By Sheila Wickouski
From December 9-18, Arena Stage will host a festive, family friendly production called Step Afrika!’s Magical Musical Holiday Step Show.
Founded in 1994 by C. Brian Williams, Step Afrika! is the first professional company dedicated to the tradition of stepping. Step Afrika! blends percussive dance styles practiced by historically African American fraternities and sororities; traditional African dances; and an array of contemporary dance and art forms into a cohesive, compelling artistic experience. Performances integrate songs, storytelling, humor, and audience participation.
Ahead of the holiday performance, Williams answered a few of The Southwester’s burning questions via email. Answers have been lightly edited for clarity.
The Southwester: Since you founded Step Afrika! in 1994, as the first professional company dedicated to the tradition of stepping, the company has performed – one step at a time! – in just about all 50 states and more than 60 countries across the globe. Do you have any favorite memories or experiences?
C. Brian Williams: After 29 years of touring, some of my favorite experiences have been performing for President Barack and Michelle Obama in the East Wing, the White House’s Annual National Tree Lighting Ceremony about 15 years ago, performing for 10,000 people in Haiti just seven years after the earthquake devastated the country, and our shows in the heart of Broadway’s Theater District. Introducing the art of stepping to Broadway will always be a heartfelt memory for me.
We’ve been around the world and created many different shows, but the creation of this holiday show, the Magical Musical Holiday Step Show, is really one of my favorites. It’s the perfect way to celebrate the holidays with our hometown. And yes, we have performed in almost all U.S. states! 49 of 50, Hawaii, is on the wish list.
SW: In stepping, the body becomes an instrument, using footsteps, clapping and spoken word to produce complex polyrhythms. How did it evolve from historically African American fraternities and sororities to an array of contemporary dance forms?
CBW: It has been Step Afrika’s longstanding mission to take this art form developed by African American sororities and fraternities and introduce it to the theater. We have 14 full-time dancers who are not only wonderful step artists, but also teaching artists. Our investment in our performers and the art form allows us to take stepping to new, exciting places, and the recent NEA National Heritage Fellowship honor has helped us to continue to invest in the evolution of stepping.
SW: How can readers learn more about stepping, or even try it for themselves?
CBW: As much as Step Afrika! loves to perform, we love to work and serve our communities through arts education. We have amazing virtual and in person programs, and we are thrilled to bring back our Summer Steps program in 2023! To learn more about the history of stepping and our current program offerings, you can check out stepafrika.org/arts-education/stepping/.
SW: Do you have ongoing collaborations with other DC art venues? How is the holiday show inspired by the local community?
CBW: Step Afrika! has worked in partnership with museums and art museums all around the country. Most notable was our collaboration with the Phillips Collection and their iconic collections of paintings called the Migration series. This union led to the creation of our Migration show, which will be arriving at Arena Stage in the coming year.
The Magical Musical Holiday Step Show is really a unique standalone experience, focusing on families and fun. This is about a great time in the theater, and we are grateful for our partnership with Arena Stage to bring this to The Mead Center for American Theater for the first time. This is a new home for the holiday show, and we cannot wait to see how this show feels in that space.
I have been to lots of holiday shows around the world, but there really is no show like ours. This interactive, engaging production is the first holiday show centered around the art of stepping, and the arrival of this work to Arena Stage, in the round, is the perfect way to celebrate the holidays.