Step Afrika! stepping out this fall
World-renowned troupe, with roots in Greek-letter step shows, debuting new work
Step Afrika! has performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., the Lincoln Center in New York, international audiences in Europe and the White House for President Barack Obama and his family.
The dance cast, one of the top 10 black troupes in the world, takes the college Greek-letter art form of stepping by predominantly black fraternities and sororities to another level. Many of the dancers, now out of school, initially had been accountants, educators, medical professionals or marketing specialists who decided to step out professionally.
It’s the first professional organization devoted solely to the craft of stepping. But before you take that first dance step, you need an entrepreneur who thinks outside the box.
Step Afrika!’s founder and executive director is C. Brian Williams, a Howard University alumnus who had worked for a marketing-communications firm but was smitten by the performing arts genre. “Now,” Williams told The Undefeated, “it’s not work; it’s a passion.”
And now, Williams’ Step Afrika! ensemble is preparing for a return engagement of the Migration step show in the autumn, beginning in Washington as the first stop on a world tour.
The Migration is a step show based on the paintings of treasured artist Jacob Lawrence. His 60 paintings, displayed on cardboard panels, are titled The Migration of the Negro, an ambitious, artistic exhibit that chronicled the Great Migration of millions of black folks from the rural South to the urban North during the 50-year era from post-World War I to 1965.
Half of Lawrence’s Migration panels belong to The Phillips Collection in Washington, with the other 30 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Step Afrika! partnered with those entities to transform Lawrence’s conceptual art form to dance.
Williams, a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity at Howard, explained, “Stepping is a highly energetic, polyrhythmic, percussive dance form.”
That means “a textured, interdisciplinary dance piece in which lightning-fast hand claps, intricate footwork, percussive chants, and perfect synchronicity echo themes of locomotion, flight, struggle, and, ultimately, hope.”
The dance troupe may form three lines on stage, with each line creating its own rhythm. Add a few thumping South African drums, and, together, this diverse fusion forms a most unique sound. The dancers wear shoes for stepping but go barefoot when performing traditional African dances.
Artis Olds, a 30-year-old dancer for Step Afrika!, got his start in stepping as a fifth-grader participating in a talent show in his hometown of Chicago. He later attended Central State University in Ohio, majored in broadcast media and joined Alpha Phi Alpha.
He elevated his game, as his Alpha team won the Sprite Step Off, billed as America’s largest stepping competition. After graduation, Olds worked for a year in the Central State admissions department before joining Philip Morris as part of its corporation’s sales/marketing team for three years.
But Olds, a drum major in Central State’s marching band, had a calling.
A call to step professionally. After all, Olds figured he already had performed in about 75 step shows in college.
“I was very involved on campus with stepping,” Olds told The Undefeated. “I was on a team that competed on a very high level. I thought it was time for a change.”
He auditioned for Williams’ Step Afrika! troupe in 2012 in Washington. Four years later, Olds said, he has performed in 24 countries and in 45 states.
Said Olds, “I read somewhere the other day that the average person will visit eight states during a lifetime. I have five more to go to hit 50; I’m going to get it, thanks to Step Afrika! and Mr. Williams.”
Taking stepping worldwide
Williams, 48, is hoping to spread the message of stepping internationally. Step Afrika!, in its 22 years of shows, has performed in 70 countries, including Croatia, in the past five years. With the help of the U.S. embassy in Croatia, Williams’ troupe has become a magnet for other European nations.
He has set up an annual one-week stepping boot camp in Croatia, in which teenagers from Germany, Belgium, Slovenia, Russia and other nearby nations converge to learn the stepping game. “It’s all about community,” Williams said. “With its roots in Africa, we wanted to connect stepping to the rest of the world.”
The past couple of years, Step Afrika! has taken 10 to 20 students from the Washington D.C., public school system to Croatia to participate in the boot camp.
Williams, a marketing specialist, said he came up with the idea for a dance troupe after he graduated from Howard in 1990. He was teaching business development in Lesotho, a small country encircled by South Africa, during the apartheid regime.
He saw how black South African miners in that natural-resource-rich country would make music with their knee-high, thick rubber footwear called gumboots, a New Zealand term for the boots that protected them from the flooding, grime and mud in the mines. The miners’ rhythmic movement was called the gumboot dance.
“They strike their boots with their hands,” Williams explained, “It sounds like a thud, a deep bass sound.”
They sang as they worked, mining for gold, platinum, diamond, copper, coal and other precious metals and minerals. During breaks from work, they broke out the dance, which dates to the 1800s. The miners also used the dance to relay messages to their colleagues. They took the “whistle while you work” mantra to heart.
Williams stepped up to the plate
Williams’ epiphany for a stepping company occurred in 1991, but it took three years to bring to fruition. In 1994, he founded Step Afrika!, spelled with an exclamation point and a “k” to be different. It has blossomed despite the usual ups and downs confronting a start-up.
Williams’ Step Afrika! became his full-time occupation only 10 years ago, with the troupe emerging as an educational and motivational force for young folks around the world.
First lady Michelle Obama repeatedly has praised the arts as an essential learning tool, saying, “I’ve said many times before, arts education is not a luxury, it’s a necessity. It’s really the air many of these kids breathe. It’s how we get kids excited about getting up and going to school in the morning. It’s how we get them to take ownership of their future.
“So this is real. And it’s critical. And it should be something that every kid has access to … ”
Olds remembered the White House gala as his most memorable event.
“Performing at the White House was an amazing experience. The most amazing part of the day was performing in the Blue Room for the president and the first lady in their last Black History Month in the White House,” said Olds. “It was great to shake hands with them and engage in brief conversation. And take a few photos.”
Williams recently set up the Step Afrika! Scholars Program. It’s open to full-time students at colleges and universities who previously had attended a Step Afrika! performance while in school. Step Afrika! performs at 30 to 40 colleges each year.
The scholarship winners, composed of all races at predominantly white schools and historically black colleges, each receive $500.
Step Afrika! features 11 dancers — seven men and four women. Williams aims to expand the troupe to 15 or 16 in time for the new season, which begins Aug. 1. Auditions are being held in Washington.
The hardest part of Olds’ job?
It’s maintaining that laserlike focus on the smallest of details in the sound of music. “With stepping,” he said, “most of the time, we are the musical instruments. So we have to concentrate on stepping and making the music.”
Olds, a basketball and football player in high school and a volleyball player in college, is enjoying his offseason, along with his fellow troupers. The five-week span, beginning the last week of June, provides a time for healing and recharging their bodies, similar to pro athletes.
Then, on the first day of August, like NFL players returning for summer training camp, the steppers return to work on fundamentals, polish up their act, install new artistic expressions and re-acclimate their bodies to performing on stage for 90 minutes without intermissions.
They will need the practice, because Step Afrika! is partnering with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for a step show conceptualized from Duke Ellington’s 1960 Nutcracker Suite, in which the renowned pianist, composer and bandleader arranged the classic Nutcracker ballet songs into a cool jazz interpretation.
“I’m excited because I’m the choreographer for this project,” Olds said.
Just in time for Christmas.
Most of the current dancers were members of black fraternities and sororities at schools around the nation, including Texas A&M, Howard, Oklahoma State and Bowie State. So they were into the college stepping scene.
This includes Williams, who ultimately decided to follow his dream step by step, instead of a regular 9-to-5 job.
“It’s been a fun journey to help the company find its way,” Williams said. “It’s interesting when you turn your passion into your full-time job.”