Thursday, January 27, 2011

Step Afrika steps into Ferst Center

Posted By on Thu, Jan 27, 2011 at 12:53 PM


Step Afrika, the first professional company founded to present the traditional dance form of stepping, will bring their high-energy, percussive moves to Georgia Tech's Ferst Center on Saturday, January 29. We caught up with founder and artistic director C. Brian Williams to ask him about the show.

I'm sure you've been asked this a zillion times, but for those of us who still aren't familiar with it: What is stepping?

Stepping is a percussive dance form created by African-American college students who became members of fraternities and sororities. In stepping the body is used as an instrument—your hands, your feet, your voice—create complex rhythms and sounds. It has its roots in the early 1900s. African-Americans began to attend colleges in large numbers and formed their own groups to support themselves academically and socially on college campuses and it's really evolved from that point

Is that how you got started? In college?

Yeah. I learned how to step traditionally, as a member of a fraternity. I attended Howard University, and I learned how to step while I was pledging. I stepped a lot in college. A fraternity is supposed to do so many different things. Everyone's away from their families, and it creates a brotherhood of support. Stepping is the outward expression of that fraternity life. We'd step in the yard at Howard University. At 12 noon between classes, we'd step. It was just part of the culture on the campus.

How did you form your own dance company? Why did you decide to start stepping professionally?

I wanted to bring stepping to a broader audience. When I graduated from Howard I went to Africa and I became interested in exposing stepping to people around the world. The tradition was not widely known. If you weren't on a college campus in America, you might not have ever experienced it. It was initially about linking the idea of traditional stepping with the concept of Africa: Step Afrika. We wanted to take stepping off the college campus and bring it to the world. This year alone, we toured ten different countries. We went from Madagascar to Belize to Brazil to Morocco to Egypt. It's great to see how people around the world respond to stepping. We've collaborated with Appalachian cloggers, Brazilian drummers, Egyptian tanoura dancers and Moroccan musicians. We're really about preserving stepping but also connecting it with other art forms.

C. Brian Williams
  • C. Brian Williams
Most audiences who are familiar with stepping have seen it in a competitive context. Is it different presenting it to them in a professional show?

Yeah. It's a big switch. Most of our artists come from the traditional step show format, which is competition at its finest. They stepped in college in local, regional and national competitions. The transition from being on a step team to being a professional artist in a company, that's actually a lot of fun because we're able to expand the tradition. A normal step show is about 10 to 15 minutes. Our show is about an hour-and-a-half. It's a huge transition.

What're some of the names of the styles and moves we'll see in your show in Atlanta?

You'll see the signature steps. You'll see what we call the spin. It's the stepping equivalent to a pirouette. You'll see what's called a blade. A step with a strong military influence.

It must be an art form that shifts incredibly quickly. Every four years there's an entirely new crop of students perpetuating and performing the steps.

It's so dynamic. It's crazy how dynamic it is! We look at all the students across the country. They're constantly innovating, creating, changing the form. The music changes, the themes change. And each member of the Divine Nine, the nine historically black college fraternities and sororities, has its own signature step or style, too. It's just an extremely dynamic form.

Step Afrika will perform at Georgia Tech's Ferst Center for the Arts on Saturday, January 29, at 8 pm. For more information or to purchase tickets, call 404-894-9600 or visit Ferst Center

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