Step Afrika! takes the stage

Author: Becca Vaclavik

Step: A Joyful Act of Resistance

It’s fitting that Step Afrika!, one of the top 10 African-American dance companies in the United States, will perform on a university stage when it comes to Boulder this winter. It’s part of the form’s history after all.

Stepping–a high-powered, dynamic art form where the body is both dancer and instrument–uses stomping, clapping, and spoken word to create complex sonic choreography.

Modern step was developed by fraternities and sororities, primarily at historically Black colleges. In the 20th century, as American universities slowly opened their doors to Black students, those students launched Greek organizations as a space for support, community and pride. Stepping became part of their group ritual and eventually evolved into performances and shows. Today, it borrows inspiration from jazz, tap, hip-hop, cheerleading and more.

“As much as they are dancers, they also are musicians,” says Step Afrika! Founder C. Brian Williams. “They are both the movement and the music, and that’s the unique challenge for any percussive dancer.”

But stepping as a cultural practice has roots that run much deeper than campus communities.

Percussive movement and chanting have been part of West African folk dance for centuries and became a cultural feature of the African diaspora during the rise of slavery.

Some historians link this past to its present art form by way of the 1739 Stono Rebellion when a large group of enslaved Africans armed themselves and revolted in Charleston, South Carolina. Following the rebellion, enslaved people were stripped of the few rights they previously held, including the right to use drums. In the aftermath, they began to create music with all that remained: their histories and their bodies. (Step Afrika! examines this history and relationship in a piece in its repertoire titled “Drumfolk.”)

It’s a near-miraculous evolution that stepping has gone from an act of resistance to one of community ritual to a professional cultural export, courtesy of Step Afrika! and groups like it. Founded in 1994, it’s the first professional company dedicated to the tradition of stepping. The company has toured internationally to 50 countries and creates works that combine stepping with live music, technology and storytelling.

Step Afrika! performs at Macky Auditorium on the Artist Series on Feb. 2, 2024. 

The performance is proudly sponsored by the Center for African and African American Studies (CAAAS), partnering with CU Presents to celebrate the richness of African and African American arts and culture.