Although Overture Center does its best to play safe, every now and then the performance palace's programmers go out on a limb and bring in an edgy, must-see show. Step Afrika! is one of those. Steeped in African American history, mashed up with South African roots and slicked with contemporary production values, this rhythm company serves up a supersize shot of soul. Hot off its Windy City stint, which mostly reaped rave reviews, the D.C.-based, 15-year-old company brings three daytime school shows to the Capitol Theater Thursday and Friday, plus a public performance at the same venue on Dec. 4.
Stepping's just one form in a long line of percussive dance traditions like hoofing, hambone and hand jive, all descendants of the diaspora, plus plantation drum prohibitions. Stepping got its start early in the 20th century as a means for members of black Greek organizations to express pride in their clubs, says Step Afrika! founder and executive director C. Brian Williams.
"Stepping's about teamwork, discipline and commitment. At heart, it's a series of basic movements done in unison. It's a very folkloric, African tradition. You can't learn it in a dance studio - to do it, you have to understand the culture."
As a student at Howard University Williams joined Alphi Phi Alpha, one of nine historically black fraternities in the U.S. "We were involved in community service and dedicated to scholarship and brotherhood," he says. "Education came first. I majored in marketing. But I also learned how to step."
What inspired Williams to start the company - the first of its kind - was a post-graduation fellowship year in South Africa. "I saw a young boy dancing by the side of the road. It looked a lot like stepping. I was fascinated! That's how I learned about South African gumboot, done by men who work in the mines. I needed to find a way we could share these dance forms. So I started Step Afrika!, in partnership with Soweto Dance Theater."
Today Step Afrika! is D.C.'s cultural ambassador to South Africa. The company often performs in orphanages outside Pretoria and schools in Soweto's townships, as well as at the historic South African State Theater. In the States the company plays major venues like the Kennedy Center in its hometown, plus college campuses and small community-based venues across the country. Education's a huge part of its mission. "We teach thousands of students every year, in all kinds of multipurpose rooms and cafeterias," Williams says.