Step Afrika! Celebrates 20 Years

Step Afrika! during a performance. The dance company is celebrating its 20th anniversary with the Home Performance Series on June 4 through 7 and with a student-exchange partnership with DC Public Schools and the US Embassy in Croatia. Photo: Step Afrika!

“A standard Step Afrika! show is high-energy with big impact movement,” said Mfoniso Akpan, the dance company's artistic director. “It's very interactive; it's not just about you watching.” Anyone who has seen a Step Afrika! show would agree. Whether at the Atlas Theater on H Street, area schools and universities, or theaters across the country and around the world, Step Afrika! is the first professional dance company to focus on stepping, and it makes an impact on its audiences. This year the company will celebrate its 20th anniversary with a series of performances at Howard University and a new student exchange program. 

History

Step Afrika! founder C. Brian Williams learned of stepping as a student at Howard. “I was pledging Alpha Phi Alpha when I learned how to step,” he reminisced. “That's where I became interested in the art form.” After graduating he moved to South Africa and learned gumboot dancing, a traditional style created by miners. Banned from talking, they sent coded messages by tapping their boots. In December 1994 Williams partnered with Soweto Dance Theater to bring a group of Howard students to Johannesburg as part of the Step Afrika! Cultural Festival. “Since then we've been going strong,” he said. “We are committed to preserving and performing the art of stepping.” 

Today the company has 11 full-time artists, all of whom are college graduates. “College is a great opportunity, and we chose to step for a living,” commented Akpan, who has dance background and graduated from the State University of New York at Stony Brook with a degree in biochemistry. “It sends a message that we do this on a professional level, and college can open your eyes to new possibilities.”

Performances 

“We do a lot of innovative work,” noted Akpan. “We have used multimedia elements and stepped to classical, hip hop, and other music genres.” One example of this is “Nxt/Step,” a piece that combines multimedia aspects with jazz, classical, and rock. Also, audience participation is an important part of any performance. Audience members are invited to clap, stomp, cheer, and dance along with the performers. Currently the company is working on a full-length show, “The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence.” Inspired by the painting series of the same name, “Migration” will tell the story of African Americans moving from the South to the North during the early 1900s. 

Education and Outreach

Step Afrika! is also known for its arts education and outreach programs. Through Step Afrika! Reads and Stepping with Step Afrika! the company performs at K-12 schools while promoting subjects like reading, history, and physical education. Other programs, like Step Up to College, an artist residency for middle and high school students, and Step Afrika! Scholars, a scholarship program for college students, stress the importance of a college education.

Step Afrika! is also an official US Cultural Ambassador, having represented the country and the stepping tradition before an international audience. According to its website the company partners with the US State Department, Navy Entertainment, and others to perform and conduct workshops around the world. One example is the partnership with the US Embassy of Croatia in Zagreb. Over the last four years Step Afrika! held international youth camps for students in the European Union. “We are going to give them a routine to learn and perform,” said Akpan. “It will teach them the three main points necessary in a step team and in real life: teamwork, discipline, and commitment.”

International Youth Exchange

For its 20th anniversary Step Afrika! partnered with DC Public Schools (DCPS) to send 10 students to Croatia – the first year that American students participated in the international youth camp. The all-male group came from six high schools: Banneker, Cardozo, Columbia Heights Education Campus, Eastern, Anacostia, and School Without Walls. “I am incredibly proud of the 10 young men embarking on this special journey and excited [for] Step Afrika!,” said DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson in a statement. “I am confident they will remember this experience forever.” 

Coming Home and Looking Forward

In addition to the student exchange Step Afrika! will continue the celebration with the Home Performance Series at Howard's Ira Aldridge Theatre. “This will be our first time performing at Howard,” explained Williams. “It's our biggest show of the year.” The four-day, five-performance series kicks off on June 4 with the VIP Gala, beginning with dinner at 5:30 p.m. at the Blackburn Center. The gala will continue after the 8:00 p.m. performance with drinks and dancing. The event will also feature a documentary about the company and the DCPS students in Croatia. 

Company members hope to continue their work in performance art and arts education. “I think that Step Afrika! will continue to be a thriving dance company,” declared Akpan. “Right now, I believe that we're beginning to scratch the surface.” 

Step Afrika! is based at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE, Washington, DC 20002. For more information call 202-399-7993, ext. 110; email info@stepafrika.org or visit stepafrika.org.


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