C. Brian Williams, 47, is the founder and executive director of Step Afrika!, a dance company founded in 1994 to bring the art of stepping to audiences around the region and the world He has lived in the District for 25 years.
How do you explain stepping to people who have no idea what it is?
Stepping is a percussive dance form created by African American college students who are members of fraternities and sororities. So in stepping we use our hands, our body to make music. And it’s also a way to express love and pride in the organizations. I was fascinated with it from the jump. I knew that there was something special about stepping. And that it wasn’t really known by a majority of American culture, black, white or whatever.
Prior to 1988 with Spike Lee’s “School Daze” and then really Step Afrika!’s work, stepping was kind of a secret; it was part of a secret society — fraternity, sorority systems. You couldn’t go to a studio to learn it. You couldn’t go to a theater and check it out. If you weren’t around a college campus that had a vibrant community of African American Greek letter organizations, you wouldn’t see it.
How did you end up starting a step dance company — you were a business major, right?
I was heavily involved in the arts in high school — and I really wanted to pursue that during college. But my father was a lawyer, my mother is an educator, and they thought a little different. But even though I majored in business, I always maintained a presence in the arts. I learned how to step on campus at Howard, got into it, did some step shows. Then when I graduated, I moved to Africa to teach small-business skills in Lesotho. Small little country, surrounded by South Africa. And when I got there, I saw the South African gumboot dance.
I don’t know it.
It’s also a percussive dance form, using hands and feet to make music like we do in stepping. But it’s a little more free and a little less rigid than stepping. I was really intrigued by it and decided: I’m going to create a festival. I wanted to be the first person to bring stepping to the continent of Africa.
I see you think small.
[Laughs.] Yeah, real small! So three years later, I am working with Africare here in D.C., and I’m sent back to South Africa during the run-up for the election of President Mandela. I meet the Soweto Dance Theatre and tell them about this dance form called stepping that we do in the U.S. They, of course, have never heard of it, so I showed them some steps and they were like, Oh my God, we’ve got to do something together.
I said, “Well, I have this idea to do a festival.” So I rally up some of my guys from Howard University and a couple of ladies, and we raise money and we get to Johannesburg in the summer of 1994 and had the first Step Afrika! Festival.
So the original idea really was to take stepping to Africa?
Yeah, so that’s why it’s called Step Afrika!
And the “K”?
I’m a marketing guy. So spelling with a “C” just looked kind of boring. And at the time I was doing all this reading about how “Africa” is not the original name for the continent — it was called Azania. Plus the South Africans at the time, and the black consciousness movement, were using the “K” for Africa as well. And I thought it was actually more interesting, especially when it comes to stepping, which is about straight lines and formations, boom, boom — we’re more of a “K” than a “C.”
And the exclamation point was important because for me it was a declaration: Let’s connect these two worlds together!
You perform now all over the U.S. and internationally. What are your most challenging audiences?
The toughest audience for us is when people don’t allow themselves to be a part of it. If they come so entrenched in what they expect the theater to be, which is, you come in, you watch, Shhh, don’t say anything, that’s not our kind of audience. And a lot of times, we find that it’s not that they’re not enjoying the show; they aren’t willing to break the rules as they’ve experienced the theater historically. Like you go to the ballet, it’s a pretty quiet experience; you give all the love at the end. At a Step Afrika! show, we really want you to start giving love about two minutes in.
How do you get the audience to do that?
You give people license to just get into it. So to start our show we sing this song called “Calling All Brothers and Calling All Sisters,” which is a traditional song on college campuses to call people to come to the yard and step. Fridays at noon, you’d just be sitting there in class and you would hear brothers out there singing, and, you know, that they would be gathering at the quad, so you’re just waiting for the bell to ring so that you could get out there and get into the game.
In a sense, we’re calling everyone to take part in the performance. We want you to make music with us and be a part of us. I think audiences everywhere get that.