Say the word “stepping” today and it’s associated with multiple films, competition shows and music videos. But it’s taken a century for this body-percussive dance to be “stomped” on our cultural consciousness.
There’s still room for awareness, according to C. Brian Williams, founder and executive director of Step Afrika!, the 14-member group performing next Friday, Feb. 8, at Keene’s Colonial Theatre.
“We’re working to raise the profile of this tradition,” he said in a phone interview with ELF from Texas, where the group performed last week. “We’re preserving and promoting the art form to use as a tool of cultural and artistic exchange.”
Stepping, with its intricate rhythms and sounds through a combination of footsteps, claps and the spoken word, comes from a tradition in the United States that grew out of song and dance rituals practiced by historically African-American fraternities and sororities, beginning in the early 1900s.
“African-Americans began to attend colleges in greater numbers,” said Williams of the time period. “It was only 40 years after the end of slavery, and they were slowly getting the benefits of American life.”
Stepping emerged in these African-American fraternities and sororities as a way for brothers and sisters to support each other, said Williams, and express love and pride in their organizations.
“This is what morphed into the tradition we know as stepping,” he said. “They weren’t doing it as the way we do now. You started to see in the 1920s — people marching in line and doing simple movements and singing songs. That changed to the rapid-fire percussive dance we see today. It’s still not well-known.”
When Williams pledged his fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. Beta Chapter at Howard University in 1989, stepping was part of the process.
“The only way to learn this art form prior to 1990 was if you became a member of fraternity or sorority,” he said. “It wasn’t taught in studios.”
In addition to step shows and competitions on college campuses, today stepping can also be found in schools, churches and community organizations around the country. The form is also spreading its wings to new venues and participants, such as Latino and Asian-American Greek-letter organizations.
Stepping was first inspired by African-based communities that use movement, words and sounds to communicate allegiance to a group, drawing movements from African foot dances such as gumboot. Gumboot dance was originally conceived by miners in South Africa as an alternative to drumming, which was banned by authorities. The dance is featured in the Step Afrika! performance, along with a Zulu warrior drumming piece.
After graduating from the university, Williams traveled to Johannesburg, South Africa, to study the deeper roots of the art form of stepping.
Step Afrika!, which he founded in 1994, began as an exchange program with the Soweto Dance Theatre in the South African capital city. He went on to create the Step Afrika! International Cultural Festival in Johannesburg.
“Stepping is uniquely African-American, the result of the African response to life in America,” said Williams. “It’s not a direct descendent of the African continent but the movements are similar continent-wide. I was shocked at how much the South African gumboot dance looked like American stepping.”
This year, the company marks its 25th anniversary. Williams pointed out the company was founded the same year Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black president, was elected.
Step Afrika! is the first professional dance company dedicated to the tradition of stepping and has expanded to become a national and international touring company presenting performance, residencies and workshops worldwide. The company was designated as Washington, D.C.’s official cultural ambassador.
The 14 professional artists, men and women who came to join the company from places around the world, also incorporate tap, modern and hip-hop dance into their performances. At its core, stepping is a folkloric dance form.
“It’s a dance of the people,” said Williams. “Just like European folk dances in a circle — it’s simple movement.”
What Williams enjoys most about stepping is its use in celebration and community-building.
“As much as I love the movement,” he said, “I’m always in love with the purpose and spirit of stepping equally.”
Step Afrika! performs Friday, Feb. 8, at 7:30 p.m. at The Colonial Theatre, 95 Main St., Keene. Tickets are $35-$39 and can be ordered by calling 352-2033 or at thecolonial.org.