Step Afrika! Founder and Executive Producer C. Brian Willam’s talked storytelling with WUSA9 amid White House’s Juneteenth celebration:
Step Afrika! brought the energy at yesterday’s Juneteenth Celebration at the White House. The company joined with other Black artists to commemorate the history of America’s second Independence Day:
“The Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863, but it took two more years for enslaved people in Texas to get their first taste of freedom.
WUSA9 Anchor Lesli Foster had a chance to sit in on a rehearsal with the country’s first professional dance company devoted to stepping – Step Afrika! – as they prepared to teach a history lesson through their percussive artistry.
So, what is stepping?
“We use our hands and feet, our bodies and our voice to make music,” said Step Afrika! founder C. Brian Williams. It’s a storytelling tradition that Williams fell in love with as a student at Howard University. Thirty years later – the company Williams created to merge the art form of stepping in Black fraternities and sororities with its origins in South Africa – has evolved into a tool for meaningful cultural and artistic exchange.
“Almost immediately, we’re able to create that connection with an audience and spark all types of conversations,” said Williams. Williams goes on to say that the theater is a place to come together, even when the dancers are sharing stories that were previously unknown. He hopes that once audiences learn them, they can share the lessons and deepen their understanding of our country.
In Tuesday’s performance of Drumfolk at the White House – the dancers teach us about the Stono Rebellion of 1739. It was a little-known slave revolt in South Carolina. Williams said, “This performance merges stepping with the human beatbox and there’s nothing like it on American stages today.”
Last year, Williams received a prestigious award for his decades of innovation. The NEA National Heritage Fellowship is our nation’s highest award for folkloric arts. “Stepping at its core is a folklore tradition. It’s an art form created by people, for ritual, for purpose,” said Williams.
Step Afrika! will debut a newer piece of choreography called The Movement for audiences in the DMV on the actual Juneteenth holiday. The Movement offers a chance to reflect on a more recent pivotal moment in American history. This choreography takes us back to 2020 and the congealing of people around the world after the tragedy of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others lost to police violence.
“It preserves it in a way so that we don’t forget that really transformative moment when people of all backgrounds marched around this country and pushed it towards a better or equitable union,” said Williams. “And for Step Afrika! to have choreographed a work that reminds us of the power of protest, the importance of protest, and its impact on our society is special. So I can’t wait to share this work.”
The Movement will debut in the DC area at the Strathmore in North Bethesda. The Step Xplosion features companies from around the area and up the East Coast. Lesli will be there to moderate a conversation about the performance on Monday.