Feet hammer down upon the stage like sheets of rain and thunder, except there’s cadence and unison, call and response. It’s stepping, a unique African-American art form that emerged as a response to the peculiar institution of slavery, said Step Afrika! founder C. Brian Williams.
Williams’ Step Afrika! will perform Sunday, Feb. 12, in the Music Center at Strathmore’s concert hall, a venue he described as “a cathedral for stepping.” The professional dance company has invited teams from across the country to represent the origins and the future of stepping, Williams said. They will also perform a piece called “Go West,” what he said was a nod to the West African traditions that have helped shape African American culture today.
CultureSpotMC caught up with Williams ahead of the performance and got schooled in the history of stepping. Here are excerpts from the interview.
For the people who don’t really know what stepping is, how would you describe what this type of performance is about?
Stepping is an art based on a long and rich tradition in African-American communities that uses movement, words and sounds to communicate allegiance to a group. The stepping tradition in the United States grew out of song and dance rituals practiced by historically African-American fraternities and sororities, beginning as early as the 1900s.
Were they really stepping back then? Do we know what some it looked like?
There’s a great book called “Soul Stepping,” written by a friend of mine, Dr. Elizabeth Fine. She writes that the first recorded look at stepping was in 1920, on the campus of Howard University, in their student newspaper. But the stepping that we know of today is very different from what they practiced in the early 1920s—mostly song and very slight movements done in a line or a circle. That evolved into the rapid-fire, percussive techniques that you see on campus today.
Would we have seen this sort of thing outside of black fraternities and sororities in the U.S. back then?
We did some research on the African-American percussive dance forms that led to the development for why African Americans used their bodies as drums in the first place. African Americans who were enslaved in the South brought drums with them from West Africa, from Central Africa. They used those drums as a method of communication. In South Carolina in the 1700s, those drums were used to start a revolt [the Stono Rebellion]. The revolt killed many local citizens, and it ended up being quite a traumatic experience for the early colonizers. As a result, they made the drum illegal; it was stricken from plantation life. Africans also lost the ability to read, write and even to assemble outside of church.
Because the drum was outlawed—made illegal in the United States before it was even the United States of America—that completely transformed how our cultural art formed. Therefore, you have dance forms like the ring shout, tap and hambone—all these cultural traditions coming out of African-American culture that pretty much used the body as an instrument. Stepping is just the latest in that line.
Talk to me about the history of stepping beyond what we see here in the states. Where do its roots lie in Africa and how did that get transported here?
A lot of people would generically say that stepping came from the continent of Africa, as though to say, there is a direct line that you could point to, that stepping was done by this group of Africans on the west or central coast. But stepping, tap and some of these art forms I’ve mentioned are really a unique response—an African response—to life in the New World.
In 1991, when I saw the South African gumboot dance I was shocked to find this art form that looked so much like stepping. It was created by men who worked in the mines of South Africa. Since they didn’t have drums from traditional village life, they only had these gumboots, they began to use their bodies as instruments, just like African Americans did when their drums were taken away from them. The South African gumboot dance is a more contemporary dance form, started, probably, in the late 1800s—early 1900s at most. It’s not an old tradition, although it does have some interesting connections to Tswana dances.
What does it take to master the art form of stepping? Does it help to have a background in African dance? Be familiar with the idiom of stepping in the black fraternities and sororities?
I think stepping is its own unique form. Steppers are not only dancers; they are also musicians because as much as they have a visual component to the art form, the music is equally important.
Being that you’re in a fraternity, you’re an Alpha, I am going to assume you had some exposure to stepping.
That’s how I learned. I pledged my fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Incorporated, at Howard University close to 30 years ago. The first time I saw the tradition of stepping was on campus. I was fascinated by it the moment I saw it.
What made stepping be something more for you?
I was intrigued by the opportunity to explore the art form and utilize stepping as a means of cultural exchange. When I first saw that South African gumboot dance, I felt it would be great to bring those art forms together because they were similar. The people who practiced them [stepping and gumboot] knew nothing about each other. I saw stepping as a way to bring cultures together. Since that moment, that’s really been our mantra.
The third annual Step Afrika! Step Xplosion will begin at 4 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 12, at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. For tickets, ranging from $35 to $75, call 301-581-5100 or visit www.strathmore.org. Dr. Joanne Hyppolite, a curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, will give a pre-concert lecture at 2:30 p.m. in the Mansion at Strathmore, 10701 Rockville Pike, North Bethesda; admission is free for ticket holders. View this event on CultureSpotMC here.
Step Afrika! Video