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When C. Brian Williams founded Step Afrika! in 1994, the step tradition — “a polyrhythmic, percussive dance form that uses the body as an instrument” — was not so well-known.
Now, 25 years later, step teams can be found all across the country — popularized by films like Spike Lee’s “School Daze” and by dance companies like Step Afrika!
Representatives from Step Afrika! join us to discuss the origins of stepping and the company’s newest production “Drumfolk,” inspired by a little-known event in history that would forever transform African American life and culture.
Produced by Julie Depenbrock
- C. Brian Williams Founder and Executive Director, Step Afrika!; @StepAfrikaHQ
- Jakari Sherman Director, "Drumfolk"
- Ronnique Murray Dancer and Assistant Choreographer, "Drumfolk"
SASHA-ANN SIMONSWelcome back. I'm Sasha-Ann Simons, in for Kojo Nnamdi. When C. Brian Williams founded Step Afrika! in 1994, the step tradition, a percussive dance that treats the body as a drum, was not so well-known. Now, 25 years later, step teams can be found all across the country, popularized by films like Spike Lee's "School Daze," which we just heard a clip from, and by groundbreaking dance companies like Step Afrika!
SASHA-ANN SIMONSJoining us to discuss the origins of stepping and their company's newest production, C. Brian Williams is the founder and executive director of Step Afrika!, the first professional dance company dedicated to the African American tradition of stepping. Hi, Brian.
C. BRIAN WILLIAMSHey, hi. How are you?
SIMONSGood. Thanks for joining us. Jakari Sherman is the director of "Drumfolk," Step Afrika's! latest production inspired by the Stono Rebellion of 1739. Hi, Jakari.
JAKARI SHERMANGood afternoon.
SIMONSAnd Ronnique Murray is a Step Afrika! dancer and the assistant choreographer of "Drumfolk."
RONNIQUE MURRAYHi, how are you?
SIMONSGood. Thanks, Ronnique. And you can join us, as well. Give us a call at 800-433-8850. Did you enjoy that clip that you heard off top? Were you tapping your feet?
WILLIAMSOh, yeah. That's a classic one.
SIMONSEmail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Get in touch with us through our Facebook Page, or by sending us a Tweet @kojoshow. Have you seen Step Afrika! perform? Tell us your experience. Brian, I'm going to start with you.
SIMONSStep Afrika! has grown to be the largest African American arts organization in the city, touring worldwide. But I'm wondering if you could take us along your own personal journey, here. Tell me, when did you first begin stepping?
WILLIAMSYeah. Well, you played a clip that's so significant to me, because that's from Spike Lee's "School Daze," released in 1988. I was actually on the campus of Howard University when that film came out. And it was like coming out for many things. It was a coming out for the tradition of stepping. I think it was the first time that most of America -- white, black, whatever color -- got exposure to this art form that, for maybe almost 80 years, had kind of been hitting on the college campus. So, if you didn't come to a college campus and weren't exposed to historically black fraternities and sororities, you may not know the tradition of stepping.
WILLIAMSSo, I'm at Howard University. Spike Lee actually came to the campus to talk about his film, and I actually went on to pledge Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. Beta Chapter, which is based at Howard University. And it was there that my journey with the tradition of stepping began. This is in 1989.
SIMONSYou mentioned a bit about the fraternity. Tell us more about the history and cultural significant of stepping.
WILLIAMSWell, stepping is an art form, percussive dance form first created by African American fraternities and sororities. And it's basically used as a way to express love and pride in these organizations. These organizations were founded in the early 1900s, most of them, when African Americans began to attend colleges and universities. And so they created these organizations to support them both academically and socially.
WILLIAMSAnd what's quite interesting about it is they chose a very African way to express themselves -- a very African American way, as we discovered later in this work, "Drumfolk" -- through the tradition of stepping. So, stepping, you know, they would gather in lines or circles and sing songs and start to create rhythms that would then blossom into what we now know as the tradition of stepping that Step Afrika's! taken all over the world to over 60 countries for the last 25 years.
