Step Afrika! Celebrates 30 Years With A Rhythmic Homage To History And Culture


Written by Oumou Fofana, Published March 19, 2024

Step Afrika! began as the Step Afrika! International Cultural Festival in Johannesburg, South Africa, in December 1994, just six months after Nelson Mandela’s election as president. Fast-forward three decades, and they have become the primary reason that *stepping was brought beyond college campuses and into the masses of American theater and over 60 countries worldwide.

The Washington, D.C.-based arts company is dedicated to the African American tradition of stepping. It is a non-profit organization that tours nationally and internationally, using stepping as an educational tool while providing residencies and workshops worldwide.

C. Brian Williams, the founder and executive producer of Step Afrika!, lived in South Africa for a few years before the company was created when he first saw a performance of the gumboot dance. The Gumboot dance, created by miners, is a South African dance style performed by wearing wellington boots. “It was a really, really fascinating dance form that I was just shocked by. It’s a percussive, polyrhythmic dance that looks a lot like stepping, so I was really struck at the similarities,” he tells BET. “In 1994, which was a couple years later, I was living and working in Johannesburg and that’s when I met the founders of the Soweto Dance Theater and we collectively said, ‘Let’s bring these two art forms together and see what happens.’ That was Step Afrika’s! birth and is centered around cultural and artistic exchange.”

In 1996, the company moved to the United States. Since then, they have been able to perform for three presidents. They were featured in former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama’s 2016 Black History Month reception. In 2023, they performed for President Joe Biden’s first-ever concert at the White House honoring Juneteenth. “It’s been an interesting journey taking step into the White House. Those were some big moments for us,” Williams adds. “The one with Obama was surreal because we were actually performing inside of the White House. We had performed outside on the grounds before, but it was my dream to perform inside.” D.C.’s Arena stage is Step Afrika’s! current artistic home and the place where all their performances in the area will happen for the next three years.



Before the work of Step Afrika!, stepping was only accessible through commercial TV and Black Greek-letter organizations’ step shows on HBCU campuses. Step Afrika! is celebrating 30 years of performing and teaching worldwide with a rhythmic homage to history and culture. To honor this accomplishment, they recently launched an interactive timeline on their website with highlighted milestones and performances from touring across the globe. They’ll also return to Southern Africa with a three-county tour to celebrate 30 years of South Africa as a free democracy.

Back in 2011, Step Afrika! designed a home performance series themed along the lines of Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series – a completed series of 60 small tempera paintings with text captions about the Great Migration, the mass movement of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North that began between 1915 and 1916. Artistic Director Mfoniso Akpan, who joined the company in 2005 as a dancer, said they’ll bring the production back to tour. “We’re really excited about it. We get to merge performing arts with visual arts and really bring those paintings to life on stage,” she tells BET.

The Jacob Lawrence Migration Series is set to begin this June at the Arena Stage. “It’s an amazing experience. If you have an opportunity to see it, you need to come and see it live. It’s enriching,” Akpan adds. We are storytellers. We are letting the public know about American history, which is really important. And we’re doing that through stepping.”

According to research done by the people of Step Afrika!, Williams and Akpan believe that the origin of stepping was a slave language. “Step Afrika! through its years has tried to answer the questions of where and how stepping began. But as you can imagine, no one sat down and wrote, ‘Hey, at this particular moment in time, stepping started,’’ Akpan says. She adds that their discovery led them to learn that in 1740, the drum was taken away from African people through an event called the Stono Rebellion of 1739, which occurred in South Carolina. Twelve enslaved Africans of Angolan origin had enough and wanted to secure their freedom by marching further south to Florida.

“They used the drum as a calling mechanism to gather more and more people to fight this rebellion as they were moving towards their freedom. Unfortunately, they did not succeed in making it down to Florida, but because the enslavers saw how powerful the drum was to that rebellion, they came up with a series of laws which fell under the Negro Act of 1740 and banned the use of the drum,” Akpan says.



“When we look at taking the drum away from these enslaved Africans, there has been innovation in terms of how we can still keep those rhythms going. Those rhythms that were played on the drum subsequently moved to the body and moved to structures called a praise house, where you would have a wooden floor and a stamping stick and you would beat out the rhythms of the drum. Therefore changing that space into a big live drum.”

She continues, “You can see a long line of early African American percussive traditions coming out of this. Besides stepping, you see the hambone, patting juba, tap, buck dancing, and jazz, starting to extrapolate later on into the years. These other art forms came to fruition and we can basically get it to this singular moment in history.”

Williams adds that when he first started Step Afrika!, none of this information was popular knowledge. For the last 30 years, it’s been their goal to get this out to more people who may not know where stepping comes from and how it developed in the U.S. “We are trying to provide those answers,” he says. Step Afrika! is currently on a 60-city tour across the country. They’ve been traveling everywhere from the Deep South to the Midwest, Upper Northwest, and West Coast.

 “We go on these tours and talk to people about African American fraternities and sororities and how that art form developed when African Americans first began to go to colleges in the early 1900s. We tell them stories. There’s a lot of history that we tell and the role of college in shaping this really unique dance form called stepping.” Williams says.

Akpan adds, “The beauty of it is that we’re not just talking about it, we’re presenting it and showing it in our performances. You’re seeing these concepts and this history live on the stage. These dancers that we have in the company are the ones that are really taking this across the country.”