Step Afrika! brings traditional percussive dance styles to the Peace Center

Written by Paul Hyde on February 4, 2024

The dances Step Afrika! will bring to the Peace Center on Feb. 13 were born of joy but also great sorrow.

One inspiration traces its roots to enslaved Black people in colonial South Carolina. Banned by law from possessing drums, which had been used as a form of communication in slave rebellions, they created a new polyrhythmic percussive dance style.

They literally turned their bodies into percussion instruments in a dance form called stepping.

“The art form of stepping largely owes its development to that moment in American history when the drum was taken away as an illegal weapon in 1740,” said C. Brian Williams, founder and executive producer of Step Afrika!

“The Stono Rebellion (which took place in the Lowcountry in 1739) and the Negro Acts of 1740 really do explain a lot about the development of the art forms — from tap dance to stepping — that Africans developed in America,” he added. “These dances are informed by the loss of the drum in African American communities.”

Featuring 12 dancers who also sing and perform on percussion instruments, Step Afrika! is celebrating its 30th year in existence with a 60-city world tour. The group’s program blends traditional percussive dance styles, practiced historically by African American fraternities and sororities, with traditional African dances and contemporary dance forms.

“This is an introduction to the art form of stepping,” Williams said, speaking by phone at the group’s office in Washington, D.C.

Williams himself was recently named a National Heritage Fellow, the highest honor presented by the National Endowment for the Arts in the folk and traditional arts.

“That award was both humbling and exciting because stepping is now recognized as a unique part of America’s cultural heritage,” Williams said. “It’s really a big and incredible year for the company.”