When Step Afrika! began performing nearly 25 years ago, founder C. Brian Williams couldn’t have imagined his now-famous dance company would bring the art of step to audiences around the world.
“When I founded Step Afrika! in December 1994, it’s pretty safe to say that 90-95 percent of Americans knew very little about the tradition of stepping. You never saw step in any of the nation’s theaters or performing arts centers, and the only way to really learn how to step was by becoming a member of a historically-Black fraternity or sorority,” Williams said. “Today, however, you can find stepping everywhere, in movies, at the Grammys, and even in Broadway’s legendary Theater District – thanks to Step Afrika!, of course.”
The cultural landscape has changed tremendously since Williams began building what is now one of the most prominent African American dance companies in the country. The extent to which step – a type of percussive dance that rose out of Historically Black Colleges and Universities – has been embraced will be evidenced when Step Afrika! takes the stage at the Music Center at Strathmore on January 20 to kick off its 25th anniversary season.
When asked if he ever imagined his dance company performing in a concert hall, Williams doesn’t hesitate: “I didn’t!”
“Especially when you consider stepping’s origins on college campuses, who would have imagined that a Company dedicated to this folkloric tradition would soon grace some of America’s and the world’s greatest stages,” the Step Afrika! founder continued. “I remember one time we performed in some gilded Opera House in Latvia for a major dance festival and it was the first time that stepping would ever appear on that stage. We got an enthusiastic standing ovation…and this great energy has continued on our tours all over the world.”
The retrospective performance at Strathmore will feature some of Step Afrika!’s most popular work, such as Wade, Passing 25, Nxt/Stp: Hip Hop, and Indlamu, which Williams says is a particular favorite.
“I am super excited about our performance of Indlamu, the legendary dance of Zulu warriors. Step Afrika! has been studying this art form for over 20 years and since 2019 is also the 25th Anniversary of the election of President Nelson Mandela in South Africa, it is important to me that we celebrate not just our anniversary, but that country’s incredible transformation as well,” he said. “Step Afrika! actually started off as a cultural exchange in Johannesburg, South Africa and so much of our work is centered around the sharing of American and South African art forms.”
If Step Afrika! is the trailblazer, Dem Raider Boyz Step Squad of Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Prince George’s County is the torchbearer. Indicative of Step Afrika!’s commitment to education and supporting the step community, Dem Raider Boyz will open their performance at Strathmore. The all-male high school team made headlines when it competed in NBC’s World of Dance reality competition show in 2018, which head coach Richard Melvern said was “very sudden and unexpected.”
“During [World of Dance’s] final week of casting, one of the show’s executives and casting agents reached out to us after seeing a video of Dem Raider Boyz on YouTube. After expressing interest, we sent them a submission…By the Friday of that week, we received a phone call confirming that we were selected as contestants for the show! We only had a little over a month to prepare our routines, before we were flown to L.A. for filming,” Melvern said.
Their performance with Step Afrika! is the group’s first major performance in the DC Metro area since appearing on NBC. After founding the group in 2001 as a student, Melvern has stayed committed to the group, volunteering his time as head coach. The most gratifying element of his work is seeing how youth are empowered through step.
“More than anything, almost all of the team’s alumni return and tell me how being a part of DRB effects the way they strive for excellence in every aspect of their lives,” Melvern said. “This is a team of extraordinarily high standards and lofty expectations. Being a part of the team inspires these young men to redefine what greatness is, allows them to truly see the extent of their capabilities when they put forth real effort–and as a result, they inevitably begin to adopt higher expectations for themselves in everything that they do.”
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.