As the lights dim on an electric room full of children of all ages, members of the historically Black fraternities and sororities and lovers of fine arts; the Step Afrika! troupe takes the stage and begins the energetic rhythm and groove of movements that will continue through the last clap of the show.
The immersive experience into the folklore of African-American Step culture that Step Afrika! provides, created by Howard University alumnus, C. Brian Williams will be available in up to 40 cities this spring as the organization celebrates its 30-year anniversary.
Founded with the continued mission of breaking barriers and introducing the art to people around the world, Step Afrika! is one of the largest African-American dance companies in the world today. The Washington, D.C.-based dancers have performed for people across the United States and more than 60 other countries.
“I think this milestone is a reminder that we, as African-Americans, have many cultural assets that we need to hold on to, protect and nurture that our people have developed over the course of our 400-year history here that has been very distinct. We need to nurture them as well as innovate them,” Williams said.
The Step Afrika! troupe was the featured artist at President Barack Obama’s Black History Month Reception at The White House in 2016 and has also performed for Presidents Joe Biden and George W. Bush. Additionally, they have their own interactive exhibit in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
The group was recently named one of eight 2022 National Heritage Fellows by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the largest funder of the arts and education for the arts in the country. Established by Congress in 1982, the fellowship is the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts.
NEA Chair, Dr. Maria Rosario Jackson told The Hilltop that she was honored to present Williams with the prestigious award and was moved when she finally got to see the group’s performance in person.
“The tradition and performers embody the strength of an African-American experience. The art form is an expression of excellence, discipline, joy, resilience and triumph. Mr. Williams is such an important steward of this art form and tradition, honoring its origins and creating the space and conditions for its preservation and evolution,” Jackson said.
As a legacy Howard University student, Williams recalls the first time he saw stepping on The Yard and the immediate connection that he felt to the art form. He went on to pledge Beta Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc. and graduated in 1990 on a mission to reconnect with his African roots in southern Africa through a fellowship program.
In Lesotho, a small country landlocked by the Republic of South Africa, Williams
saw the traditional Gumboot dance. As he noticed the similarities between the traditional Gumboot dance and stepping, he was inspired to create something that would help other African-Americans make these same connections. By 1994, Williams led a group of Howard students on a two-week trip in association with the Soweto Dance Theatre of Johannesburg.
Through this exchange, Williams created the Step Afrika! International Cultural Festival and has grown the experience to reach 30,000 college students and 20,000 grade-school students in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area annually through their international tours. Williams heralds that even though step culture is gaining more recognition in popular culture, it has always been most important for him to go deeper and focus on historical connections.
“Hollywood was starting to pay a little attention to stepping, but I was really focused on taking it to the continent of Africa. So, although we did some commercial stuff here in the United States, I was more interested in using stepping as a way to build bridges between cultures. I was more interested in community building through the art form and its use to educate and motivate young children,” Williams said.
Step Afrika! has 14 full-time dancers who represent HBCU graduates and historically Black Greek fraternities and sororities members, such as Brie Turner. Turner, a Howard University alumna and member of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc., who is in her first season dancing with the group, told The Hilltop that she appreciates her opportunity to bring stepping to international stages and be a representative of her unique Black experience.
Other members of the Step Afrika!, such as Isaiah O’Connor, a Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University (FAMU) graduate, expressed that he feels blessed to wake up every day and do what he loves while traveling the world.
“A lot of people don’t understand or recognize that we are professional athletes and it may be because they don’t look at dance as a sport, but once you realize that we travel the world and extend our bodies to the extreme for the enjoyment of our fans it starts to make more sense,” O’Connor said.
Williams recommends that Howard student creators dedicate time to learning their history, because there is no better place to learn it than The Mecca. He believes Howard helped him to develop a stronger sense of identity and offered opportunities for studying abroad that allowed him to be more equipped for a life of purpose following graduation.
“Purpose over everything. I think going to Howard helped me learn more about our unique story, and I think knowing your voice helps amplify how you move through the world. When I left Howard, I felt very comfortable and centered in all spaces. I knew my culture. I knew my history. I was not ashamed of slavery. I understood the challenges that we faced in America and how we survived them,” Williams said.
Tickets to see Step Afrika! live can be found on ticketsonsale.com. Their next tour date near the Washington, D.C., area is this summer in Rockville, Maryland.
Copy edited by Alana Matthew