Step Afrika! brings the cultural heritage of stepping to Houston

“For three decades, Step Afrika!, the world’s first professional company dedicated to the art of stepping, has danced to the beat of a different drum.

Yet, the idiom takes on greater meaning when it comes to the troupe’s latest feature-length production, a rhythmic storytelling that will bring the past to light on the Cullen Theater stage this weekend, presented by Performing Arts Houston. The two local performances mark one of the final stops on the company’s nationwide tour as it celebrates its milestone 30th anniversary season.

Sure, stepping, a polyrhythmic percussive dance form, was made popular by African American fraternities and sororities in the early 1900s, but what motivated these college students to use their bodies as an instrument? That was the question at hand, explained the company’s founder and executive producer, Houston native C. Brian Williams.

Years of research took the team back to the Stono Rebellion in 1739, a little-known piece of history but one that massively impacted African American life and culture in the United States.

The unsuccessful slave uprising in the then-British colony of South Carolina led to the passing of the Negro Act of 1740, which revoked civil rights for enslaved Africans, one being the use of drums. Despite the banning of an instrument that served as their means of communication over great distances, the beat continued, as they began to reproduce rhythms with their own bodies.

“Ninety-five percent of audiences that we’ve been in front of, if not more, have never heard of this (the Stono Rebellion), so it’s introducing history to audiences, and for us, it’s such an important story because it gives us a tremendous sense into the development of stepping as an art form,” said Williams, who was first exposed to the cultural phenomenon as a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity at Howard University. “It’s a rich moment in history that we’re still exploring, but the art forms that developed in the wake of the drums being made an illegal weapon are incredible.”

Many of them, such as the ring shout, patting juba and hambone, appear in “Drumfolk,” which is directed by choreographer and fellow Houston native Jakari Sherman. These techniques involve stomping, clapping, shuffling, tapping, chanting and more.

The artists of Step Afrika!, as much as they are dancers, they also are musicians,” Williams said. “They are both the movement and the music, and that’s the unique challenge for any percussive dancer. We always try to be both musically intriguing and visually exciting.”

Williams’ troupe is one of the top 10 African American dance companies in the country and performs globally as an official U.S. Cultural Ambassador.

Many of the dancers also hold academic degrees in other areas of study, spanning elementary education, biology, mathematics, political science, information technology, interior design, and history, among others. This spectrum of knowledge under one roof exemplifies Step Afrika!’s commitment to education.

While in town, Step Afrika! will participate in an education residency in addition to the weekend’s performances. Following a kickoff event at the historic Eldorado Ballroom in Third Ward — recent restorations of which were headed by Williams’ brother, the local chef-restaurateur Chris Williams of Lucille’s Hospitality Group — the dancers will teach master classes at Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, the Institute of Contemporary Dance and the Imani School, founded and helmed by Williams’ mother, Patricia Hogan Williams.

I love home deeply, and I’m excited to be able to come back, especially with this production, ‘Drumfolk,’” Williams said. “It’s a really special work that has toured all over the country, and the chance to bring it to Houston was something I focused on, so I’m glad it’s happening, and I hope that it’s packed.””