Steppin’ out with Step Afrika!

zita | 4/26/2018, 3:36 p.m.
This Saturday, Step Afrika! returns to New York, bringing its electrifying performance of steppin’.
Step Afrika Sekou Luke

Saturday, April 28, Step Afrika! returns to New York, bringing its electrifying performance of steppin’, the richly percussive and compellingly energetic dance form rooted in the history of the Black tradition in American dance, which has thrilled New York audiences for several seasons.

On the heels of its critically successful 2017 run at Manhattan’s New Victory Theater, the company is now bringing Step Afrika! to the Kumble Theater on the downtown campus of LIU with two shows Saturday, April 28, one at 3 p.m. and the other at 8 p.m.

“This is Step Afrika’s 24th year performing around the world,” said founder and executive director, C. Brian Williams, during a recent interview. “We’re the first professional company in the world dedicated to steppin’, and our mission is to promote an appreciation for this art form and its uses as an educational, motivational and healthy tool for young people. Community engagement has been at the core of our mission since we began the company in 1994.”

Step Afrika! was launched shortly after Williams graduated from Howard University. In fact, he says it was at Howard that he was first introduced to steppin’ while pledging Alpha Phi Alpha, one of the Black Greek-letter fraternities and sororities devoted to racial uplift. “As our numbers grew on college campuses following World War I and II and the G.I. Bill, young African-Americans around the country began to be involved in these formations, chants and call-and-responses as steppin’ developed and grew,” said Williams. Since its founding in 1994, Step Afrika! has worked to take this dance form and its power to connect people to one another around the world.

Step Afrika’s mission is to reflect the Black experience through this art form, and Williams is particularly proud of the fact that one of the company’s earliest opportunities to “take this African-American art form and teach it to young children was during a trip to South Africa six months after the election of Nelson Mandela as president.”

“Since then we have been on an incredible journey,” he said.

This year that journey brings Step Afrika! back to New York with a program that features an excerpt from one of the pieces that was so successful in previous seasons—“The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence.” The “Migration Series” is a group of 60 paintings created in 1941 by renowned artist Jacob Lawrence that depict aspects of the journey of millions of Blacks fleeing the South in the wake of the rise of a wave of domestic terrorism perpetrated by white supremacists after the end of Reconstruction. The company’s performance captures the grit and determination of a people by using an art form that is deeply rooted in our history and dates back to when Blacks first set foot on American soil. At its heart, steppin’ demonstrates a people’s determination to preserve their culture as they re-created the percussion of the drum, after whites, fearful of its communicative power, banned its use after the Stono Rebellion of 1739, during which runaway slaves made their way from South Carolina to Florida, killing many whites. In the place of the banned drum, Africans used their bodies as percussive instruments. This musical ingenuity was evident in such early dances as the Ring Shout, Pattin’ Juba and others. Steppin,’ although it sprang up years later, is part of that legacy, and as one critic noted, Step Afrika! performances are proof that not only “can it fill an evening ... it shows that stepping has reach: It can tell a story.”

In addition, Step Afrika!

performances draw on a variety of other dance forms from a rich cultural heritage to tell their stories, but make no mistake about it, steppin’ is at the core of its compelling performances. Williams has spent years researching and developing the company’s depiction of this art form and its connections to other kinds of African-American dance. Indeed, some of that research has taken place at Harlem’s Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture. In fact, one of the excerpts from “The Migration” the company will perform this weekend is a section called “Wade” that according to Williams, “explores three traditions: stepping, tap and the South African

gumboot dance.”

On his exploratory journey, Williams helped found the Step Afrika! International Cultural Festival in Johannesburg, South Africa. He has performed, lectured and taught in Europe, South and Central America, the Middle East, Asia, the Caribbean and the United States. Now the company is back and performing in Brooklyn because, Williams says, he wants all to enjoy it as much as the Step Afrika! troupe does.