The Percussive Spirited Story of Rebellion: Step Afrika!

September 29, 2023
A group of dancers stand closely together onstage dressed in white clothing with their right arms and left legs raised, gazing downward toward the left and accompanied by a soft glow of red lighting.

Check out these featured facts surrounding Step Afrika! Drumfolk on Fri, Oct 13 at Northrop.

Video courtesy of company.

An Untold Story of Rebellion

Step Afrika!’s Drumfolk centers on “the power of the drum as a bond, a morale booster, a call to arms — and, for colonial enslavers, a terrifying force” (Washington Post). After the Stono Rebellion of 1739, enslaved Africans lost the right to use their drums as part of the Negro Act of 1740 (plus other rights, including learning to write, growing food, and assembling in groups). The beats, however, found their way into the body of the people as a reimagined source of freedom and expression. This technique, imitating the sounds of percussion using the body, resulted in some of our country’s most distinct performance traditions, like ring shout, tap, and stepping.

A group of dancers wearing creature-like costumes with pointed headwear appear onstage, facing the camera with their legs bent out toward their sides.

Photo © Jim Saah.

A Spirited Art Form

Step Afrika! is the first professional dance company dedicated to the tradition of stepping, a percussive, highly energetic art form born on historically Black college campuses (HBCUs) and developed by fraternities and sororities in the mid-20th century. Many of Step Afrika!’s full-time dancers attended HBCUs and are members of Black Greek fraternities and sororities. Spike Lee’s 1988 film School Daze is known for broadly introducing stepping to mainstream America by exploring Black college life and tackling subjects that weren’t widely discussed.

Black and white photo of Bessie Jones.

Bessie Jones on the set of “Music of Williamsburg” film, Williamsburg, Virginia, April 28, 1960. Photo by Alan Lomax. AFC Alan Lomax Collection (AFC 2004/004)

Drumfolk’s Extraordinary Teacher

Acclaimed American gospel and folk singer Mary Elizabeth “Bessie” Jones (1902-1984) coined the term “drumfolk” as a word referring to the people who practiced the song, movement, and percussive traditions of the Gullah-Geechee culture, descendants of Africans who were enslaved on the rice, indigo, and Sea Island cotton plantations of the lower Atlantic coast. As a pre-jazz, blues, and gospel movement, the percussive form combined elements of life—work, play, and praise—while acknowledging recrimination, power, and struggle. Bessie Jones often taught traditional songs, games, and stories to young people and their families in rural Southern America.

Photo © Jacob Andrew Iwinski.

Stepping into the White House

Step Afrika! was founded in 1994 by C. Brian Williams, a Howard University graduate and Alpha Phi Alpha who was inspired by the similarities between stepping and dancing he witnessed on his travels through Africa. The Washington, D.C.-based company has earned Mayor’s Arts Awards for Outstanding Contribution to Arts Education, Innovation in the Arts, Excellence in an Artistic Discipline, and was inducted into the National Association of Campus Activities (NACA) Hall of Fame, the first dance company to earn this honor. Step Afrika! headlined President Barack Obama’s Black History Month Reception in 2016 and performed at the first-ever Juneteenth Celebration at the White House. The company is featured prominently at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture with the world’s first interactive stepping exhibit.

Step Afrika dancer leading others in a dance class on stage.

Photo courtesy of Step Afrika!

Carrying on the Legacy

Step Afrika! works closely with young people worldwide to preserve the tradition of stepping and provide education on its history through programming, residencies, masterclasses, lectures, training, and discussions. For Step Afrika!’s Twin Cities visit, two K-12 student matinees will be copresented with Ordway in conjunction with the performance Oct 12-13. In addition, the company will engage in a week-long residency of workshops and classes, including a free stepping workshop for the public on Oct 9 and several classes for campus and community partners—plus Step Afrika! founder and executive producer C. Brian Williams will join a conversation as part of the University of Minnesota Spotlight Series event, Drumfolk and the Stono Rebellion, on Wed, Oct 11.