When the brothers of the fictional Gamma Phi Gamma Fraternity joined together in rhythmic unison, clapping and stomping, in a scene from Spike Lee’s 1988 film School Daze, for many it served as an introduction to the art form of stepping.
The sharp, synchronized body movements, mixed with call-and-response, are characteristics of stepping, which may have been new to many School Daze fans, but not to members of black Greek-letter organizations, who are credited with creating the art form.
Step Afrika! founder C. Brian Williams remembers when he was introduced to stepping, not long before Lee’s hit premiered in theaters. Williams saw the art form up close and personal as a young member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, the first black Greek-letter organization.
“I pledged in 1989. Stepping was not as popular in the culture as it is today. If you were not on a college campus, then you might not know the tradition of stepping,” Williams told The Root. “School Daze brought stepping to mainstream society. We picked up on that.”
Williams’ “we” is Step Afrika!, the dance company that is celebrating its 20th anniversary. The troupe is known for mixing stepping with African traditional dance and other dance forms.
Not long after graduating from Howard University, Williams started realizing the dream of Step Afrika!, but he admitted that he was met with some opposition.
“When we first started in 1994, there was a tremendous reluctance to share the tradition of stepping,” said Williams, whose fellow Greeks were concerned that the true meaning of their ritual would be lost when shared with those who hadn’t pledged.
“‘This is something I only do with my fraternity brothers. I only step with my organization,’” Williams recalled hearing from skeptics. “There’s a lot of pride in this art form.”
Twenty years later, Step Afrika! has taught more than 300,000 children worldwide the art form of stepping. As with the Greek-letter organizations that founded it, Williams said that stepping teaches teens and young adults about unity.
Though stepping is now more mainstream, being featured in films and taught in high schools as an extracurricular activity, Williams said that fact hasn’t stripped away the importance it carries for sorority and fraternity members.
“It really is about the intent and the purpose of the art form … it has a purpose for a community,” he explained. “Stepping is constantly in development. It demonstrates how African African Americans are. Despite years of oppression and division in this country, we still found a way to gather collectively to create songs and rituals through movement together.”
That’s something Williams witnessed on a trip to Africa when he first saw the South African gumboot dance. “I was amazed at how similar that was to stepping, but I knew they were not directly related. Both dance traditions use the body as a drum. I created Step Afrika! to bring the two art forms together.”
Two decades later, he’s still sharing the art form with others, with the support of fellow fraternity and sorority members. “We carried this collegiate art form to the world’s stage,” he said.
Step Afrika! is currently touring in its hometown of Washington, D.C., doing a series of free shows, including one at 8 p.m. this Friday at Starburst Plaza, on the corner of Benning and Bladensburg roads Northeast.