Stepping: ‘It’s not just an after-school thing’
Step Afrika!, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving and promoting the art form of stepping, educates children, employs artists, and reaches worldwide audiences, with support from Wells Fargo.
When Ayda Tuku, 18, started stepping in sixth grade, she wasn’t very good at it, and she also wasn’t the best student in school. Today, she’s a first-generation college student and freshman at Howard University in Washington, D.C. — and is interested in pursuing a career related to stepping. She attributes many of the changes in her life to participating in a summer camp with Step Afrika!, a nonprofit organization and the first professional company in the world dedicated to preserving and promoting the art form of stepping. Stepping is a percussive, highly energetic dance form first created by African American fraternities and sororities, said C. Brian Williams, founder and executive director of Step Afrika!, which is based in Washington, D.C.
“After stepping for seven years, it’s not just an after-school thing,” Tuku said. “It’s become one of my main outlets to express myself. When I’m stressed, angry, or sad, I step. Stepping is such a unique art form. I don’t know what else would let out my emotions. It’s so therapeutic.”
“It’s become one of my main outlets to express myself. When I’m stressed, angry, or sad, I step. Stepping is such a unique art form. I don’t know what else would let out my emotions. It’s so therapeutic.” — Ayda Tuku
Since 2016, Wells Fargo has donated $32,000 to Step Afrika! The funding supports the organization’s Step Up to College program, which takes place at local elementary, middle, and high schools and covers the history and meaning behind stepping, preparation for college life, and health and fitness. The funding also supports arts education related to the organization’s new production of “Drumfolk,” which was inspired by the Stono Rebellion of 1739 and explores when Africans in the then-British colony of South Carolina lost the right to use their drums and began using their bodies as drums, Williams said.
“Step Afrika! has performed for audiences around the world and remains committed to sharing this important, historical art form with young people,” said Anna Bard, Community Affairs manager for Wells Fargo in Washington, D.C. “Wells Fargo appreciates that Step Afrika! uses stepping — which originated from African American sororities and fraternities — to emphasize the importance of college. In addition to having lots of fun, students learn the importance of commitment, teamwork, and discipline — important values for us all.”
‘Behind every great stepper is an even greater student’
While the history of stepping is still being researched and isn’t conclusive, it has roots in the early 1900s, when African Americans first began attending colleges in greater numbers and developed their own fraternities and sororities, Williams said.
“Stepping was their way of expressing that love,” Williams said. “Because we work so much with students, I used to say, ‘Behind every great stepper is an even greater student,’ and that makes sense because of stepping’s roots on the college campus.”
Education is a large component of the work Step Afrika! does. The organization provides in-school programs and a weeklong summer camp dedicated to stepping, called Summer Steps, which Tuku participated in. The program, like many of the organization’s, also stresses the importance of college.
“We teach the students stepping, but we also let them know that how to get to stepping is through college originally,” said Mfon Akpan, artistic director for Step Afrika! “So how do we get to college? We do that by committing to our studies; we do it by being great students. And how do we do that? Through teamwork, through commitment and discipline. These are the things you need to be a great student, and these are also the things you need to be a good person and have a great step team.”
All of the company members for Step Afrika! have college degrees, which was something that inspired Tuku as she attended the summer camp and heard from the company members about their college experiences. “Before, I had thought of college as more of an obligation,” Tuku said. “They showed me that college offered so much more than I thought.”
Jordan Loud, 21, agreed. Having never stepped before, he attended the summer camp with his brother. Over the nine years that he participated, Loud said he came out of his shell and his communication skills and confidence improved.
Loud said it was helpful to have others encourage him to go to college, in addition to his parents’ and church’s influence. After attending Morehouse College in Atlanta for three years, he is currently a communications major at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts.
“Step Afrika! played a huge role in my life,” Loud said. “Had I not done Step Afrika!, I probably would just be getting out of my comfort zone over the last year, instead of years ago.”
For Gabrielle Hawkins, 21, who also attended the summer camp, Step Afrika! has changed her career aspirations. She went from wanting to teach clarinet to becoming a performer, specifically with Step Afrika!
“Step Afrika! played a huge role in my life. Had I not done Step Afrika!, I probably would just be getting out of my comfort zone over the last year, instead of years ago.” – Jordan Loud
“College is a lot of hard work, and every time I want to give up, I remember why I’m there,” said Hawkins, who attends Bowie State University in Bowie, Maryland. “One of my main reasons is to get my degree and be with Step Afrika!”
Tuku first learned about Howard University and the importance of stepping there from Step Afrika!, and it became her dream school. Now that she’s attending Howard, she said it’s been everything she has dreamed of, and she appreciates being around the culture of stepping. She plans to join a sorority and step team, and is considering a career in stepping.
“Growing up, I’ve never been sure what I wanted to do as a career,” Tuku said. “When people would ask what I liked, I don’t know why I never said stepping because it’s my biggest passion. But I started thinking of all of these people who made stepping their career and realized it is possible for me.”