SIMONSAnd we mentioned films like "School Daze," and I can recall even for some of the more new school folks...
SIMONS..."Stomp the Yard," back in '07, 2007,
WILLIAMSYeah, exactly, one and two.
SIMONSThat was a -- there was a two, wasn't there? (laugh)
WILLIAMSYeah, there was.
SIMONSIt must not have been that good, because I don't remember it. But, yes, I remember it did get me off my feet, too. Ronnique and Jakari, I'm curious, what brought you guys into the world of step? Tell me, when did you first begin dancing? Let's start with you, Ronnique.
MURRAYI actually began dancing when I was two. Cliché, but I started in the church as a praise dancer, and then I worked my way up. My mom took me to local dance schools, and I ended up in Virginia Commonwealth University, where I majored in dance and choreography. So, that's pretty much where I began stepping when I joined a sorority organization known as Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc. in 2010.
SIMONSAnd what about you, Jakari? You were in a marching band? Is that where you...
SHERMANI was in a band, yeah. Well, that was my first introduction to, like, music and drumming, percussion, as it were. But stepping -- so, I'm from Houston, Texas, right. And in Houston stepping was huge as a competitive thing when I was in high school. And so if you know anything about fraternities and sororities, community service is a big part of what they do.
SHERMANAnd so, in the, I guess, early '90s, they started creating these groups that were, like, modeled after fraternities. And so, when I was in high school, there was one of those there, and one of the things that we did was stepping. Fell in love with it, because I had been introduced to percussion and drumming, and now this was a way that I could use my body to do that.
SIMONSCan I tell you, when I was in high school -- this had to be like '97, '98 -- we had this one girl, Shadow Takisha, (laugh) if she's listening, she took this one -- so, I was raised in Toronto. So, this is Canada, where we didn't have fraternities and sororities. And so Kisha went to Florida for one summer and came back and showed us this brand new thing called stepping. And, all of a sudden, we formed this step group. We called ourselves Alcatraz...
SIMONS...because we thought we were super cool. But I fell in love with it from then. We started watching movies. We caught up on things like "School Daze" and we were, like, okay. We're in the culture. We're immersed. This is us. Let's jump to the phones. Melinda's on the line. I think she's seen one of your shows. Hi, Melina, you're on the air.
MELINDAHi, there, and thank you for brining this up on Kojo's show. I went to a Step Afrika! show three years ago at the Atlas. And we had gotten tickets on Goldstar, just looking for something to do. I went to Towson, and as a black student from Capital Heights, it was overwhelmingly Caucasians. But the step shows were what everyone got together for. When we went to the show, it was beyond amazing, the level of audience engagement. Afterwards, the cast coming down, involving kids, adults. We just had an amazing time, and definitely continue to follow Step Afrika!.
SIMONSThanks for your call, Melinda.
WILLIAMSThanks so much for coming. We appreciate that.
SIMONSDoes that sound like what you normally hear, Brian?
WILLIAMSWell, look, we love performing for our community here in Washington, D.C., and really all over the world. So, we exist to really create spaces where folks can come and enjoy this art form of stepping and how we've taken it to new and exciting places, either at the Atlas Performing Center or at the Strathmore, where we'll be on Sunday, January 12th, performing. Getting ready for that now, actually.
SIMONSOkay. And we'll touch on that in a sec. You did spend some time, though, for going back, you spent some time in South Africa, after college. And that ultimately led you to found Step Afrika!?
SIMONSHow did you make that pitch?
WILLIAMS(overlapping) I remember I had the idea for Step Afrika! on the plane coming home, from a year in Lesotho, I was living there, working. It was my first job after I graduated from Howard University. And I had come across this dance form, the South African Gumboot dance, which is also a percussive dance form, using the body and their rubber boots as an instrument.
WILLIAMSI was amazed at the striking similarities to stepping, but also amazed -- I knew nothing about the form and that they hadn't been brought together. So, I'm on the plane home. I don't have a job, and trying to figure out what I'm going to do. And I'm thinking I should start something called Step Afrika! (laugh) that would bring those two art forms together. And, you know, 25 years later we're still...
