How Step Afrika! Became Washington’s Largest African-American Arts Organization

The dance group celebrates its 20th anniversary in June.
How Step Afrika! Became Washington’s Largest African-American Arts Organization
Step Afrika celebrates its 20th anniversary in June. Photo by Tony Powell, courtesy Step Afrika.

Twenty years ago, C. Brian Williams merged two art forms that were created thousands of miles apart–stepping and the South African Gumboot dance. Though the origins of stepping trace back to African-American fraternities and sororities, Williams—an Alpha Phi Alpha member—discovered similar moves when he traveled to Africa. So he decided to combine the two.

“When I saw the South African Gumboot dance… I was amazed at how similar that was to stepping,” Williams says. “Normally you put on a great song, and your body will tell you what to do. In stepping, you have to be both the dancing and the music. That’s the major difference [between stepping and dancing]. In stepping, you move to the music that you create.”

Flash forward to today, and the Step Afrika! founder has exposed thousands across the globe to stepping. And now it’s time to celebrate the dance troupe’s legacy. From June 4 to 7, Step Afrika commemorates its anniversary with five performances at Howard University’s Ira Aldridge Theater.

Considered the largest African-American arts organization in Washington, Step Afrika was founded as more than a dance group. Their success can partly be attributed to a long-standing mission: Williams hopes to educate young people about stepping, which he believes stresses “team work, commitment, and discipline.”

“Arts education… That’s what came first before we were doing performances at the Kennedy Center and in Johannesburg, South Africa. We were doing outreach with children in schools,” he says.

That’s exactly why Williams took 10 local kids to Croatia this April, as part of a partnership between DC Public Schools, Step Afrika, and the Embassy of Croatia. This was the troupe’s third annual trip–and the plan is to keep on taking students in the future. “It already has been life-changing for them… It’s a very unique way to connect DC students with their peers around the world,” Williams says. “Whether we’re in Madagascar or whether we’re on Monroe Street, the hidden message for us is the importance of academics. Behind every great stepper should be an even greater student.”

Williams, who has been in the DC area for more 25 years, says that’s how he gives back to the city where he was first introduced to stepping. “Our charge is to represent the nation in events all around the world,” he says. “DC is known for a lot of things, especially politics, but it hasn’t really been known for arts.”

Though education is clearly an important part of Step Afrika’s mission, Williams also prizes entertainment. “We want audience members to enjoy their time with us. Step Afrika is very interested in breaking that fourth wall of the theater. We’re trying to dance together. We want you to leave feeling uplifted,” he says.

Step Afrika celebrates its 20th anniversary with five performances in June at the Ira Aldridge Theater. Tickets are already sold out for Thursday night’s performance, but are still available ($20 to $42.50) for Friday through Sunday.

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