URBANA — Like most who learn stepping, a percussive dance practiced by historically African American fraternities and sororities, C. Brian Williams knew more about the recent origins of the art form rather than its historical roots.
After living in southern Africa, Williams created Step Afrika in 1994, which calls itself the first professional stepping company. Steadily, he learned more and more about the origins of the artwork, which came long before fraternities and sororities began the practice of modern stepping.
“It’s been around for almost 100 years, but if you asked any of the Americans who practice the art form who helped create it, they wouldn’t know exactly its origins,” he said. “So, Step Afrika for the last 25 years has been doing research into stepping, and we found some really interesting bits and pieces of information that we share for the first time. And one of those is the Stono Rebellion of 1739.”
The largest slave uprising in the British colonies saw its leaders use drums to communicate with and rally their fellow slaves along the Stono River in South Carolina.
After the revolt was quelled, the Negro Act of 1740 created laws that stifled the slaves’ native African culture.
“Our work draws inspiration from that moment,” Williams said, “because a lot of people don’t know about that crazy history, that’s kind of exciting to uncover, about these 20, 100 African activists fighting for social justice in 1739, even before the creation of the United States.”
The more he learned, the more interested he became. After studying the origins of this type of dance for years, Williams decided it was finally time to bring it to the stage.
Step Afrika’s newest show, called “Drumfolk,” integrates drums and dances from the early days of African American dance in the South, explaining the history along the way.
“Drumfolk features a lot of amazing artists, some of the best steppers in the world without question,” he said, “but we also have a master percussionist, a djembe player, we have an amazing beat boxer, and we have some beautifully classically trained artist as well that will share more contemporary dance forms. And then of course we have live drumming with traditional African form. So you’re going to get so many different styles of dance in this show with beautiful music, original music.
"I don’t want to give it away, so you’ve got to come check it out. It’s a unique performance. I’ve never seen anything like it on stage before, so I’m excited to bring it to Krannert.”
Williams’ group has performed at Krannert twice before, but he doesn’t want that to hold people back from returning for a second or third time. The company’s stay at Krannert wraps up today with a Youth Series performance at 10 a.m. and a show for the general public at 7:30 p.m.
“If you’ve seen Step Afrika before, this work is very different from the last time that we were here,” he said, “so I’m hoping people will come back and check us out.”