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Dance Mon Nov 16 2009

Step Afrika


Stepping is an art form that has long been a tradition of African-American fraternities and sororities on college campuses across the country. Brian Williams, founder and executive director of Step Afrika explains the history of stepping and its ties to Africa, as well as its impact on today's dance culture.

Step Afrika is the world's first professional dance company dedicated to stepping, how did the company get started?
We are celebrating our 15th year performing and teaching stepping all over the world. The company was founded in December 1994 as a way of connecting art form and culture. We also conduct outreach to children in the community.

The company is based in Washington, DC -- is there any significance to that?
I attended Howard University and am a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. The university can be considered as the cradle of black Greek organizations especially since many of them were founded there. It is simply a place that holds a special spot in terms of black Greek life, so Step Afrika is based there.

Explain stepping's historical ties to Africa and how it evolved into an American dance form.
Stepping is an art form that uses the body, hands, voice and feet to make music. It started when African-American college students would gather on college campuses--it was their way of expressing love and pride for their respective organizations. If you look at other dance forms, stepping is in a long line of percussive dance like tapping and "hambone." People try to figure out its origin, but no one can really pinpoint who started it, or which fraternity or sorority did it first. Stepping is also similar to the South African dance "gumboot," where performers dance with Wellington boots.

Stepping, of course, is mostly associated with African-American fraternities and sororities, but has crossed over into gospel step teams and music videos--even movies such as Stomp the Yard are based on it. How do you explain its appeal?
This gestation has long been coming; this dance form has roots from the early 1900s. Although it has largely remained in the college world, it's exciting to see how the tradition has spread. We can give lots of credit to Spike Lee's School Daze for this, too. As far as movies go, stepping is now mainstream, so it makes sense to me that Hollywood has taken notice. What I hope though is that it remains entrenched in the communities of those who love and appreciate it. I love the fact that it's an art form that people are excited about, but just because there's a global demand for it, doesn't mean we shouldn't also enjoy its original purpose. I've stepped professionally on stages around the world; however, I still value stepping on a college campus.

The choreography in stepping can range from basic to elaborate; I can tell it's a real workout, too.
It's an amazing workout; you're engaging your whole body. Also, you're not only the dancer; you're the musician, too!

For those who are unfamiliar with stepping, what message do you wish to bring with Step Afrika?
Stepping has been seen in many parts of the world and we want people to know they are an important part of the performance and welcome their feedback. Anybody who has ever stepped or has seen stepping should come see how Step Afrika pays homage to it. We give a very well-rounded performance that is designed to get people to yell, shout and have fun.

Step Afrika will be in Chicago this week; what will people see?
The Chicago performance will really celebrate the tradition; in fact, we named one of our pieces "Chicago," out of respect for the amazing city and its solid dance history.

What's next for Step Afrika?
We plan to create a performance that merges the Chicago "stepping" style with fraternity and sorority stepping. We embrace cultural exchange and want to put the two styles together.

Step Afrika is part of Global Rhythms and is presented by the Chicago Human Rhythm Project. The performance is at the Harris Theatre for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph. Shows are Thursday, Nov. 19 at 7:30pm, and Friday and Saturday, Nov. 20 and 21, at 8pm. Tickets are $15-$55; call 312.334.7777 or visit

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Joe Craig / November 20, 2009 3:30 AM

Excellent article and a very accurate representation of what we, in Black Greek Letter Fraternities, are providing to the dance world.

I pass by "Dancing With The Stars" on television because as a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., as well as being a Chicago Stepper, I know what real dancing is truly about.

I am looking forward to seeing the combination of the two “steps” performed.

LaShawn Williams / November 22, 2009 12:52 PM

Wow--this show was awesome! The precision/timing/choreography--excellent! I really enjoyed myself and hope the show comes to Chgo again.

Alan King / June 17, 2010 5:31 PM

"Step Afrika! Brings It Home" Please read it at

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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