Step Afrika! Brings the Mesmerizing, Percussive Dance Form to Wortham Stage

THERE’S A MOMENT in Terence Blanchard’s opera Fire Shut Up in My Bones, which made history in 2021 as the first opera by a Black composer to be performed by the Metropolitan Opera, when the singing stops and a step dance — a highly energetic percussive dance form created by African American fraternities and sororities — takes center stage. It’s a thrilling scene that inspired a standing ovation each night of the opera’s sold-out run.

For C. Brian Williams, founder and executive producer of Step Afrika!, the world’s first professional company dedicated to the tradition of stepping, seeing step on the opera stage was a welcome and natural evolution of the form. “Prior to Step Afrika!, Broadway and the American Theater would never even consider stepping as a form to be used in their productions,” says Williams. “We’ve proven that stepping has unlimited artistic possibilities.

On Oct. 27 and 28, Step Afrika! lands in Houston to present Drumfolk, which recounts the history of stepping and earlier percussive dance forms, including pattin’ Juba or hambone, the ring shout, and tap. Beginning with the Stono Rebellion of 1739, which lead to the Negro Act of 1740 and the transformation of African life in the United Colonies, audiences will see the evolution of step in the context of history and in the bodies of the dancers. “It’s a story of resilience,” says Williams.

The upcoming performances are also a homecoming for Williams, who grew up in Southeast Houston, and whose family roots run deep in the city: His mother Patricia Hogan Williams is the founder of The Imani School, a private elementary and middle school dedicated to reducing the drop-out rate of African-American teens, and his father is a successful criminal defense attorney. And readers are likely familiar with Williams’ brothers, Chris and Ben, who co-founded Lucille’s restaurant, its menu inspired by the soul food cooked by their great-grandmother Lucille B. Smith, a pioneering chef and businesswoman.

“Growing up in Houston, the arts have always been a part of my life,” says Williams, who as a child, attended performances at Jones Hall, Miller Theatre, and the Alley Theatre. “But at the same time, learning African American history and culture has always been pivotal in my home.” Williams points out that 30 or 40 years ago, African-American history wasn’t given much focus in school curriculum. “My parents were very intentional about making sure I got those history lessons outside of what I was learning in school.”

Williams first saw stepping when he walked onto the campus of Howard University, home to several fraternities and sororities where stepping was born. A business major who had not lost his love for the arts, Williams soon learned to step as a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. – Beta Chapter and would go on to found Step Afrika! in 1994 as an exchange program with the Soweto Dance Theatre of Johannesburg. Now based in Washington, D.C., Step Afrika! has toured over 60 countries, headlined President Barack Obama’s Black History Month reception at The White House, and most recently, earned the 2023 Mayor’s Arts Awards for Outstanding Contribution to Arts Education, Innovation in the Arts, Excellence in an Artistic Discipline.

Williams believes stepping, like jazz and every other African-American art form, is a constantly evolving tradition. So what is the future of stepping? “That depends on the next generation, and how they embrace the tradition,” says Williams. “For Step Afrika!, our role is to preserve and promote this tradition of stepping as a uniquely American art form.”

In addition to two performances of Drumfolk at the Cullen Theater, Wortham Center, Performing Arts Houston is hosting a welcome party for Step Afrika! on Oct. 24, beginning at 6 pm at the historic El Dorado Ballroom, with mini performances by the Edison Foundation Tappers, SWAGG Boiz, and Step Afrika! It’s a free event, but registration is required.