“It’s not the ballet — we can be loud.” Five minutes into the show, the dancers of Step Afrika! summon the audience into a foot-stamping, hand-clapping, body-slapping call-and-response exchange through the African-American percussive dance form known as stepping. Making their own music, dancers strike bravado moves with military precision, as successive waves of syncopated rhythms drive the show forward, intensifying connections between performers and audience.
“The more energy the audience gives, the more energy the dancers can give,” explained C. Brian Williams, founder and executive director of Step Afrika! — the world’s first professional company dedicated to stepping. The Washington-based troupe will make its Atlanta debut January 29 at Georgia Tech’s Ferst Center for the Arts, part of its gradual move from school, community-based and smaller college venues to larger performing arts centers across the country. (After the performance, Ferst Center Director George Thompson will lead an audience discussion with dance company members.)
In recent years, Step Afrika! has received critical accolades for its artistry, demonstrating that, as Washington Post critic Sarah Kaufman wrote, “the art of stepping has boundless expressive possibilities.” She observed that the troupe has incorporated ballet and modern dance influences, building in character study and comedy. Artistic collaborations, too, have stretched stepping’s dramatic potential, showing that a folkloric dance form — and they’ve seen many around the world — can develop into a contemporary theatrical form without losing its vitality and popular appeal. But even as Step Afrika! has toured four continents, Williams told me in a recent telephone interview, it remains close to its original community-focused, pro-education mission.
“We’re looking for ways to create connections and mutual understanding across all types of barriers,” he said. “At the same time, we are celebrating and preserving a tradition that only 20 to 30 years ago was not widely known — to raise that profile while preserving its origins, and celebrating its roots in African-American dance culture.”
The roots of stepping go back to 1900s-era black college Greek organizations. It became more widespread in the late 1960s and ’70s, and Sylvain White’s 2007 movie “Stomp the Yard” helped bring it into the public eye.
Williams began stepping in the early 1990s at Howard University in Washington, where he was a member of the oldest black fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha. On completing his degree, Williams traveled to South Africa in 1994, where he encountered the gumboot dance, created by apartheid-era miners who used their rubber boots to make distinctive sounds, slapping and stomping out polyrhythms, accented by shouts and calls.
Williams was struck by the gumboot dance’s similarity to stepping. “It woke up something in me in terms of how similar people are in general, across the world, especially when it comes to percussive dance forms. There are only so many things you can do with the hands and feet, and that inspired me to link the two art forms together, and as a result, to people.”
That connection has grown into a partnership with Soweto Dance Theater and the annual Step Afrika! International Cultural Festival in Johannesburg.
The Ferst program will feature the gumboot dance as well as a fierce, virtuosic Zulu dance, set to booming live drumming. “Tribute” pays homage to traditional stepping, and “The Pledge Scene” honors the “divine nine” — nine historically black fraternities and sororities, with a theatrical take on pledging as a rite of passage.
“X-Town (Chicago),” by Step Afrika! Artistic Director Jakari Sherman (the “X” is pronounced “shī,” like the Greek letter chi), takes a modern look at stepping, pushing the form into new artistic territory. The 20-minute narrative work, inspired by the city of Chicago’s sights and sounds, has been described as a “step symphony,” Williams said. In the piece, a section titled “Walking” explores “the rhythm in your own everyday movement, and putting that up against someone else’s movement. What do we sound like when we just walk down the street together? And what if we coordinated our steps? What music would we make?”
The company’s willingness to explore and ask questions has taken stepping beyond its traditional limits, as in other recent collaborations, such as “Train,” based on black migration to Northern states. The dancers’ step rhythms inspired the work’s commissioned score, played live by a jazz quartet. The all-female a capella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock accompanied “Wade” with gospel singing, and Sherman set Nxt/Step electronic rock music as dancers interacted with video images of themselves dancing.
I asked Williams, who has helped coordinate the Soweto festival for 17 years, whether other dance groups around the world are merging folkloric and contemporary dance to create fresh theatrical experiences. Generally, he said, folkloric dances are more accessible to a broad population, but they tend to receive less funding than classical ballet and modern dance companies. He encourages folkloric groups to expand their traditions as Step Afrika! has done. In South Africa, where support for dance is strong, he’s seen choreographers who performed traditional Zulu dances 15 years ago but now present cutting-edge contemporary works.
It’s a natural evolution, Williams said, because at some point performing a traditional dance becomes rote, and the artist has to approach the work from a more contemporary point of view — to ask, as Williams puts it, “What else can we do?”
In the United States, Step Afrika! has encountered barriers of a different kind. Recently a presenter told Williams that his company’s work is too traditional for her venue’s contemporary dance programming. But the way Williams sees it, it’s likely that audiences for contemporary dance would grow if the works somehow included the pulse and energy of folkloric dancing. “So maybe we need to look at more of a merger between contemporary and traditional artists here in our own country, and not make it so … segregated. I’d love to be able to work with contemporary artists more consistently, and just see what the heck happens. I think that’s where we’re heading next, collaboratively.”