Step Afrika to perform at Atholton Elementary

Group will teach stepping movements, teamwork and discipline during interactive program

December 02, 2010|By Joe Burris, The Baltimore Sun

When Brian Williams enrolled at Howard University in the mid-1980s, he knew little about stepping, a form of rhythmic dance involving hand claps, footsteps and synchronized movements that is synonymous with African-American, Greek-letter college fraternities and sororities.

Upon joining a fraternity at Howard he not only learned to step, but he immersed himself in its history and sought to teach others outside college communities about stepping as a form of creative expression. He founded Washington-based Step Afrika, a dance group and nonprofit organization that incorporates step into performances staged around the world, and then teaches step demonstration at schools in rural and urban areas.

On Dec. 10, Step Afrika will visit Atholton Elementary School in Columbia as part of "Stepping With Step Afrika," an interactive program for K-12 students that focuses on stepping movements, teamwork and discipline. The visit comes after the group took part in the International Body Music Festival in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

"We believe in the use of stepping as an educational and motivational tool for children. We inspire children through the arts, and to remind them that the art form that we celebrate was created by students first," Williams said.

Atholton Elementary Vice Principal Aaron Tark said he first saw Step Afrika when he worked at Burning Tree Elementary in Bethesda, and considered the group when Atholton was adding performances to its calendar year.

"They're wonderful performers and excellent dancers, and they bring such a powerful message of responsibility, working hard in school and staying positive," Tark said. "They do a nice job of connecting those messages to dance, and they do a nice job of working with the kids. You really feel good after one of their performances. And they talk about college, and that's what kids need to hear."

Stepping has been made popular in the mainstream by such motion pictures as "Stop the Yard" in 2007 and "School Daze" in 1988. The dance is often seen on college yards but is now performed in competitions and cultural events.

Williams said he founded Step Afrika in Johannesburg after demonstrating how stepping was similar to gumboot dance, which was created by men in South African gold mines.

"We've done the research that looks at what happened with African-Americans who first arrived here, particularly in South Carolina. We heard about hambone, juba," said Williams. The former refers to an art that involves rhymes, stomping and hand slapping against the body. The latter is a dance once performed by African slaves.

"And then we heard of something called ring shout. It's a tradition created by African- Americans in the early 1800s that was spiritual in a sense but was totally body percussion," Williams added. "It was moving in a circle and turning wooden planks into a drum. It's African-American culture, but it's just as much of American culture, because it's shaped what we've gone through here."

In addition to its "Stepping With Step Afrika" program, the group offers a summer program sponsored by the Washington Performing Arts Society that explores step tradition and an after-school program for students in grades three through 12.

"We want to get the kids stepping and understand that it's a lot of fun to do and that it's connected to college life," said Williams. "We want them to step all the way to college."

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