SIMONSHere we are.
SIMONSYeah. Jakari, you have a Master's Degree in ethnochoreology...
SIMONS...from the University of Limerick in Ireland. Producers are laughing at me right now. They were dying to hear me pronounce that. (laugh) What exactly is, and let me impress them, ethnochoreology? (laugh) And what motivated you to pursue that degree?
SHERMANSo, ethnochoreology is kind of the study of culture and movement and how one influences the other, in both ways. And I was really, you know, prompted by an interest in the history of stepping, like where did it come from. And so what I was interested in was a way to study that formally, like, a way to research it, just trying to looking for the best, you know, different research methodologies to do that.
SHERMANAnd I found ethnochoreology through a group that I was collaborating with that was some Irish step dancers. And they were, like, hey, there's this program in Ireland where you can, you know, focus in on percussive dance. And so I really just felt like going to a place where their traditions were also, you know, around percussive dance, would be a place where I could be understood, and where I could really kind of, you know, look more into my own form. And so I found it there, and that was really a great environment.
SIMONSYou see connections between the Irish dancing and the African American stepping tradition?
SHERMANTo some degree. I think mostly because their tradition was kind of created in, like, a competitive format, as stepping sort of flourished in what we call the step show, which is the primary forum where you would see it. And so that was the primary way that I think the similarities that I saw. Obviously, stepping has its history that goes back, which is what we're exploring in "Drumfolk." But there was some really good connections there that I saw in Ireland, as well.
SIMONSBrian and Jakari, how important is it -- you heard me just ask that question, but how important is it that people actually see stepping as an art form the way that they might interpret ballet, for example?
WILLIAMSThat's a great question. I mean, when we started this journey of Step Afrika!, it's safe to say that stepping was not considered an art form, not by the broader culture, but not even by the practitioners, members of frats and sororities. I remember me being very aggressive -- this is in the, like, early '80s, mid '80s -- and we would very much say that stepping was not dance. It was something distinct. We're not dancing. We are stepping. A very different experience. But this is a ritual. It's a tradition that we held very close.
WILLIAMSHowever, I started to recognize, as I traveled around the world, that it was a dance form. It was a dance style, and it should be celebrated and researched as such. So, I think for the past 25 years, Step Afrika! has been working hard to do that, because it is uniquely American. It is uniquely African American. And it is informed by African experience in the Americas. So, I'm excited about that tradition. I'm glad that we have raised the profile so much. So much so that, you know, there's a beautiful exhibit at the National Museum of African American History and Culture where Step Afrika! is featured through this tradition of stepping, because that's how distinct it is in the world. There's nothing quite like stepping.
SIMONSAbsolutely. Getting that spotlight. What are your thoughts, Jakari?
SHERMANI think I'm careful about this question about stepping as an art form. I think sometimes we seek to elevate things to the level of art in order to sort of justify them. And I think it is an art, but it's not just that. I think the tradition of stepping is just as important as the art of stepping. Art obviously gives us chances to challenge things about our world or to just explore our own creativity. But as a tradition -- and I think that's the unique thing about Step Afrika! -- we keep the accessibility of it.
SHERMANStep Afrika's! been able to travel all around the world sharing this with cultures all around the world using, you know, cultural ambassadors for this country. And so I think by holding onto our tradition and recognizing it as both, then we're able to take these young people and expose them, not only to the tradition, but then we're giving them an entree into the arts. So I think it's important that we hold onto both parts of what stepping is.
SIMONSThat's a great point. Ronnique, I'm interested in finding out where you stand, here. Do you see step as an art form, as well?
MURRAYYes, I do. I feel as though anything that involves moving your body, making music, whether live, recorded, I see as a dance form, yes.
SIMONSYou're listening to The Kojo Nnamdi Show. I'm WAMU reporter Sasha-Ann Simons, sitting in for Kojo. We'll continue our conversation about Step Afrika's! 25th anniversary in a moment. Stay with us.
