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Arts & Culture

Step Afrika! Returns To Children's Theatre

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Step Afrika!
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It’s been 20 years since C. Brian Williams, an American, founded Step Afrika! in the dusty township of Soweto, South Africa. In the two decades since, he has taken the African American art form of stepping to diverse audiences around the globe.

On Nov. 7 and 8, the Step Afrika! dance company will conduct three performances at Children's Theatre of Charlotte. Check www.ctcharlotte.org for dates and times.

On Nov. 7 and 8, Williams will bring his Washington, D.C.-based dance company to Children’s Theatre of Charlotte for three performances. It will be the troupe’s third stop there in four years.

But the story of Step Afrika! is about far more than the percussive dance steps common among sororities and fraternities on black college campuses. It’s also the story of one man’s effort to bridge two cultures and two continents with a common artistic theme.

Williams, who graduated from Howard University and is a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, spoke with Qcitymetro by phone this week in advance of his Charlotte visit. Here’s some of what we talked about:

In the beginning:

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C. Brain Williams

Williams was fresh out of college and working in the tiny nation of Lesotho, which lies completely within the borders of South Africa, when he saw a small boy dancing by the side of a road. Williams had been sent there on a teaching fellowship, and he was looking for a way to better connect with his students.

As a fraternity man, Williams saw a striking similarity between the small boy’s dance moves and the fraternity steps he learned at Howard. Although Williams didn’t know it then, the boy was performing a South African Gumboot Dance, a synchronized set of steps, stomps and claps devised by impoverished male laborers, typically clad in rubber boots, who spent their days working deep underground in South African gold mines.

When Williams later showed his students his own step moves, they were amazed.

“As a teacher trying to connect with them as an American and all that, after that experience, I was shocked by how much they connected with me,” he said. “It was like, all of a sudden, there was no question; I was their brother.”

Step Afrika! is born:

Four years later, just after Nelson Mandela was elected South Africa’s first black president, Williams teamed with the Soweto Dance Theatre to do local productions. The idea, he said, was to create a cultural exchange. And from that, the Step Afrika International Cultural Festival was born.

But before Williams could launch his festival, he would need to go home and recruit some of his fraternity brothers to help him teach and perform.

“I get back to the States and I’m like, ‘We’re going to go step in Africa.’ And they were like, ‘I’m with you, but how?’” he recalled.

Williams said he and his fraternity brothers raised $16,000 to fund their trip. “Total grass roots,” he said. “No grants, no big funders. Just total boot straps.”

The fraternity members all stayed in one apartment they rented in South Africa’s Yoeville community, a trendy area then popular among the country’s burgeoning artists.

In addition to teaching American-style stepping to children in South Africa, Williams and his fraternity brothers also learned traditional African dances, sometimes fusing one with the other to create an Afro-American hybrid.

“It was a crazy time,” he said. “There was all this young energy, and we were just trying to make it happen. Nobody was getting paid. We were just doing it. All we wanted to do was bring the people together, connect. And it was so empowering.”

Williams said it also had an impact on the Americans.

“It was totally revolutionary,” he said. “It changed all of their lives. Most of my frat brothers didn’t even have passports at that time.”

Williams said, “We loved it so much we started doing it every year,” and he kept the festival going for the next nine years.

During those same years, Step Africa! also was building a name for itself back home in the United States.

What Charlotte can expect:

Forget what you think you know about theatrical performances, Williams says. Step Afrika! is unlike anything you’ve seen, even if you’re somewhat familiar with college step shows.

Whereas a typical college step routine might last a minute or two, a single Step Afrika! routine might go on for 10 minutes or more. Williams said the performance is a journey into the past, present and future of step dance.

“We’ve spent the last 20 years really exploring and investigating this tradition, and that has produced a show we have taken all over the world,” he said.

“If you don’t know what stepping is, you will definitely enjoy our show because you get a chance to see what we consider to be a uniquely American art form,” he added. “You learn about its history on college campuses and in African American fraternities and sororities.”

And unlike traditional theater, Williams said, Step Afrika! thrives on audience participation.

“We like to say that the more energy an audience gives us, the more energy we can give back to them,” he said. “So it’s an exchange.

“That’s what makes it such a great family show,” he added. “You don’t have to tell your kid ‘ssshhh’ at any point in the Step Afrika! show. They can make as much noise as they want to. They can have a good time.”

William said the 11 full-time artists who make up his troupe are “some of the best steppers in the world.”

“A lot of our steppers are also percussionists, so they drum and bring that talent to the show,” he said. “Some of them have been classically trained in modern and ballet. And others are pure, pure steppers, and they bring that energy to the performance.”

Back to Africa:

Williams said he recently journeyed back to South Africa to explore resurrecting Step Afrika! there. He said the festival died, in part, because the end of Apartheid opened up new government-funded troups for the country’s black artists. But 20 years after its birth, Williams says he has not forgotten the heady days when he and his fraternity brothers performed only for the joy of performing.

“Something we do all over the world we learned to do in the township,” he said.

This story was produced as part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance, with support from the Wells Fargo Foundation.