C. Brian Williams loved stepping, the group dance defined by rhythmic stomps and claps that is popular with historically African-American fraternities and sororities. But it was time for him to give it up.
“Normally, when you graduate from college, your connection with the art form of stepping disappears,” he says. After graduating from Howard University in 1990, Williams moved to the African country of Lesotho and got a whole new view of stepping. “I saw a young boy doing this percussive dance. He was hitting the sides of his boots and making a rhythm,” he says. “It looked so much like stepping.”
It was actually a South African dance called gumboot. “I was shocked at how similar it was,” Williams says. “That really would be the foundation that led to the idea to say, ‘Wow, we should really create something to bring these two art forms together.’ ”
The next logical movement: Return to D.C. and start Step Afrika!, which celebrates its 25th anniversary next year. Through the years, the dance company has performed at the White House, the Kennedy Center and Strathmore, as well as on national and international tours. Before all that could happen, Williams had to create something from nothing.
“The first challenge was getting people to recognize that this was an art form,” says Williams, the company’s founder and executive director. “No one was [stepping] professionally. It was only found in a certain environment on certain college campuses at a certain time. Ninety percent of Americans didn’t know what the art form was.”
While stepping is the basis of everything Step Afrika! does, Williams wanted the company to expand the tradition.
“I think we’ve done a great job of exploring this in connection with other art forms. We’ve merged stepping with symphony, with hip-hop, with jazz,” Williams says.
And with “Step Afrika!’s Magical Musical Holiday Step Show,” running through Dec. 30, the company combines stomping with the season.
“Who wants to sit down and be quiet for the holidays?” Williams says while describing how the annual show came about in 2011. “So we wanted to create an environment where everyone can celebrate the holidays together.”
That meant staging the show in the round, with the audience surrounding the performers, to create a more intimate feel. That also meant bringing the audience onto the stage.
“We invite DJ Frosty the Snowman all the way down from the Arctic to come and DJ the performance for us. He brings the Frosty Shuffle, a dance that we teach to the audience,” Williams says. (The dance is similar to the wedding favorite Cha Cha Slide.) “So you not only get to see a great performance, you get a chance to be a part of it as well.”
The show even starts before the show even starts — there’s a workshop in the lobby 30 to 45 minutes before curtain, where kids can build a holiday-themed drum or shaker that they can use during the performance, including in a final dance party in the middle of a snowfall.
“The show is for the young, the very young, and for the young at heart,” Williams says. “It’s just a very different way to celebrate the holidays and we really try to work hard to bring that spirit into the building.”
Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE; through Dec. 30, $25-$45.
25th season’s greetings
Step Afrika! will launch its 25th season next month with a retrospective of some of the dance company’s greatest hits, including “Wade,” which merges the South African gumboot dance that started it all with stepping, tap and African-American spirituals. The anniversary celebration (Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane; Jan. 20, 5 p.m., $35-$75) also includes a performance by the Greenbelt, Md.-based step team Dem Raider Boyz, who appeared on the past season of “World of Dance” on NBC.