Penn State College of Arts and Architecture
Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State

Step Afrika’s C. Brian Williams discusses a rebellion’s role in the history of percussive dance

By Heather Longley

Since its formation in 1994, professional dance troupe Step Afrika! has used the percussive and polyrhythmic stepping genre to promote awareness and discussion of African-American history and the evolution of the art form.

In celebration of its twenty-fifth anniversary, Step Afrika! will tour its newest program, Drumfolk, to more than ten cities nationwide. The Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State will host the world premiere on January 31 at Eisenhower Auditorium. Free community engagement events are also scheduled during the company’s week-long residency in State College.

The concept of Drumfolk was inspired by an incident of activism by enslaved Africans in a young America and the resulting slave legislation. When a group of twenty Angolan slaves rose up against their oppressors—in what history calls the Stono Rebellion of 1739—the slavers responded with the Negro Act of 1740. Black slaves now saw restrictions to their social interactions, education, food cultivation, and even to playing their drums.

C. Brian Williams, Step Afrika! founder and executive director, says the company made the decision to premiere the event at Penn State because of the University’s commitment to diversity. “Plus, I understand that there is a strong tradition of stepping found on Penn State’s campus, so we look forward to connecting with that community,” he says.

In the recent interview with the Center for the Performing Arts, Williams discusses the history of the African Drumfolk, the significance of their instrument, and how his Washington, D.C., company’s presentation of Drumfolk came to be.

Question: Can you explain the significance of drums in African culture, and among the enslaved Africans in America, leading up to the prohibition of their use?

Answer: Many say that the drum is the world’s oldest instrument and, in my travels and work around the world, nowhere does the drum play such a dominant cultural and artistic role as on the continent of Africa.

When Africans first came to the Americas, they brought their culture, their language, their customs, and their drums with them. Sadly, we don’t get lots of structured exposure on how African traditions first landed here and how they transformed along with what would soon become the United States of America.

Drumfolk is Step Afrika!’s way of capturing some of this history and exploring the transformation from being an African people into a newly developing African-American culture. Our research into the Stono Rebellion of 1739 and the subsequent Negro Act of 1740 provides us with some clues as to when this process began.

Q: Do each of the percussive moves have specific meaning (similar to, say, some moves in Indian classical dance)? Were the movements and percussive actions a form of language/code or more of a cathartic response/release?

A: To answer fully, we would need to decide which “percussive moves” we are discussing. One key question that inspired Step Afrika!’s production of Drumfolk is “When did African Americans begin to use the body as a drum and why?” A deep reading of the Negro Act of 1740 gives us several hints as to why percussive dance traditions like the ringshout, tap, patting juba, and stepping exist in the first place. Once the drum was literally stripped away from African people in the “New World,” they began to seek other ways to reclaim and embody the drum. Hence, the Drumfolk.

Q: Were the post-prohibition percussive performances seen as an angry or aggressive art form? Was the art form seen (from the slave owners’ perspectives) as rebellious in itself? Did the slaveowners understand the art form or try to shut it down?

A: We need the Penn State scholars to answer this question! But, from Step Afrika!’s research, when the Negro Act was passed in the then-British colony of South Carolina, the legislation became somewhat of a model for how the “peculiar institution of slavery” would be practiced in the American colonies. Once the drum was made an illegal weapon, Africans were forced to adjust and oftentimes “hide” their true, often rebellious, intent. Such hidden messages are also found within another unique American song tradition, the African-American spiritual.

Q: I watched the Smithsonian Institution’s “Long Conversation” interview between you and celebrated researcher Jean Bennett, in which you share an optimism for the future (in terms of inclusivity) in spite of our country’s issues today. Do you still hold that optimism, or how have current events swayed or cemented your perspective?

A: Without question! No current event or isolated political turmoil will ever dampen my optimism for a bright, better, and deeply inclusive future. I have traveled and connected intensely with so many cultures that I know that we share much more in common than not. And the theatre is my favorite place to bring different cultures and perspectives together for a beautiful, shared experience.

Q: What has changed since the company’s inception twenty-five years ago, and where do you see the troupe going? What would you like to see for the dancers in the future?

A: Who knows? When I first started Step Afrika! I had no idea that we would one day perform at the White House for President Obama, nor have an interactive exhibit at the largest museum dedicated to African-American history in the world. I also had no idea that Step Afrika! would be one of the largest African-American dance companies in the world today and a cultural ambassador for the United States. I can only hope that our work continues to inspire and connect with audiences across the globe. That would be the biggest gift for me and the artists of Step Afrika!

Heather Longley is a communication specialist at the Center for the Performing Arts.