movements and instruments. Percussive dance, drumming, and vocal calls from hundreds of years ago have survived and morphed through history, bodies and time. The remembrance and celebration of these movements pay homage to those freedom fighters who lost their lives in battle and to all who never stopped singing, shouting, dancing or drumming, no matter the consequence.”

Step Afrika!, Feb. 25, 8pm. A presentation of CalPerformances, UC Berkeleys Zellerbach Hall. Tickets: 510-642-9988, calperformances.org.

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