SIMONSI'm Sasha-Ann Simons, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. I'm talking with Brian Williams. He's the founder and executive director of Step Afrika!, the first professional dance company dedicated to the African American tradition of stepping. Jakari Sherman, the director of "Drumfolk," Step Afrika's! latest production, which is inspired by the Stono Rebellion of 1739. And Ronnique Murray. She's a Step Afrika! dancer and the assistance choreographer of "Drumfolk." Nancy is on the line from Bethesda. Nancy, you're on the air.
NANCYHi. First of all, I am a retired teacher. I'm 65. I am white, and I have taught in a variety of places. And I've been amazed at the variations of dancing with your body, making movement, you know, and sound with your body, that experience. The first time I saw step was when I was teaching at Francis Scott Key Middle School. And I was amazed. You know, these were my students, and I loved my students. They were up there just (laugh) having such a good time, and they were so good.
NANCYAnd then when I got to thinking about it, I had taught before that in East Tennessee, where they had a tradition called clogging, which is, making noise with your feet. And then I remembered when I was growing up, all the old folks had a thing -- I came from North Alabama, as you can probably hear in my voice. (laugh) A lot of the old folks had a thing they called buck dancing, which was really mostly clogging, really.
NANCYAnd then, of course, we went abroad and I saw the Irish step dances and, well, that's what they are really, Irish dancing. And I was just amazed. And, of course, there's tap dancing, which I always love to watch. And I just think it's just amazing that we're all kind of connected like this.
SIMONSThanks for your call, Nancy. Appreciate your comments. Do you want to weigh in on that, Jakari?
SHERMANYeah, thank you for that, Nancy. So, this is what "Drumfolk" is largely about, exploring these connections, exploring these questions about percussive dance, and when did we begin using our bodies as instruments. We understand that in South Carolina, in 1739, there was an uprising of about 20 enslaved men from Angola. A year after that, what was called the Negro Act of 1740 was enacted. And that, in part, took away the drum as what was really, for them, a tool of insurgency, right.
SHERMANAnd, you know, as a consequence of that, the drum was taken away, and we began to do the things that we were doing before, which was making rhythm and making music, but now without the drum, putting those rhythms and those things into our bodies. And then we see the things that she was talking about, the buck dancing and what's known as the juba and the patting juba, all of these things coming out of us having replaced the drum with our bodies. And not only our bodies, but the buildings that we were in, the churches and the houses, the dwelling places that we were in, using whatever was at our disposal to make music and hold onto the culture that was, you know, restricted.
SIMONSWell, why don't we just listen to some of what you're talking about. Here's a clip from "Drumfolk."
SIMONSBrian or Jakari, can you describe what's happening here?
WILLIAMSWell, I think there, of course, you have the djembe playing a drum. And what "Drumfolk" is trying to do is when Africans first arrived in the Americas, it's clear that the drum was brought with them. They brought their culture, their traditions, their language, their music. And so drumming like that and drumming that sound was very much a part of African life.
WILLIAMSHowever, what Jakari just mentioned, the Stono Rebellion and what "Drumfolk" deals with is not only just how the drum arrived on these shores, but also talks about what happens once we get here. When the Stono Rebellion happens and the Negro Act of 1740 happens -- and these are great Google searches if anybody wants to look them up and read further into them.
WILLIAMSThen the drum is taken, literally taken away from African people in the Americas. And then the question becomes, well, what do we do then? So, "Drumfolk" explores that drum as it arrived, to some degree, what happens once the drum is taken away. And then now, as 21 century people, now that we know this history, how do we claim those rhythms? We now use bodies as a drum, but we also have the drum back within our experience. How do we bring those two together? So, it's really exciting, and, for me, I can't wait to have this conversation across the country, because it's about a part of American history that we just haven't really studied that much.
