Bringing Step Afrika! to a Juneteenth celebration means a lot to the dance troupe’s co-founder and executive director, C. Brian Williams.
Williams, whose troupe will be at Haddad Riverfront Park in Charleston on Monday, said, “It’s always important to reflect on really momentous days in our country’s history.”
Juneteenth commemorates the June 19, 1865, emancipation of slaves in Texas following the Civil War.
President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation almost three years earlier, on Sept. 22, 1862, but because Texas wasn’t a battleground state, the law had little effect until the end of the war in May of 1865.
It wasn’t until June 19, 1865, that the slaves in Texas were informed they’d been emancipated.
Williams, of Texas, said, “Juneteenth marks the late delivery of a very important message.”
June 19 became an annual celebration in Texas for the freed slaves and their descendants.
As African-Americans migrated from the Lonestar State seeking better opportunities and a less oppressive environment, they took the holiday with them, but it was generations before the day was acknowledged as important outside of the African-American community.
Now, 45 states recognize Juneteenth as a holiday or special day of observance.
Williams said it’s not just a day celebrating the emancipation of slaves, but the forward progress of America. He said he was glad Step Afrika! would be part of Charleston’s Juneteenth celebration, and the troupe looked forward to bringing its art to share.
Step Afrika! performs a dance called stepping, not to be confused with step dancing.
Stepping comes mainly from African-American fraternities and sororities on American college campuses. Step dancing came from Ireland and was made popular more recently through shows like “River Dance” or “Lord of the Dance.”
“We love the Irish,” Williams said and laughed. “The Irish are amazing step dancers, but this is not that.”
Irish step dance is a folk style sometimes characterized by quick, precise movement with the feet, but a stiff upper body. Lively fiddle and pipe tunes often accompany the dancers.
“With stepping, the dancers use their bodies to move and also to make the music,” Williams said.
Stepping has been around for generations. Parts of the dance are South African in origin and go back centuries, but much of it was developed through the 20th century.
“Forty years after the Emancipation Proclamation, African-Americans began attending colleges in significant numbers in the United States,” Williams explained. “It is a fascinating time for our country.”
While African-Americans had access to higher education, they weren’t necessarily welcome into the larger community of college life. White fraternities and sororities didn’t offer them membership into their ranks.
So African-Americans created their own fraternities and sororities.
“This was a way to find support both academically and socially while on campus,” Williams said.
Stepping came together through the regular Greek sings the groups participated in, but also as part of the rites of passage that developed within each fraternity or sorority.
The art of the dance evolved slowly, remaining a niche form mostly limited to practice and performance on college campuses.
For decades, it stayed on the edges of African-American culture; was practically out of mind in mainstream, white American culture; and didn’t really come into popularity until the late 1980s through films like director Spike Lee’s “School Daze.”
Step Afrika! was formed in 1994 as a collaboration between American dancers and the Soweto Dance Theater of South Africa.
The American dancers, at least, didn’t necessarily come from a dance background.
“You can’t learn stepping in a studio or dance class,” Williams said. “At least, you couldn’t in 1988. It was very hard to access the dance outside of college campuses.”
Williams learned while he was a student at Howard University after he pledged a fraternity. Before the fraternity, he said he wasn’t even a dancer.
“Not at all,” he laughed.
But he learned stepping, excelled at it and later helped found Step Afrika!
Now the company performs worldwide and provides educational outreach to teach the dance to groups beyond college campuses. Step Afrika! also aims to preserve the art form, which is still growing and adapting.
“We’re always innovating and creating new work,” Williams said.
Stepping isn’t just for African-Americans, he said. While the art form came out of traditionally African-American fraternities and sororities and has roots that extend to the African continent, the dance grew up in America.
“It is an American tradition,” he said. “It was raised on these shores and is distinct and unique to America.”
As an American art form, Williams said stepping isn’t meant to divide people, but bring them together.
Stepping represents the complex culture and complicated history of America.
“Step Afrika! has traveled the world,” he said. “And there is no place like America. So many people, cultures and traditions have helped to make this country so special.”
In times like these, with polarized politics and feelings of division, Williams said it is important to enjoy the opportunities of special days like Juneteenth.
“It’s a good chance to recognize our shared history,” he said. “We have a lot more in common than we don’t.”
The Juneteenth celebration also features music by the Charleston Community Choir, the Martin Luther King Jr. Male Chorus, Mrs. Jean English from Harlem Heights, spoken word by Crystal Good and Janet Williams, and more.
Reach Bill Lynch at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-5195 or follow @LostHwys on Twitter. Follow Bill’s One Month At A Time progress on his blog at blogs.wvgazettemail.com/onemonth. He’s also on Instagram at instagram.com/billiscap.