“A Step Show from South Africa”: Step Afrika! appears in its first major article in the US for YSB Magazine

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On the heels of the 1995 Step Afrika!’s International Cultural Festival, Step Afrika! appeared in its first major article in the US for YSB Magazine, in February 1996. Following this publication, the Company received its first grant from the Fund for US Artists at International Festivals and Exhibitions and officially launched arts education programs in the United States.


A Step Show from South Africa

Written by rafiki cai for YSB Magazine, published February 1996

“For Brian Williams, 27, dance has become a tool for connecting continents, cultures, and dreams. He has no training from the leading dance troupes, nor a degree in the discipline. But Williams is a “stepper.”


Several years ago, while in Lesotho— a country surrounding South Africa— on a fellowship, Williams was exposed to South African “Gum Boot” dancing. Later, in the spring of 94, while on assignment in Johannesburg, he encountered the dance style again. He was amazed by the similarities between Gum Boot dancing and stepping styles in the U.S. Williams began to interact with members of the Soweto Dance Theater (SDT), a progressive troupe inspired by Pan-Africanist philosophical ideals. Jackie Semela, the founder of the SDT, says: “We want to raise the consciousness by keeping the traditions of the village intact. This prevents outside forces from controlling [us].


It was through his dialogue with SDT that Williams began to learn the history of the African dance. Gum Boot was developed by South African mine workers in the late 1890s. Discussion flowed on how both dance styles were so similar but still developed independently. As their talks continued, they thought of building a cultural exchange around the sharing of both experiences.


And in 1994, Step Afrika was born. Today the annual exchange is a partnership between the 10-year-old Soweto Dance Theater and the Beta chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha. “Through the experience, one comes to see dance as a powerful medium of self-expression and liberation,” says Williams. “You come to grips with the fact that dance is a part of who we are.” This sentiment is echoed by Kevin Thompson, a 24-year-old senior mechanical engineering student at Howard University in Washington, DC, and a participant in Step Afrika 94. “I came to see that every motion within a dance means something,” Thompson says. “It is indeed a language. Songs are more than just words being yelled out. They’re more like communal charts that really embody power and transform the singers.”


Thompson, a native of Mandeville, Jamaica, was fascinated with the interpersonal experiences the group encountered. “One interesting thing we found was the caricatures of Black males that are embedded in the minds of South African young men,” he says. “They would approach us with classic gangsta stereotypes, but we let them know that not all brothers in the U.S. were like that and that we were living examples of other types of Black men.” This was not a one-way proposition. Williams points out that true partnership is a big part of Step Afrika. “We work hand-in-hand with the SDT in developing this vision so that all involved come away richer.” It is with that mindset that U.S. participants learn the dances of South Africa’s various tribal cultures—the Zulu, Tswana, Sotho, Swazi, Tsonga, and Pantsula— and then share the ways of stepping with their peers.


Valerie Cassel, another Step Afrika ’94 alumni—and one of only two female participants in a group of 12—also reflects: “It was a way of bringing the legacy of visual literacy full circle,” she says. “The origins of this art is rooted in Africa. It was brought to these shores and reinvented and we were able to bring it back as a means of teaching South African youth about our experiences here in America and about the things that still link us to the continent.”



Be A Part of Our History

Founded in 1994 by C. Brian Williams, Step Afrika! is the first professional company dedicated to the tradition of stepping. Under Mr. Williams’ leadership, stepping has evolved into one of America’s cultural exports, touring more than 60 countries across the globe. To share your Step Afrika! story, visit Step Afrika!'s 30th Anniversary Timeline is made possible by the generous funding of Bloomberg Philanthropies, with additional support from the Mellon Foundation and the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities.

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