SIMONSYeah, and here's someone else who's also interested in history. Marie says in a message to us on Facebook, she says: when we were in South Africa last fall, we saw a gumboot show. We were told that the origins of the stepping were that miners in South Africa, who were not allowed to talk, communicated with each other through stomps. Clever subversion, she says. (laugh)
WILLIAMSWell, that's a great question. I mean, you know, if you would have asked a fraternity member years ago, you know, Ronnique's from Sigma Gamma Rho, where stepping comes from, they might generically just say Africa. They wouldn't say what part of Africa, what culture, which tradition. The South African gumboot dance is also an experience of African's responding to the drum not being as available. So, they started using their boots as the percussive instrument to communicate.
WILLIAMSBut, actually, South African gumboot dance is a very contemporary dance in the sense that it's only the last late 1800s, 1900s when it was developed. Which is kind of similar to stepping's development in the United States.
SIMONSRonnique, what is different about this performance, "Drumfolk," from, say, past performances, like "Migration?"
MURRAYI feel as though more "Drumfolk" is really telling the story of history, whereas -- I mean, "Migration" did the same. I would like to say it's history was through movement, both. Wow, I (laugh) ...
WILLIAMSYeah, you know, she's been a big part of the movement of both of these.
MURRAYYeah, both of them have a lot of history that was...
SIMONSThis is just further advancing the story?
SHERMANObviously, yeah, it's just another part of the story. You know, the "Migration" was about the movement of African Americans but we're kind of talking about, like Brian said, you know, what happened to the drum before that. And then we kind of bring that forward into the development of stepping, and how stepping sort of took over as a form on college campuses, like we talked about earlier. So, it's just really a part of the same story.
WILLIAMSYeah. And what I love is like, you know, Ronnique's dance in that production of "The Migration," which toured across the country. And it was very, very well received. But we stayed in a very certain timeframe there. We did the 1940's, right.
SIMONSWith "Migration" you did?
WILLIAMSHere we're going all the way from 1739, right up to 2020.
WILLIAMSSo, it's quite a jump.
SIMONSSo, with your performer hat on, Ronnique, how do you interact, I'm curious, with audiences who've never seen step? Like how do you describe what it is that you do or how, you know, do you engage them?
MURRAYWell, tell the story through my movement. As a choreographer, I always want to make sure that I'm telling the story of something to those that aren't dance-inclined, that they're leaving with understanding and not confusion of what they just watched. I can't speak for every dancer, but I know for me, I do a lot of eye contact. And I use a lot of, like, just emoting what I'm trying to convey through the movement.
SIMONSBrian, quickly tell us what else is in store for this 25th anniversary year.
WILLIAMSWell, we just got back from this amazing tour of Angola and Zambia. And this was a big year for the return to Africa. We were able to go to Angola and Zambia and really connect with traditions and cultural forms that we had not seen before. So, stay tuned. We might be incorporating them, one day. The Angolan tradition is finding its way into "Drumfolk" which I'm super excited about. It's our first time presenting movement from Angola. And their drumming tradition is very different from West African traditions and Southern African traditions. And we're presenting it out on stage. And when I hear that, it kind of transforms the space. So, I can't wait to share that.
WILLIAMSBut then we'll also be doing a lot of work in the community with children. I mean, we have our summer steps with Step Afrika! We'll be doing our tour of Washington, D.C., all eight wards. And then we come to D.C. to perform "Drumfolk." This weekend, we do an excerpt for Strathmore...
SIMONSThat's on Saturday?
WILLIAMS...which is going to be on Sunday at 5:00 at Strathmore.
WILLIAMSIt'll be our first time showing a glimpse of this work. So, if you haven't got tickets, I would highly recommend it. But then the full work comes to D.C. in partnership with Strathmore in June and July.
SIMONSC. Brian Williams, Jakari Sherman and Ronnique Murray, thank you so much for joining us.
SIMONSThis conversation on Step Afrika! was produced by Julie Depenbrock. And our segment about the D.C. attorney general's consumer protection lawsuits was produced by Cydney Grannan. Join us tomorrow, when we talk about human trafficking in the Washington region and what's being done for its victims. Plus, thousands of local people volunteer for clinical trials to test everything from vaccines to cancer treatments. Who volunteers, and why? That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Kojo returns from his 75th birthday celebration. (laugh) Thank you for listening. I'm Sasha-Ann Simons.
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