Step Afrika! returns to the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center this week for a celebration of dance with roots in African traditions during Black History Month. The rhythmic stepping tradition uses dancers' bodies as percussive instruments through marches and response choreography.
Based in Washington, D.C., and founded in 1994 by Houston native C. Brian Williams, Step Afrika! is the world's first professional stepping dance company. Most commonly found on the campuses of historically black colleges and universities, it has a strong base in black Greek organizations that use stepping as a rite of passage for pledges. Williams himself learned to step as a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, which he joined while studying at Howard University. It was an art form he thought needed to be shared with a wider audience.
“Stepping had been such a big secret of the African-American community, and even if you are in the African-American community, if you didn’t grow up near or close to [a black college] or have an active member of a fraternity or sorority in your family who likes to step, you didn’t even know about the art form.”
After graduation, Williams continued to study the history of stepping, which took him to South Africa. There he recognized some of the rhythms and movements in the South African Gumboot dance. “I was like, ‘Wait a minute — here’s a dance form that is almost exactly like stepping thousands of miles away in South Africa, and no one is talking about it, so let’s create a festival, let’s create a platform to bring those two art forms together,’ and that was the emphasis for founding Step Afrika!”
Drawing from stepping’s strong history of community, Williams makes sure Step Afrika!’s shows maintain interactive and educational components that allow the craft to be passed down to future generations through these performances.
“I approach the art form of stepping through a very traditional lens, a folkloric lens. I approach [it] like a dance that the community did as ritual,” not like a purely professional form, he says.
During the company's residence in Miami, Step Afrika! will offer a free Saturday-afternoon dance workshop to the community, open to interested dancers of any skill level. “As much as we love to be on the stage and perform, we’re equally enthusiastic about teaching children and doing workshops and master classes.”
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The company will open its Saturday-night performance with the Florida premiere of Idemo, a new work choreographed by company member Christopher Brient. Meaning “let go” in Croatian, Idemo was created during the company’s residence in that Balkan country last April.
“Idemo is a contemporary step piece that, although it has a tremendous nod to the roots of stepping, definitely pushes the art form," Williams explains. "We’re constantly innovating and looking for ways to create new artistic experiences and works for our audience.”
– Rebekah Lengel, artburstmiami.com
Copresented with Culture Shock Miami. 8 p.m. Saturday, February 13, at South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, 10950 SW 211th St., Cutler Bay. Tickets cost $25 to $50. Visit smdcac.org.